Aquino visit to US: bad timing

As with Richard Nixon's trip to China, Anwar Sadat's to Israel, and Neil Armstrong's to the moon, television stations in Manila interrupted programming yesterday to show the departure of President Corazon Aquino for the United States. The camera even tried to capture Mrs. Aquino's goodbye wave in the small window of a Philippine Airlines jet. It was yet another example of what high hopes Filipinos place on their new leader's visit to the US, which ruled the Philippines for half a century.

But despite the expectations and potential benefits, Aquino's visit could not be more ill-timed in at least three ways:

As head of a provisional government, Aquino arrives without a new constitution in hand. Both she and US officials had hoped she would have one.

She holds talks with her nation's private creditors without the agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) planned by her economic ministers.

Her negotiations back home with communist leaders have all but collapsed, leaving Aquino with a tough decision -- delayed by her eight days in the US -- on whether to unleash the military against the guerrillas.

Of the three issues, the likelihood of renewed warfare with the 16,000 guerrillas of the communist New People's Army (NPA) is the most difficult for Aquino. She is widely applauded abroad for coming to power last February in a relatively peaceful revolt and with promises of national reconciliation.

All three disappointments, however, are not likely to overshadow the American red-carpet welcome for Aquino. Besides speaking before Congress Thursday and the United Nations next Monday, she will be given two honorary degrees.

The delay in producing a new constitution -- caused when the Aquino-appointed Constitutional Commission missed its Sept. 2 deadline -- presents two problems for the President.

First, the constitution-writers, although generally conservative, began debate this week on the future of the US military bases here, and the debate's outcome is far from predictable -- a cloud hanging over Aquino's talks with the Reagan administration.

The Constitution Commission is giving serious thought to making the Philippines a nuclear-free nation like New Zealand. This would effectively bar ships or planes carrying nuclear weapons and would thus render almost useless the US's largest naval and air force bases outside its own territory. Such a move would also jeopardize US military strategy in the Pacific. Western diplomats say the US is working actively to prevent such a clause in the Philippines' new constitution.

The second problem the delayed constitution causes is that, without knowing exactly what kind of government is being set up, potential foreign investors may be reluctant to make any promises to Aquino during her discussions with them in various US cities.

US officials are confident the IMF will soon ink a pact with the Philippines to help it cope with its $26 billion foreign debt. But international bankers may remain wary that last-minute hitches in the bargaining could prevent an agreement.

Western diplomats are less sure that Aquino will achieve a cease-fire pact with the NPA, the military arm of the Communist Party. She has demanded an immediate 30-day cease-fire. But the communists first want: the Philippine armed forces ordered to stay in their barracks; the dismantling of the Civilian Home Defense Forces (paramilitary village units); police put under control of local authorities; and the disarming of private armies. All of these demands are politically or practically impossible for Aquino.

Her original plan to woo low-level communist rebels out of the hills while coopting their leaders into ending armed struggle has not worked. In fact, the President gets regular complaints that the NPA has expanded its sphere of influence since she ordered the armed forces into a less aggressive ``defensive posture'' toward insurgents. And reports of NPA guerrillas ambushing soldiers come in almost daily.

``She wants to `give peace a chance,' '' one Western diplomat said. ``But once the record is clear that the NPA will not go along with her, she can proceed against the NPA with full moral authority. She's now making the record. She also wants the military to win. She doesn't want them to go out and get their clock cleaned,'' the diplomat said.

If anything, the talks have given the military time to reform itself after becoming politicized and corrupt during 14 years of martial law under deposed President Ferdinand Marcos. Military reform is just one element of Aquino's strategy for defeating the insurgency. The other parts are an improved economy, elections under a new constitution, a revamped court system, and land reform.

Some public impatience toward the talks has found a voice in the recent outbursts of Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile. Mr. Enrile, who was also Mr. Marcos's defense minister, says he supports the Aquino strategy but puts no faith in the communists' sincerity in the cease-fire talks. His public dissent sparks fears in Manila that a coup is in the works. But Enrile commands far less allegiance among the military rank and file than does the armed forces chief of staff, Gen. Fidel Ramos, a staunch Aquino ally who believes force should be the last option against the insurgency.

``Enrile is 63 years old, head of the military, and uncertain of his future,'' the diplomat said. ``He sincerely believes the talks are useless, and Aquino says, `But is the military ready to fight?' He says, `Yes.' That's the nub of the debate.''

Before her departure, Aquino suggested that the cease-fire talks could move down to the regional level, thus allowing the military to renew anti-NPA campaigns in some areas and perhaps dividing the NPA. But diplomats say that in order to avoid the kind of human-rights abuses committed by the Marcos military, Aquino will have to be highly discretionary in choosing the areas for attack and in controlling the military units. Aquino fails to fill Imelda's shoes

The first thing Americans may notice about President Corazon Aquino is that, in style of dress, she has not followed in the shoes of former first lady Imelda Marcos.

Fashion for this widow-turned-politician is simple. By serving as both President and first lady, Mrs. Aquino has sparked a revolution in Manila's faddish social circles. Gone are the expensive butterfly-shouldered dresses (called ternos) made from imported fabrics which marked the Marcos era. Instead, Aquino has chosen conservative clothes, perhaps with detailed embroidery, basic jewelry, and, oh yes, inexpensive shoes. (In her quick exit, Mrs. Marcos left 3,000 pairs of imported shoes.)

One dressmaker Aquino often goes to admits that the President's tastes are so simple that she (the dressmaker) ``has to pray'' for new ideas. But Aquino's appearance signals an effort to send the public (in the Philippines and elsewhere) a message: that her administration is dignified, businesslike, and humble.

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