The Aquino Era
Excerpt from Philippines-A Case Study
Library of Congress

The Inheritance from Marcos

Democratic institutions were introduced to the Philippines by the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. The apparent success of these imported practices gave the Philippines its reputation as "the showcase of democracy in Asia." Before 1972 the constitutional separation of powers was generally maintained. Political power was centralized in Manila, but it was shared by two equally influential institutions, the presidency and Congress. The checks and balances between them, coupled with the openness of bipartisan competition between the Nacionalista and Liberal parties, precluded the emergence of one-person or one-party rule. Power was transferred peacefully from one party to another through elections. The mass media, sensational at times, fiercely criticized public officials and checked government excess.


Corazon Aquino was named TIME's Person of the Year in 1986

In 1986, Aquino became the first woman to be president of the Philippines, and for that TIME named her its Woman of the Year.

Source: http://

Marcos inflicted immeasurable damage on democratic values. He offered the Filipino people economic progress and national dignity, but the results were dictatorship, poverty, militarized politics and a politicized military, and greatly increased dependence on foreign governments and banks. His New Society was supposed to eliminate corruption, but when Marcos fled the country in 1986, his suitcases contained, according to a United States customs agent, jewels, luxury items, and twenty-four gold bricks. Estimates of Marcos's wealth ran from a low of US$3 billion to a high of US$30 billion, and even after his death in 1989, no one knew the true value of his estate, perhaps not even his widow.

If Marcos had been merely corrupt, his legacy would have been bad enough, but he broke the spell of democracy. The long evolution of democratic institutions, unsatisfactory though it may have been in some ways, was interrupted. The political culture of democracy was violated. Ordinary Filipinos knew fear in the night. An entire generation came of age never once witnessing a genuine election or reading a free newspaper. Classes that graduated from the Philippine Military Academy were contemptuous of civilians and anticipated opportunities for influence and perhaps even wealth. Marcos's worst nightmare came true when Corazon Aquino used the power of popular opinion to bring him down.

Aquino inherited a very distorted economy. The Philippines owed about US$28 billion to foreign creditors. Borrowed money had not promoted development, and most of it had been wasted on showcase projects along Manila Bay, or had disappeared into the pockets and offshore accounts of the Marcos and Romualdez families and their friends and partners. Many Filipinos believed that they would be morally justified in renouncing the foreign debt on grounds that the banks should have known what the Marcoses were doing with the money. Even Cardinal Jaime Sin declared it "morally wrong" to pay foreign creditors when Filipino children were hungry. Aquino, however, resolutely pledged to pay the debt. Otherwise, the nation would be cut off from the credit it needed. Although the Philippines could pay the interest on the debt every year, it could not pay the principal. This never-ending debt naturally inflamed Filipino nationalism. A Freedom From Debt Coalition advocated using the money to help the unemployed instead of sending the hard currency abroad.

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The Rise of Corazon Aquino
President Corazon Aquino, 1986
Courtesy Robert L. Worden

Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, universally and affectionately known as "Cory," was a Philippine president quite unlike those who preceded her. Observers have groped for the right word to characterize the Aquino presidency. She was first called a "revolutionary," but later a mere "reformer." When the old landed families recaptured the political system, she was called a "restorationist."

She was born in 1933 into one of the richest clans in the Philippines, the powerful Cojuangcos of Tarlac Province.  Her maiden name indicates Chinese mestizo ancestry; her Chinese great-grandfather's name could have been romanized to Ko Hwan-ko, but, following the normal practice of assimilationist Catholic Chinese-Filipinos, all the Chinese names were collapsed into one, and a Spanish first name was taken. Aquino neither sought power nor expected it would come to her. Her life was that of a privileged, well-educated girl sent abroad to the Ravenhill Academy in Philadelphia, the Notre Dame Convent School in New York, and Mount St. Vincent College, also in New York. She studied mathematics and graduated with a degree in French in 1953, then returned to the Philippines to study law, but soon married the restless, rich scion of another prominent Tarlac family, Benigno ("Ninoy") Aquino, Jr. Benigno Aquino became a mayor, a governor, and a flamboyant senator, and he probably would have been elected president of the Philippines in 1973 had Marcos not suspended elections. On the same night in 1972 when Marcos declared martial law, he sent troops to arrest Benigno Aquino. Senator Aquino was incarcerated for some seven years, after which Marcos allowed him to go to the United States. In August 1983, believing that Marcos was dying, Aquino ventured back to Manila and was gunned down just seconds after being escorted from the airplane Aquino's murder galvanized the Filipino people and was the beginning of the end for Marcos.

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The Coalition Comes Undone (1986-87)

Ferdinand Marcos had perfected the art of ruling by dividing his enemies: scaring some, chasing others out of the country, playing one clan against another, and co-opting a few members of each prominent provincial family. The "oppositionists," as the controlled Manila press called them, were never united while Marcos was in Malacaņang, and only through the intervention of Cardinal Jaime Sin did they agree on a unified ticket to oppose Marcos in the "snap election" that the ailing dictator suddenly called for February 1986. The widow Aquino had public support but no political organization, whereas the old-line politico Salvador H. "Doy" Laurel had an organization but little popular support. After difficult negotiations, Laurel agreed to run for vice president on a ticket with Aquino. Aquino won on February 7, 1986, but the margin of victory will never be known, for the election was marred by gross fraud, intimidation, ballot box stuffing, and falsified tabulation.

Aquino had to perform a delicate balancing act between left and right, within society at large and later within her own cabinet. Aquino and Laurel triumphed in good part because of the defection of Enrile, who was then minister of defense, and Fidel V. Ramos, the acting Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff. Both men had served Marcos loyally for many years but now found themselves pushed aside by General Fabian Ver, Marcos's personal bodyguard and commander of the Presidential Security Command. They risked their lives defying Marcos and Ver at the crucial moment. Enrile and Ramos conceived of the new government as a coalition in which they would have important roles to play. Laurel saw it the same way.

In one sense, the Aquino government initially was a coalition--it drew support from all parts of the political spectrum. The middle class was overwhelmingly behind "Cory," the democratic alternative to Marcos. Most leftists saw her as "subjectively" progressive even if she was "objectively" bourgeois. They hoped she could reform Philippine politics. On the right, only those actually in league with Marcos supported him. Aquino's support was very wide and diverse.

The coalition, however, began unraveling almost immediately. Enrile thought that Aquino should declare her government "revolutionary," because that would mean that the 1986 elections were illegitimate and that new presidential elections would be held soon. When Aquino made it clear that she intended to serve out her entire six-year term, Enrile and Laurel set out to undermine her. Ramos took a cautiously ambivalent position but ultimately supported Aquino. Without his loyalty, Aquino would not have survived the many coup attempts she successfully put down.

Aquino's political honeymoon was brief. Arturo Tolentino, Marcos's running mate in the February election, proclaimed himself acting president on July 6, 1986, but that attempt to unseat Aquino was short-lived. By October 1986, Enrile was refusing to attend cabinet meetings on the grounds that they were "a waste of the people's money." Aquino fired him the next month, after he was implicated in a coup plan code-named "God Save the Queen" (presumably because the conspirators hoped to keep Aquino on as a figurehead). The plotters were suppressed, and on the morning of November 23, Aquino met with her entire cabinet, except for Laurel, who was playing golf. She asked for the resignations of all other members of her cabinet and then jettisoned those leftists who most irritated the army and replaced Enrile with Rafael Ileto as the new minister of national defense. Aquino started a pattern, repeated many times since, of tactically shifting rightward to head off a rightist coup.

Enrile was out of the government, but Laurel remained in, despite his vocal, public criticism of Aquino. She relieved him of his duties as minister of foreign affairs on September 16, 1987, but could not remove him from the vice presidency. A month later, Laurel publicly declared his willingness to lead the country if a coup succeeded in ousting Aquino. The next year, he told the press that the presidency "requires a higher level of competence" than that shown by Aquino.

The disintegration of the original Aquino-Laurel-Enrile coalition was only part of a bigger problem: The entire cabinet, government, and, some would say, even the entire nation, were permeated with factionalism. Aquino also had difficulty dealing with the military. The first serious dispute between Aquino and the military concerned the wisdom of a cease-fire with the New People's Army. Aquino held high hopes that the communists could be coaxed down from the hills and reconciled to democratic participation if their legitimate grievances were addressed. She believed that Marcos had driven many people to support the New People's Army.

"Whatever else happens in her rule," said TIME, "Aquino has already given her country a bright, and inviolate, memory. More important, she has also resuscitated its sense of identity and pride." Despite repeated coup attempts and a mixed record of success, Corazon Aquino remained in office for more than six years. She was succeeded as president by longtime supporter Fidel Ramos when she did not seek reelection in 1992, and she retains her popularity with the Filipino people.


The Philippine military, which had been fighting the guerrillas for seventeen years, was hostile to her policy initiative. When talks began in September 1986, military plotters began work on the "God Save the Queen" uprising that was aborted two months later. Aquino tried reconciliation with the Moro National Liberation Front and sent her brother-in-law to Saudi Arabia, where he signed the Jiddah Accord with the Moro National Liberation Front on January 4, 1987. A coup attempt followed three weeks later. In the wake of these coup attempts, Aquino reformed her cabinet but she also submitted to military demands that she oust Executive Secretary Joker Arroyo, a political activist and her longtime confidant. Her legal counsel, Teodoro Locsin, whom the military considered a leftist, and her finance secretary, Jaime Ongpin, also had to go. (Ongpin was later found dead; the coroner's verdict was suicide, although he was lefthanded and the gun was in his right hand.)

Aquino had been swept into office on a wave of high expectations that she would be able to right all of the wrongs done to the Philippines under Marcos. When she could not do this and when the same problems recurred, Filipinos grew disillusioned. Many of Aquino's idealistic followers were dismayed at the "Mendiola Massacre" in 1987 in which troops fired into a crowd of protesting farmers right outside Malacaņang. The military was simply beyond her control. The entire staff of the Commission on Human Rights resigned in protest even though Aquino herself joined the protestors the next day. Those people who hoped that Aquino would liberally use emergency power to implement needed social changes were further dismayed by the fate of her promised land reform program. Instead of taking immediate action, she waited until the new Congress was seated, and turned the matter over to them. That Congress, like all previous Philippine legislatures, was dominated by landowners, and there was very little likelihood that these people would dispossess themselves.

Aquino's declining political fortunes were revealed in public opinion polls in early 1991 that showed her popularity at an alltime low, as protesters marched on Malacaņang, accusing her of betraying her promises to ease poverty, stamp out corruption, and widen democracy. Nevertheless, Aquino's greatest achievement in the first five years of her term was to begin the healing process.

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The President and the Coup Plotters

Philippine politics between 1986 and 1991 was punctuated by President Aquino's desperate struggle to survive physically and politically a succession of coup attempts, culminating in a large, bloody, and well-financed attempt in December 1989. This attempt, led by renegade Colonel Gregorio Honasan, involved upwards of 3,000 troops, including elite Scout Rangers and marines, in a coordinated series of attacks on Camp Crame and Camp Aquinaldo, Fort Bonifacio, Cavite Naval Base, Villamor Air Base, and on Malacaņang itself, which was dive-bombed by vintage T-28 aircraft. Although Aquino was not hurt in this raid, the situation appeared desperate, for not only were military commanders around the country waiting to see which side would triumph in Manila, but the people of Manila, who had poured into the streets to protect Aquino in February 1986, stayed home this time. Furthermore, Aquino found it necessary to request United States air support to put down this uprising.

Politically this coup was a disaster for Aquino. Her vice president openly allied himself with the coup plotters and called for her to resign. Even Aquino's staunchest supporters saw her need for United States air support as a devastating sign of weakness. Most damaging of all, when the last rebels finally surrendered, they did so in triumph and with a promise from the government that they would be treated "humanely, justly, and fairly."

A fact-finding commission was appointed to draw lessons from this coup attempt. The commission bluntly advised Aquino to exercise firmer leadership, replace inefficient officials, and retire military officers of dubious loyalty. On December 14, 1989, the Senate granted Aquino emergency powers for six months.

One of the devastating results of this insurrection was that just when the economy had finally seemed to turn around, investors were frightened off, especially since much of the combat took place in the business haven of Makati. Tourism, a major foreign-exchange earner, came to a halt. Business leaders estimated that the mutiny cost the economy US$1.5 billion.

Source: Library of Congress: Portals to the World <>

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Corazon Aquino: Lady Liberty
The political widow and former housewife led a revolution that restored power to the people in the Philippines and inspired millions across Asia

To the dismay of the soldier who was driving Corazon Aquino to her swearing-in ceremony in 1986, the housewife who would be President insisted on stopping at red lights to let civilian traffic pass. Eager to signal a break from the past, she chose to abandon the imperial-style motorcades of Ferdinand and Imelda

Marcos. Although the military high command was quick to quash that egalitarian notion as an unacceptable security risk, she found countless other ways during her six years in office to drive home the message that distinguished her from the dictator she had toppled: she owed her power to the people. Aquino was still at it on the day in 1992 when she rode away from the inauguration of her successor, Fidel Ramos, not in a government-issue Mercedes, but in the simple white Toyota Crown she had purchased to make the point that she was once again an ordinary citizen.

Source: Time Asia
TIME 100: August 23-30, 1999 Vol. 154 No. 7/8

Aquino's achievements as President ranged far beyond the symbolic. They were substantial--even revolutionary. She restored the democratic institutions Marcos had destroyed, presided over the promulgation of a constitution designed to be dictator-proof, freed political prisoners, launched a peace process that eliminated communist and Muslim insurgencies as major threats to national stability, and laid the foundations for economic recovery.

Yet it is her slight, bespectacled embodiment of People Power--at once fragile and invincible--that defines her hold on history. Her determination to "lead by example" helped restore Filipinos' faith in government--and themselves. Beyond the archipelago, her ability to overcome force without resorting to violence made her a role model for an ever-lengthening line of women leaders--Violeta Chamorro, Benazir Bhutto, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Khaleda Zia, Megawati Sukarnoputri, Aung San Suu Kyi--who, like her, were thrust into public life by the violent fates that befell husbands and fathers.

In the beginning Cory Aquino did not seem like the prototype for a new breed of democrat, much less a trailblazing woman. Sure, she knew about democracy, having come of age in the newly independent Philippines and worked as a volunteer in Thomas Dewey's 1948 presidential campaign during her college days in New York. Later, as the wife of Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino Jr., a charismatic politician whose popularity doomed him to become Marcos' best-known political prisoner, she learned firsthand the thrill of electoral victory and the agony of martial law. Ninoy's 1983 assassination on his return to Manila from exile in the U.S. catapulted her out of his shadow and into the spotlight. But she lacked the self-confidence to take up his fight to restore democracy on her own.

When I met her shortly after Ninoy's funeral, she was under the illusion that as soon as public curiosity about her waned, she could retreat to the privacy of her old life and fight Marcos from the sidelines. Little did she--or anyone--foresee the potential power of her role as a widow. Despite her growing influence within the opposition, she refused to think of herself as a political leader. She rejected appeals to run for office and made light of her ability to help elect others. "It's very simple," she would say in her sweetly self-deprecating way. "I just tell my sad story, and people weep."

Not until late 1985, when Marcos suddenly called a "snap" presidential election in an attempt to capitalize on opposition disarray, did Cory finally acknowledge that she alone could unite the anti-Marcos forces and transform the race into a political morality play. This revelation came to her after 10 hours of meditation at the convent of the Sister-Servants of the Holy Spirit of Perpetual Adoration, not far from Manila. "We had to present somebody who is the complete opposite of Marcos, someone who has been a victim," she concluded. "Looking around, I may not be the worst victim, but I am the best-known."

Once she believed the Lord was on her side, she could pursue even the most impossible mission with serene confidence. Yet to assume that she proceeded on faith alone was to underestimate her, as I discovered on the last leg of her campaign for the presidency. All day I watched her work her magic on the mammoth crowds. I shared her view that she could win the vote. But what, I asked, led her to believe Marcos would let her win the count? During our late-night flight back to Manila, she stunned me by confiding that she had recently received a delegation of reformist military officers who had pledged in secrecy to support her in the likely event that Marcos rigged the vote. "I think the military will come into the picture if they perceive gross irregularities will be committed," she said bluntly.

Within days history confirmed the strength of her faith and the quality of her military intelligence. Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Deputy Chief of Staff Fidel Ramos mutinied against Marcos, claiming massive electoral fraud. When Marcos forces threatened to retaliate, the influential Archbishop of Manila, Jaime Cardinal Sin, broadcast an appeal for "people power" to protect them. By the time Marcos' tanks began rolling down a key highway, which bore the inspired name Epifanio de los Santos (EDSA for short, after a Filipino hero), toward the defectors' camp, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos had gathered to pray the rosary and stop them in their tracks. In four days the so-called "Miracle of EDSA" swept Cory into power with the backing of the victorious rebels and whisked Marcos off to exile in Hawaii.

The hard part began as soon as she took office. To survive seven coup attempts by disgruntled military elements within her makeshift coalition, Aquino was forced to transcend her conciliatory nature and steel herself to make unpopular decisions. Her defining moment came when forces identified with Enrile threatened to topple her if she fulfilled her campaign promise to negotiate with the communist guerrillas. Typically, she dithered and prayed. But then, in a move that marked her coming of age as a leader, she cemented her relationship with General Ramos, fired Enrile, announced a controversial ceasefire with the insurgents and calmly took the heat. Six years later, after both the communists and the coup-plotters had been marginalized, she made one of the least popular--but most responsible--decisions of her career. Defying her core supporters in the liberal community and the Catholic Church, she endorsed Ramos, an architect of martial law and a Protestant, as the candidate best equipped to restore stability and promote economic recovery.

Then, Ninoy's mission accomplished, Cory retired with a clear conscience to play with her grandchildren, write her memoirs and paint landscapes as sunny as her outlook. She also pioneered a new role as ex-head of state, something nearly unprecedented in Asia, where leaders rarely left office voluntarily or alive. Commuting regularly to a family-owned office building in the heart of Metro-Manila's Makati business district, she directs a portfolio of projects aimed at furthering the spread of Asian democracy from the bastions of the middle class where it began to the villages it has barely reached. No longer shy about courting controversy, she has played host to visiting groups of oppositionists-in-exile and delivered a speech smuggled out of Burma in the name of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. She has also extended a public podium to Wan Azizah Ismail, who--shades of the young Cory--is struggling to fill the political shoes of her jailed husband, Malaysia's ex-Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

"I tell them I don't have any formula for ousting a dictator or building democracy," says the former housewife who managed to do both. "All I can suggest is to forget about yourself and just think of your people. It's always the people who make things happen." Provided, of course, they have a leader who can touch their hearts

Source: Time Asia TIME 100: August 23-30, 1999 Vol. 154 No. 7/8 <>

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