These days, her luminous faith is as strong as ever. “I accept all invitations to talk about or to share experiences in the matter of prayer and suffering,” says Cory. “I feel that I owe it especially to the Lord to be able to share in spreading the Good Word.” Her other mission is to help democracy continue to take root and flower in the Philippines. In 1993, Cory organized the Institute for People Power and Development (IPPD) through the Benigno S. Aquino Jr. Foundation. The institute aims to act as a catalyst in the consolidation and integration of cooperatives, so they can play significant role in poverty alleviation. It also promotes the cause of peace and human rights across the country through such programs as sensitizing police officers to these ideas. “Having been president, more doors are naturally open to me,” explains Cory. “I could call people in government to bring their attention to whatever problems some cooperatives would have.”
She is not shy as well about using her international profile in aid of the cause of freedom outside the Philippines. Cory has championed the campaign of Aung San Suu Kyi against the military junta in Burma and took the time to meet with supporters of detained former Malaysian deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim to talk about ways to wield People Power. “As the years go by, I think people not only have a better understanding but also a better appreciation of what we were able to do,” says Cory. “The Filipino people are being looked up to as the role models insofar as restoration of democracy is concerned.” Indeed, since 1989, the Philippine experience has served as inspiration for freedom movements in South Korea, Burma, Czechoslovakia, South Africa, Poland, Chile, Thailand, and Indonesia. “People Power,” writes political scientist Mark Thompson, “has come to symbolize a peaceful, spontaneous, popular revolt that topples a dictatorship.”
In 2001, Cory joined Jaime Cardinal Sin at the forefront of the drive to remove President Joseph Estrada, who had been accused of and was undergoing impeachment trial for corrupt practices, from the presidency. And in 2005, in the face of mounting allegations of fraud during the 2004 presidential elections, she made a public appeal asking President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to resign from office. She has also lent her name to a campaign to stop the administration’s plan to amend the 1987 Constitution through people’s initiative or constitutional assembly.
It was the aftermath of the 2001 People Power in EDSA, also known as EDSA 2 that made her rethink the utility of People Power to the nation:
“EDSA I was a necessary event to remove an illegal and tyrannical president. But in hindsight, EDSA II merely exposed the weakness of our institutions. While we already had a prescribed constitutional method for removing erring officials, it was too easy to resort to the streets to remove Estrada. The world was stunned. Some elements of the foreign press called it ‘mob rule’. While we were affronted by the criticism, we can still see today the destabilizing effect of people taking extraconstitutional means to get their way.”
She saw the need to “tap the inner dynamic of people power”, by going beyond simply organizing groups and communities for self-help and for political and socio-economic advancement. “We need to focus on helping the individual recover his or her sense of dignity and self-worth. In other words, before we can realize strength in numbers, we must first unlock the full human potential of every Filipino trapped in the debilitating culture of poverty. Empowering the individual is akin to unleashing the nuclear energy in an atom—ultimately it energizes the entire community.”
In 2003, while planning the 20th commemoration of the murder of Ninoy in the midst of the growing disillusionment in government and its leadership, Cory asked, “Twenty years after his ultimate sacrifice, what would Ninoy have to say about where we are as a country and people?”
As she tells it, “That was when I decided that henceforth, I would try to be a part of the solution to our country’s ills, and not be a part of the problem.”
Instead of raising the hands of eager aspirants in political rallies, Cory said she would rather spend her time campaigning for clean elections and promoting the People Power People Movement, her new brainchild launched in August 2003.
The People Power People Movement was President Aquino’s response to the feeling of hopelessness that had enveloped the nation. Alarmed by survey findings that the Filipino youth would to rather settle down elsewhere than in their home country, she decided to look for reasons for them to change their mind.
In a speech on August 20, 2003, introducing the movement, she decried what she called “the erosion of our sense of nation”, our “reverting to our tribal nature, operating as self-interested groups separate and distinct from one another”.
Seventeen years after a “spectacular display of national solidarity” when Filipinos ousted President Ferdinand Marcos after the four-day People Power revolution in February 1986, Mrs. Aquino lamented that the People Power that made an entrenched dictator flee “still has to be harnessed to create jobs and livelihood, deliver social services, bring about peace and order, and improve the lives of all our people”.
She pointed out that while People Power has been effective in counteracting coups, shaming ambitious politicians from changing the Constitution to suit their political ends, or removing corrupt and erring presidents, “we have not seen enough of it where it should count—in improving the lives of the majority of Filipinos who are poor.”
“Our historical experience in EDSA and thereafter has shown that our nationalistic fervor that rises quickly in times of crisis—as it did in EDSA in 1986—ebbs just as fast when things return to normal, and our people go back to business and politics as usual,” she observed.
It is the Filipinos’ “tragic flaw”, she said, “that we become conscious of ourselves as a nation only when we are pushed to the precipice. Most of the time, we don virtual blinders that fix our gaze on our parochial interests, unmindful of the awful social and economic realities around us.”
With the movement, Cory sought to mobilize the spirit of volunteerism, especially among the youth, by documenting and publicizing examples of selfless service to country and people by groups and individuals working in and with the grassroots. Initially, she pinpointed 20 non-government organizations, people’s organizations, corporate foundations and local government units that have made a difference in the areas where they operate, and presented these to the public with a recognition ceremony on the 20th anniversary of the death of Ninoy Aquino.
“Think about it,” Cory Aquino told the audience, “If enough of us stopped complaining about how bad things are and did something to improve our environment, if we took responsibility for our communities, if we spent some of our precious time to take care of the sick and the abused, if we pooled our resources so that we can raise capital to give others livelihood, if we show more compassion towards those who are displaced by natural and man-made disasters, if we placed duty to country and people ahead of our personal interests, if we set aside politics for the higher goal of national unity and progress, we could—together—inspire and uplift, teach and transform society.”
The People Power People movement must take root and flourish, she said, regardless of who is president. “Its fruits must benefit the Filipino people, and not promote any politician who might want to exploit it.”
At the same time, Cory grew dismayed at the continuing deterioration of the nation’s democratic institutions—typified by the sorry state of Philippine electoral exercises—that Filipinos had fought so hard to restore. She lamented that the poor and the powerless have become more vulnerable as a result:
“To help insulate those in the poorest regions of our country from being exploited yet again in future political exercises, we need to empower people at the most basic level. We must help them regain their dignity through decent livelihood and wean them from patronage politics.”
After observing committed microfinance institutions (MFIs) at work first hand, she began to see the enormous potential of micro-enterprise development to bring millions of impoverished Filipinos into mainstream socio-economic life: “Beyond the practical imperative of putting food on the table, micro-enterprise bears this equally vital empowering facet.”
To put the idea of using micro-enterprise as a strategic anti-poverty intervention to the test, she initiated the formation of a private sector social consortium, composed of corporations, banks, foundations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), academic groups and MFIs, which has been moving the micro-enterprise development initiative forward.
The consortium is building on the success of MFIs—which include NGOs, rural banks and cooperatives—in uplifting lives in depressed communities and in proving that the poor are truly credit-worthy. It is focusing on ways by which to enhance the MFIs’ effectiveness and to achieve the scale necessary to have a palpable impact on reducing poverty. This has led to the activation of working groups around four strategic areas of intervention: resource mobilization, capacity-building, business development services, and knowledge management.
To guide the working groups, she convened a steering committee composed of: respected names from the business sector, MFIs, the academe and civil society. After laying the groundwork, the consortium began engaging a wider public in the initiative by launching the PinoyME movement in January 2007.
“PinoyME literally stands for Filipino micro-enterprise, the development of which lies at the heart of our “people-powered” anti-poverty strategy,” Mrs. Aquino explained. “On another level, PinoyME harnesses “people power” by bringing various stakeholders together to eventually enable our marginalized countrymen to rise out of poverty through their own efforts. On yet another level, PinoyME is a way of taking “people power” where we had originally hoped it would go—a force that would rekindle our pride in being Filipinos. At a time when more and more Filipinos aspire to work and settle overseas, we need to lend a hand to those who choose to stay behind. We need to invest a lot more in our country and our people.”
The resource mobilization working group has initiated the formation of the PinoyME Foundation, which essentially will manage a social investment fund. It is designed to address a fundamental problem: the poor’s lack of access to capital and assets.
The PinoyME Foundation will perform the equivalent of investment banking—lending, investing, advising and promoting market linkage and technology applications—in order to spur the growth of MFIs. It will help build a stronger microfinance industry by making it possible for Filipinos to engage in viable micro-enterprises that go beyond the ubiquitous sari-sari stores. Down the road, the goal is to invest in viable micro-enterprises in rural or semi-urban manufacturing enterprises with high value-added and strong market linkages. The Foundation aims not just to make capital available to the traditionally non-bankable but also to create a market that more traditional institutions would eventually want to tap as well.
To Cory, PinoyME has given the People Power vision fresh clarity:
“Our dream is to see most of the micro-entrepreneurs graduate into more stable businesses that would create jobs in their communities. This is the next step in our roadmap toward realizing the vision of PinoyME: to help create a broad middle class, composed of Filipinos who can make mature and intelligent choices—economically, socially and politically. We are already seeing this phenomenon taking shape with the overseas Filipino workers and their families, who are leveraging their purchasing power to increasingly get their voices heard.”
In her private moments, Cory finds solace and peace in prayer, painting and doting on her many grandchildren.
Cory is back to her natural role as nurturer and earth mother. “I think I have finally attained inner peace,” she says. “Whatever problems I have are really minor and solvable ones, in contrast to what they were before.” But the greater concerns of her community remain a constant in her life. “When I look back now on all those years—waiting outside the prison to see my husband, waiting in the house in Boston for the confirmation of his death, waiting for the dictator to blink in our face-off (because I certainly wouldn’t), facing down the military rebels—I realize how really hard it is to come by freedom and democracy,” she declared in a speech in 1996. “And it is mainly by perseverance that one is won and the other is kept.” The widow who led her country to freedom will make sure her people will not lose it again.