All too soon, Cory was under pressure to continue Ninoy’s mission. In Boston, Guy Pauker of the Rand Corporation, a close friend of her husband’s, told her: “Cory, you will have to rethink your political role.” Another family friend, Benjamin Brown of Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs, was more emphatic. “Cory, I think you should be thinking about the presidency,” he said. What do I know about being president? she asked. Brown replied: “Nobody does. There is no school for presidents.” A Filipino friend, Juan Collas, urged the same thing. Suppose you say no and Marcos again wins, will your conscience not bother you, knowing that maybe you could have made a difference and you did not even try? he wrote in a letter to her. The sentiment echoed what Ninoy said when asked why he decided to go home: “I will never be able to forgive myself knowing that I could have done something and I did not do anything.”
The stage was set for a contest between Ninoy’s widow and his political nemesis. The next presidential polls were not due until 1987, but pressed by the Unites States and the country’s international creditors to prove his mandate, Marcos called a snap presidential election for 1986. After a day of fasting and prayer, Cory declared her candidacy over the objections of many in her family. Dressed in her trademark yellow, she drew huge crowds wherever she went. (Ninoy’s welcomers had decorated trees and lampposts with yellow ribbons in 1983, in reference to the song Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree.) Marcos derided Cory as “just a woman” whose place was in the bedroom. She called him a coward for threatening to take her out with a single bullet and promised him no more than a single ballot in return. Cory cast the election as a morality play in which Filipinos could finally bring Marcos to account for his evil deeds, not least the assassination of her husband.
The election was held on February 7, 1986. As expected, Marcos’s henchmen did everything to ensure victory, from bribery to coercion, to stealing ballot boxes, to manipulating the counting. But a third force had entered the equation. In the past, the middle class, the business community, and the Catholic Church had shied from politics, but Ninoy’s murder and his widow’s candidacy had galvanized them. One of the most compelling images of the 1986 election was that of nuns, students, and professionals forming human chains to guard the ballot. Another was the walkout of computer programmers, many of them women, from the control center of the national canvassing office. The numbers they were inputting into their machines, which showed that Cory was leading, were not being reflected in the tabulation boards, which were giving Marcos the edge.
But the Marcos-controlled legislature proclaimed their patron winner, with 10,807,197 votes to Cory’s 9,291,716 votes. Cory rejected the result and called for a nonviolent protest movement. Then, reformist elements of the armed forces made their move. They had been plotting a coup against Marcos, but the snap presidential election temporarily derailed their plans. The project was resumed after Marcos blatantly stole the 1986 polls, but the government discovered the plot. Threatened with arrest, defense minister Juan Ponce Enrile and armed forces vice chief of staff Fidel Ramos holed up in Camp Crame, along Manila’s main thoroughfare, Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA). Jaime Cardinal Sin appealed for civilian support over Radio Veritas. In a repear of Ninoy’s funeral and Cory’s campaign rallies, Filipinos came in the thousands to form a human shield against Marcos’s minions.
It was the birth of People Power, a nonviolent way for ordinary citizens to reclaim their freedom and bring about a peaceful transfer of power. Television viewers across the world marveled as hundreds of thousands of praying Filipinos, armed only with rosaries and flowers, repulsed tanks and armored vehicles. Cory took her oath of office as the country’s eleventh president at 11:00 a.m. on February 25, 1986, at Club Filipino. One hour later, Marcos held his own oath taking within the forbidding walls of the presidential palace. All the while, however, he was negotiating with his longtime ally, the United States, for sanctuary for himself and his family. Senator Paul Laxalt, US President Ronald Reagan’s special emissary, had told him: “I think you should cut and cut cleanly.” That night, American helicopters took the Marcos family and their associates to Clark Air Base, north of Manila, where they later took a plane to exile in Hawaii. Marcos died there in 1989.
Meanwhile, the woman who never wanted to become president buckled down to work. Her first priority was the restoration of democracy, but she went about it in a counterintuitive way: she abolished the legislature, declared a revolutionary government, and appointed a fifty-member commission to write a new constitution. Cory and her advisers felt it would be too difficult to work with a parliament that was beholden to Marcos in the task of restoring democracy. In theory, a revolutionary government could do whatever it wanted, but Cory was careful not to go down that road. “I was governing alone and I could have had all the powers, but I did not [take them],” she points out. “I always abided by the Bill of Rights and I was committed and definitely dedicated to the rule of law.”
The issue of who would write a new constitution was a contentious one. If she called elections for a constitutional convention, Cory courted the danger of having Marcos loyalists control the assembly because they were the ones with money. Her vice-president, Salvador Laurel, advised her to name a dozen or so eminent Filipinos, perhaps retired Supreme Court justices. But other voices urged holding polls to show the people she was no dictator. In the end, she decided to form a fifty-member Constitutional Commission drawn from all sectors of society, including the opposition. “We tried to choose from the women’s sector, from farmers’ groups, from business, from academe,” Cory recalls. “We tried to make it as representative as possible.” And she says she never interfered in the deliberations, including the election of the body’s officers.
The new constitution, perhaps the world’s most lengthy and detailed, was completed in record time and approved overwhelmingly by the people in 1987. Elections for the newly restored Congress followed. Voters gave Cory and her allies another handsome victory, handing them twenty-two of the twenty-four available Senate seats and a big majority in the House of Representatives. Cory was still clearly beloved, but she faced extraordinary challenges. She had retained the rightist Enrile as defense chief and named the pro-American Ramos as head of the armed forces. At the same time, Cory appointed left-leaning human rights activists who were Ninoy’s allies to other key cabinet posts. Even an experienced leader would have been hard-pressed to reconcile the personal and ideological tensions between the contending camps.
And Cory, for all her personal incorruptibility and sincere desire to rule well, was a woman in the traditionally macho business of politics and government. At least in the beginning, the men she worked with saw her as a figurehead president who could be influenced to further their own agenda. With Enrile, says Cory, “I felt that he was always thinking it should be me sitting there and not you.” Laurel may have felt the same. Says Cory: “When he agreed to run as my vice-president, maybe some people told him, ‘You will, in fact, be the president because Cory Aquino doesn’t know anything about running a government. You will be calling the shots.’ In fairness to him, I did not promise that he would be prime minister. But I did not know that there would be a People Power Revolution and that I would be given the opportunity to abolish Parliament and to call for a Constitutional Commission.”
Both men harbored political ambitions. Marcos had seen Enrile as a threat to his wife Imelda’s own presidential bid and so sidelined him in the latter part of his rule. The defense minister had staged his own car ambush in 1972 to give Marcos an excuse to declare martial law. He was the patron of the military officers who formed RAM (Reform the Armed Forces Movement), the planner of the 1986 coup attempt that precipitated the People Power revolt. As for Laurel, he had long been positioning himself as the opposition standard-bearer. His father, Jose P. Laurel, was president during the Japanese occupation, a member of the same regime that Ninoy’s father served as House Speaker. Ninoy and Doy, as Salvador Laurel was popularly known, were childhood friends, but Doy was persuaded to join Marcos’s Kilusan ng Bagong Lipunan (KBL) party in 1978, although he later broke away.
If Enrile and Laurel thought they could manipulate Cory, they soon discovered their mistake. Cory may have been indecisive on some issues, but she was no putty in anyone’s hands. “I felt that in the end I would be the one to blame so I might as well act according to my beliefs rather than take somebody’s advice when I’m not completely convinced that that’s how to do it,” she says. Despite rumblings from Enrile and RAM, she freed top communist rebels to prove the government’s sincerity in a peaceful settlement of the insurgency. The leftists demanded the immediate closure of US military bases on Philippine soil and the abrogation of most foreign debts, but the president said all sovereign obligations must be honored. The media talked darkly about the return of dictatorship, but Cory stood pat on her decision to replace elected local officials with appointed officers-in-charge. “Can you imagine having all these mayors in Metro Manila beholden to Marcos and having control of the police?” she says. “It would have been the end of our efforts at restoring democracy.”
In November 1986, nine months after she became president, Cory did what even Marcos could not do: she let Enrile go. “You could call it my defining moment,” she says. “I decided enough is enough and I fired Johnny Ponce Enrile, which was unheard of. Even during Marcos’s time, he was often said to be thinking of firing Johnny, but was never able to do so.” To appease the Right, she also accepted the courtesy resignations of four other men, including labor minister Augusto Sanchez, whose leftist sympathies the business community blamed for the sharp rise in strikes. “I was very sorry to have to ask for [interior and local government minister] Nene Pimentel’s resignation, but he understood and he said he didn’t hold it against me,” recalls Cory. Pimentel implemented her policy of axing elected local officials. “The more important thing was to keep the country together.”
Enrile did not go gracefully into the night. He called his own version of People Power, but his supporters never reached the numbers at EDSA in 1986 and dwindled sadly away. He campaigned against the ratification of the new constitution and was rebuffed by the electorate. Still, he squeaked into the Senate in the 1987 elections made possible by the charter he opposed, one of only two oppositionists elected (the other was action star Joseph Estrada, who became president in 1998). Cory felt Enrile was not ready to give her respect and friendship. She remembers announcing to her cabinet her decision to advance her state visit to the United States. Have you been promised anything? Enrile asked pointedly, adding that Marcos never went on a state visit unless he knew exactly what he would get. “He was really so haughty,” says Cory. She went ahead with the trip and got a standing ovation from a joint session of the US Congress, plus a US$200-million grant for the Philippines.
The RAM boys, too, would not be placated. Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan, a young charismatic colonel who emerged as one of the heroes of EDSA in 1986, led some twelve hundred soldiers in a failed attempt to take over the government in November 1986, in a plot they called “God Save the Queen.” In August 1987, he and his followers stormed the headquarters of the armed forces and the presidential palace, but were repulsed by troops whom Ramos, now defense secretary, rallied around the presidency and the constitution. Pro-Marcos forces previously tried to wrest power, but the attempt by a section of Cory’s own military was the most serious try. Honasan fled when the coup collapsed but was captured four months later. Held in a prison ship, he managed to escape with some of his guards in 1988—to resurface in 1989 for another takeover try. That seventh and last attempt was put down with some help from the United States. Enrile was implicated in the RAM coup d’etat plots, but was never indicted.
Laurel chose to break away from Cory after the “God Save the Queen” attempt. After visiting military camps to ascertain sentiment toward government policies, he expressed support for the rebellious soldiers and resigned his post as foreign minister. Ever the politician, he may have been positioning himself as Cory’s successor if the military were to force her to resign. But the queen had no intention of stepping down, even as the self-appointed knights of the republic insisted on “saving” her. With everything that she had gone through, Cory had become fearless. She refused to leave the center of power at the height of the coups, even when her only son Benigno III was shot and wounded in the August 1987 coup attempt. Cory had pledged to restore democracy, and that meant a peaceful transfer of power to a duly elected successor when her single six-year term ended.
For all the disappointment in the collapse of the peace process, the watering down of the land reform program, and the economic problems brought on by the coup attempts, Cory can justifiably say that she completed what she had promised to do. After local elections in 1988 and village-level polls the next year, the first presidential election in decades was held as scheduled in 1992. Seven major candidates ran, including Laurel, Imelda Marcos, and Cory’s estranged cousin Eduardo Cojuangco, a wealthy business executive and staunch ally of Ferdinand Marcos. Cory backed Ramos, the EDSA hero and armed forces chief she promoted to secretary of defense in 1988. She chose to support him over House Speaker Ramon Mitra, a difficult decision because Mitra was an associate of Ninoy and the husband of one of Cory’s closest friends. “In the end, it could not be just friendship,” says Cory. “I felt that Ramos could be a better president than Monching Mitra.”
In the final act of her presidency, Cory wanted to make sure that the country’s restored democracy would not be hidebound and traditional. She was wary of career politicians and their dependence on the patronage system to win elections. Like herself, Ramos had never run for office and therefore had not accumulated too many political debts. Cory’s political instincts told her that the country was weary of traditional politicians. She was proved right when Ramos won the 1992 elections with 23.6 percent of the vote, and another nonpolitician, former judge Miriam Defensor Santiago, garnering the second largest number of votes, with 19.7 percent. Cojuangco, the pro-Marcos tycoon, was third. On June 30, 1992, Cory had the pleasure of passing on power to Fidel Ramos. “This was what my husband died for; he had returned precisely to forestall an illegal political succession,” she says. “This moment is democracy’s glory; the peaceful transfer of power without bloodshed, in strict accordance with the law.”
Historians are beginning to assess the Aquino presidency. A key thesis is that the military coup attempts forced Cory to move to the right from her left-of-center position in 1986. “I will admit that I gave more time to the military because they were the biggest threat not only to me but to our democracy,” she says, although she denies she got soft on cracking down on human rights abuses. Still, Cory continued peace negotiations with communist insurgents and Muslim rebels in the south, convinced that force should be the last resort. Jose Ma. Sison, the chair of the Communist Party she ordered released, had fled to the Netherlands and continued to direct the armed struggle from there. “My line insofar as the Communists and Muslim rebels were concerned was that we should follow the Constitution, that we cannot give more privileges or perks simply because you were against the dictator,” says Cory.
She does not regret reaching out to the insurgents. By the time she left office in 1992, the number of followers of the communist New People’s Army (NPA) had dwindled significantly. “That was a revelation to me,” says Cory. After she called a ceasefire in 1986, reports trickled in about communist foot soldiers returning to their families for Christmas and getting the see the conditions of the country for themselves. Holed up in the remote mountains, they had to rely on propaganda from their leaders. “It also made it difficult for the NPAs to extract money from the people in the countryside,” says Cory. “Because they were saying: ‘Why do we have to give you money when Cory says she’s willing to let you come back and live lives like we do?’ While the ceasefire ended and we didn’t really come to a final settlement, it did reduce the number [of Communists] and at least put a halt to their getting more supporters to their party.”
Land reform was another controversial issue. Although she belonged to a landed family, Cory seemed ready to break up huge haciendas and distribute plots to the landless with a pro-poor Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP). But she chose to let Congress determine CARP’s final outline instead of legislating the plan in the brief time she headed a revolutionary government. Some in her cabinet objected on the grounds that landlords would almost surely dominate Congress. The body did water down many of CARP’s tougher provisions, allowing the distribution of stocks instead of land, for example. But Cory argues that it was still a superior program. “My predecessors had not included [land planted to] sugar and coconut, but under my administration they were included. We went about the business of giving not only land to the farmer beneficiaries but, more importantly, my directions were for the government financial institutions to give the necessary credit support.”
Her critics charged that she opted to pass the legislation on to the pro-landlord Congress to protect the Cojuangco family’s Hacienda Luisita. “We did something different in Luisita,” Cory counters. “Whereas farmer-beneficiaries have to pay for the land or the stocks they got, the Luisita workers were getting stocks for free. They were also going to be given a percentage of the gross sales. More than 90 percent voted for the stock-option plan, where they become owners. They all realized that to run a sugar plantation, unlike rice farming, requires a lot of capital.” You cannot please everybody, she says philosophically. “Given our limited resources, it could not have been all accomplished in my time. What I hope for is that each administration, more and more will be done and that each succeeding administration will be more successful than the previous ones.”
As Cory tells it, the key reason for her decision not to legislate land reform was the inadequate time for broad-based consultations on the merits and implications of such a far-reaching program. She had a self-imposed deadline of just one year as head of a revolutionary government and was not willing to extend it. The irony was that some of the people who fought for the restoration of democracy now wanted her to use her dictatorial powers to impose her own vision of agrarian reform. “People were saying I was going so slowly,” she says. “The problem was that Filipinos had gotten so used to dictatorship [that allowed] the president to do anything and everything. And then here I come and I’m talking about due process. But this is what democracy is all about.” Cory aimed to govern from the bottom up. “I wanted people to have a real sense of what it is like to govern themselves, to live out, not just live under, the democracy they had put in place.”
But there are limits to government by consultation, especially one that has yet to find its feet after decades of authoritarian rule. In the wake of the God Save the Queen plot, Cory started to take unilateral decisions, turning her presidency into a Committee of One to combat perceptions of drift in governance. “It was a step forward in political stability, but a step backward in political maturity,” she admits. On occasion, Cory also felt the freewheeling media needed restraining. She put her foot down on government-run television airing an interview with the fugitive Honasan, but did not intervene when a private station aired the scoop. “I was saying, ‘Look, I’m not a masochist and I’m not about to allow a government-run television station to air the side of the enemy.” Pardoned by President Ramos, Honasan won a seat in the Senate in 1995. “We always have a tendency to forgive or, at the very least, to forget,” sighs Cory.
She considers free secondary schooling as one of her greatest accomplishments. “It made a difference in the lives of the people because so many really just had to drop out of elementary school and had no chance to go on for secondary education,” she says. Her government also raised the salaries of teachers, although not as much as she wanted because of limited resources. “My problem was with the foreign debt,” says Cory. “My critics were saying, ‘If only she would repudiate [it] and use the money for education and social welfare.’ Yes, of course it would have helped a lot in the short term, but I was telling them, ‘Look, after my husband’s assassination, the Marcos dictatorship called for a moratorium on payments and the interest rate was as high as 50 percent. Everything just stopped. Factories were limited either to one shift of even closed down and everything had to be bought with cash. There was no credit.’ It was so important for the Philippines to regain its place in the international financial community.”
That was Cory the financial manager talking. Her critics thought she was listening too much to her financial advisers, but in fact the president knew what she was about. “In time, every president understands that you don’t deal with a problem by itself,” she says. “A problem cannot be dealt with in isolation of other requirements of government.” A president must also learn how to bow to the inevitable, as Cory had to do with the negotiations on the renewal of the US lease on its military bases in the Philippines. After keeping her options open, she signaled her support for the ratification of a 1991 treaty allowing the Americans continued access to the installation for ten years, with the option to renew for another ten. The Senate voted 12-11 against the agreement and the Americans were out of the country by 1992.
For Cory, perhaps the hardest lesson was that personal ties must sometimes be sacrificed for the greater good. After the God Save the Queen coup attempt, the calls for the resignation of her left-leaning executive secretary, Ninoy lawyer Joker Arroyo, became more insistent. Cory considered finance minister Jaime Ongpin a personal friend, but the Left regarded the businessman’s appointment to the cabinet as too eager to appease Washington and the country’s international creditors. In both cases, Cory complied.
Then there were the natural disasters that were particularly vicious during her term. A massive earthquake in 1990 and super typhoon Thelma in 1991 brought untold misery. The eruption of Mount Pinatubo, also in 1991, destroyed three major regions and caused temperatures around the world to drop by one degree. “People who said that the peaceful People Power revolution that restored democracy was a gift of God began to wonder about Him and his habits of giving,” Cory observes. She never wavered in her faith. Her critics said she prayed too much, but the widow who found greater strength in God through the difficult years of her husband’s imprisonment says no one can pray too much. “I believe that God does not send us problems that we cannot handle,” she once told a reporter. “Each of us must do what God expects of us. I try my best to adjust to whatever circumstances are and I will not shrink from whatever is before me.”