Key opposition leader sizes up Marcos -- and the future

Benigno S. Aquino faces a quandary. The leading Philippine opposition leader would dearly like to negotiate with President Ferdinand E. Marcos for an end to martial law and a gradual return to democracy. In fact, his major project as a new fellow at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs is to develop "an acceptable model for the transition from dictatorship to democracy."

"We should do our homework now," said Mr. Aquino, who was released from seven years and eight months of imprisonment in Manila last spring. "I want to develop a proposed agenda for the post-Marcos regime, in the areas of politics, economics, and social affairs. Otherwise, we will be fighting among ourselves, and that will be tragic."

At the same, the former Philippine senator wants to put some pressure on Mr. Marcos to negotiate by noting the danger of an uprising in the Philippines. And that pressure could make Mr. Marcos less willing to talk. Thus the dilemma.

After deciding not to return to prison, Mr. Aquino noted in his first major address, in New York Aug. 4: "I have been told of plans for the launching of massive urban guerrilla warfare where buildings will be blown up, and corrupt presidential cronies and Cabinet members assassinated, along with military officers who have engaged in wanton and rampant tortures of political prisoners."

To Mr. Aquino's disappointment, his New York "warning" was interpreted by President Marcos as a threat. Mr. Marcos termed him the nation's "No. 1 terrorist," and started a move to take away his passport.

Mr. Aquino admits that he would join the young urban guerrillas "if necessary." He says, "We are committed. We are not going to wait for him foreverm to return to democracy. I have faced death, and I will face death again if I have to."

But in a long interview here, the popular opposition figure made it clear he would prefer to work out a peaceful transition to democracy. "He [President Marcos] doesn't trust me," said Mr. Aquino. "But at bottom, I am his best friend."

A negotiated transition plan, he says, would enable Mr. Marcos to "go out in a blaze of glory, not just a blaze."

Despite his talk of guerrilla warfare, Mr. Aquino is regarded as one of the moderates in the Filipino opposition circles. Further, he knows the Marcos family well. As a young man, he had gone on double dates with Imelda Romualdez, who was later to marry then Representative Marcos. It was Mrs. Marcos who arranged for his departure to the United States last May for medical treatment of a heart ailment in Dallas.

His moderation shows in his analysis of the Marcos government. Unlike most opposition leaders, he will cite positive features of martial law as well as its negative aspects. He noted: "There's a Spanish saying, 'Even in the worst of things, something good emerges."

1. "Martial law awakened people to the meaning of freedom. We took freedom for granted. We knew our rights and not our obligations. We will all emerge from this martial rule as better citizens."

Filipinos, he said, were undisciplined before martial law, imposed in 1972. A former newsman himself, Mr. Aquino noted that newspapers were sensational and libelous, helping to fasten anarchy and violence in the nation. Newspapers stressed the negative. In the society pages, they praised "the crooks" (politicians in business) when they gave huge parties. They did not know the line between freedom and license.

Further, he said, every man figured he could pack a gun, giving the country a Wild West appearance.

"Martial law tended to restrain the bad tendencies and excesses of our people ," Mr. Aquino admitted.

2. Martial law permitted tax reform. This provided the government with the revenues "to be more responsive to the needs of the people."

Before these reforms, government revenues amounted to about 9 percent of gross national product (GNP). The legislature was "petrified" of being punished at the polls if it passed new revenues measures. "We didn't even listen to any tax measure," Mr. Aquino recalled.

However, the legislature did pass programs without funding them. Commented the former senator: "It was not only hypocritical. It was downright wrong."

Mr. Marcos has raised tax revenues to some 17 or 18 percent of GNP. Revenues have climbed from about 5 billion pesos ($650 million) in 1972 to 40 billion pesos today. "This could not have been done in our democratic atmosphere. We thought we could have something for nothing. He bought some sanity to our finances."

3. President Marcos imposed a successful land reform.

Congress, Mr. Aquino noted, had been controlled by landowners who would not vote funds enabling the government to buy up their own properties for resale to the tenants.

Mr. Marcos may have been trying to build a mass political base in the country through land reform, the opposition leader added. "Whatever his motives, it was good for the farmer.We should have done that long ago."

4. Martial law aided a better birth control program.

At first the bishops in this Roman Catholic country reacted violently to any birth control measures other than the relatively ineffective rhythm method. "But the bishops realize the problem," Mr. Aquino noted.

By moving quietly without blatant publicity, the government has been able to move forward with a program involving various contraceptives that has reduced the increase in population from 3.3 percent to 2.6 percent a year. The church has just turned its head away.

5. "Mr. Marcos was able to attract the young technocrats, graduates of some of the best universities in the world."

Before martial law, government was too influenced by local politics and pork barrel issues, Mr. Aquino added.

"Sometimes the technocrats get impractical and lose the human touch. But on the whole, it was one of the greatest achievements of Marcos. It drew technocrats away from dissidence and insurgency. Before martial law, it was not what you knew, but who you knew. He brought in the recognition of talent."

Concluding the positive side of his analysis, Mr. Aquino said: "Mr. Marcos could have been the greatest president. He's intelligent. He's got guts, charisma -- and a fantastic wife to boot."

But Mr. Marcos has made some unfortunate mistakes, Mr. Aquino maintained.

First, he charged, the Marcos family has enriched itself through government assistance to family enterprises and the takeover of companies or other properties belonging to those in opposition.

"You can either be a hero or a rich guy -- not both. You have to make a choice. Unfortunately, he tried to do both," Mr. Aquino said. "The corruption in my country is so staggering."

He doubted the opinion of one close outside observer that the buildup in family wealth was the prime work of the First Lady. "Mrs. Marcos is the Charlie McCarthy of Ed Bergen. Mr. Marcos figured that to obtain power you need money. But he never stopped in its acquisition. This will undo him."

Moreover, many people near the President joined in the corruption, he alleges. Much of this money was taken out of the country, depriving the nation of badly needed capital.

Second, the government has introduced elements of royalty in a republic.

It has a lavish Malacanang Palace, "an anachronism in a democracy," full of "fawning personnel and sycophants," Mr. Aquino held. Nor does the nation need the "ostentatious display of wealth" of the President and his wife, or the tendency to build "show projects" such as the Cultural Center of the Philippines. "We can't afford that."

Third, he made the takeover of power "look so easy" and prove so profitable.

Before martial law, every government was turned out of power in elections every four years. Mr. Aquino explained that this meant that those politicians attempting to boost the wealth of themselves or their families through government influence were deprived of that opportunity in relatively short order.

"There was a balancing factor," he said. But President Marcos and his "cronies" have been in power nearly 16 years. "You have created a whole new set of oligarchs that are more rapacious."

He went on: "Now there is no way to get rid of the guy in power. That is Marcos's greatest sin. We are now on the road to 'banana republicanism.' We have lost our virginity of peaceful transfer of power."

Fourth, the military has had a taste of power. A number of senior military officers filled the jobs left by ousted municipal and provincial politicians. In some cases, corrupt military officials substituted for corrupt civilian politicians.

"Marcos has unleashed a Frankenstein in our midst," Mr. Aquino held. "The military was our guarantee of freedom. Now they are our custodians."

Fifth, "one of the greatest evils fostered by martial law has been the transfer of banks to the Chinese," he said. "The Chinese have enlarged their hold on the economy."

(One close outside observer argued the reverse -- that the Philippines have done a better job to integrate the "overseas Chinese" into society through intermarriage and business integration than such nations as Indonesia and Malaysia.)

Mr. Aquino says he is no longer interested in office himself. "I don't intend to go back into politics. That is a phase of my life that is over. I have lost my appetite for power. I have done enough. There are thousands of young Filipinos ready for leadership."

The slim opposition leader maintains that Mr. Marcos is personally not as healthy as "he would like the people to believe." Further, he argues that a poor economic situation, influenced by higher oil prices and weaker commodity prices, hurts the regime. "He will be undone by world forces beyond his control."

So he advises President Marcos regarding a transition government: "Negotiate now. Don't wait until you are too weak to dictate reasonable terms. Marcos must ease us into a transition. I hope he will take us seriously. We are not asking much -- just give us our freedoms back."

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