Corazon Aquino leaves Philippines legacy of democracy

After her husband's murder catapulted her into a national leadership role, Cory Aquino helped bring down the Marcos dictatorship.

Joseph Agcaoili/AP
Supporters light candles in front of a portrait of the late Philippine President Corazon Aquino at the financial district of Makati, south of Manila, on Saturday Aug. 1, 2009. Aquino, who swept away a dictator and then sustained democracy by fighting off seven coup attempts in six years, has died, her family said. She was 76.

Corazon “Cory” Aquino (here she is on Time Magazine’s 1987 “Woman of the Year” cover ), who passed away Saturday, was a singleminded and somewhat dowdy widow who rallied the “People Power” revolution that brought democracy to the Philippines.

Mrs. Aquino not only swept away the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 but faced down seven coups attempts as the nation’s military resisted civilian political control. She also leaves behind a nation that has been more or less democratic ever since. The AP reports that the government declared 10 days of national mourning; ordinary Filipinos tied yellow ribbons – the color of her revolution – to trees and lampposts.

The daughter of an extremely wealthy family on the country’s main island of Luzon, she was a thoroughly accidental politician, owing that largely to her marriage to Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, a charismatic opponent of Mr. Marcos.

Ninoy had spent eight years in the US-backed dictator’s prisons, and more in exile in America (he and his wife came to see Boston as their second home) until his fateful decision to fly home in 1983. Marcos's military gunned him down on the tarmac at Manila’s international airport, which has since been renamed in his honor.

That murder catapulted Cory to prominence. She led the 2 million-strong funeral procession for her husband in Manila (a grainy shot of the crowd is here). The assassination and the public outpouring of grief set off a chain of events that eroded the Reagan Administration’s support for Marcos and popular anger at the abuses and corruption of the flamboyant Marcos clan coalesce around her.

The opposition chose her to stand in the Feb. 7, 1986, presidential election, as she rallied ever-larger crowds to the cause. When Marcos declared himself the winner, no one – inside the Philippines or out – believed him. Some of his officers mutinied, and hundreds of thousands of Filipinos took to the streets demanding democracy, blocking Marcos's tanks with their bodies.

By late February, the Marcos regime had crumbled and he was flown out of Manila on US military helicopter en route to living out his days in Hawaiian exile. Cory was soon moving into the Malacanang Palace, which infamously housed, among other things, Imelda Marcos’s thousands of pairs of designer shoes and gold fixtures in some of the toilets. That in a country where most citizens live on a few dollars a day.

One of her first acts as president was to restore habeas corpus. The AP has a fine picture of her showing the proclamation to a crowd of 1 million.

The events of 1986 reverberated well beyond the Philippines, helping to inspire democratic revolutions in Indonesia and Thailand. But Cory did not prove an able administrator, particularly when it came to getting to grips with the entrenched corruption of the nation’s wealthy, landed families.

A promised land reform for peasants faltered, at least in part because of her own desire to hold on to her family's 25-square-mile sugar plantation. Detractors said she could not fully bring herself to harm the business interests of her fellow members of the elite. The family plantation has been the site of bloody clashes in recent years, a reminder that while the Philippines is now a democracy, many of its citizens are still desperately poor and disenfranchised.

But the simple fact is that her latest successor, Ms. Arroyo, has promised that she will peacefully make way for the country’s next president when her six year-term expires in 2010.

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