Reflections on the Leadership of Ninoy and Cory Aquino
by Dr. Maria Cynthia Rose Banzon Bautista
November 25, 2004
I agreed to accept the honor of sharing my thoughts on the leadership and heroism of Ninoy and Cory Aquino long before the violent dispersal of striking workers in Hacienda Luisita several days ago. With this tragic incident, my presentation became much more difficult to prepare. Due to the circumstances surrounding the issue and the images of the class divide it conjured, I reflected on the legacy of Ninoy and Cory while unpacking my personal angst regarding agrarian reform. This was inevitable because the structural problems of Philippine society came to my awareness in high school when I joined the rallies of the Free Farmers Federation. Subsequently, the discourse on agrarian reform motivated and enlightened my research on development and the peasantry in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Quite apart from my concern with agrarian issues, I reflected on the contributions of Ninoy and Cory and the meaning of the two EDSAs—for those historical moments form a continuing thread that connects back to them—while processing contradictory feelings that oscillated between frustration over EDSA’s unfulfilled promises and a deep sense of hope borne out of the collective achievements of committed Filipinos in the last two decades and the inspiring lives of many individuals who have publicly or quietly given of themselves, to address the 19th and 20th century problems that continue to plague our nation in the 21st century.
Let me begin my reflections on the heroic leadership of Ninoy and Cory by going back to what Ninoy meant to me in the 1980s. My husband and I were pursuing our graduate studies in the US when Ninoy went on a self-imposed exile. An old friend who spent some time with us, and, who was himself escaping Marcos, brought Ninoy to our dining table by talking constantly about the man. We felt we knew Ninoy well from our friend’s account and vignettes. While I could no longer recall the details of those conversations, I remember that my husband and I took Ninoy’s assassination as a personal affront not only because it was a despicable act but also because he was no longer a stranger to us. All I know now is that Ninoy’s death affirmed our resolve to return home as soon as possible and purposefully pursue our personal missions in our country.
The assassination of Ninoy on 21 August 1983 marks a watershed in the unfolding narrative of our nation. It drew millions of Filipinos to massively express their collective moral outrage. More importantly, ordinary Filipinos, many of them politically indifferent until the assassination, took to the streets in protest and withdrew the legitimacy they had unwittingly bestowed on Marcos’s authoritarian rule. Ninoy, who claimed that the Filipinos are worth dying for, became the sacrificial lamb whose slaying on 21 August laid the groundwork for the protest actions that led to People Power I. Although some of us are cynical of the gains from the two EDSAs, both events in the aftermath of Ninoy’s death inspired us to live for a cause bigger than ourselves, for our imagined nation and for an abstract future generation of Filipinos.
In life, Ninoy was a born leader. He ran for governor and became the youngest governor of Tarlac at 29. He also became the youngest senator of the Republic. Had he lived, he would have become president since people had singled him out as the leader of the opposition to Marcos. The ebullient and articulate Ninoy is said to have brought energy, imagination, ambition, and motivation to everything he did. In a recent speech addressing the Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi at the University of the Philippines, a leading journalist waxed nostalgic and focused his discussion on Ninoy to illustrate what a culture of excellence means. Having shared a prison cell with Ninoy, he attests that the man gave himself fully to whatever task at hand, whether it be fighting the dictatorship or scrubbing the toilet of Camp Bonifacio until it was sparkling clean for Chino Roces to wash plates in.
Ninoy’s heroic leadership lay in letting go of his life for the Filipino and the freedom of our nation. He literally walked to his death, aware of the high probability that he would be killed and against the advice of friends, who pleaded with him to remain in the United States until it was time to take over from Marcos. His blood washed pure whatever ambivalence people harbored regarding his interests as a politician, enabling him to transcend his fallibility and human frailties in the public eye.
Another journalist, writing in the wake of the assassination, captured the thinking of the public:
“Because he was a politician he may not have had the interest of the Filipino at heart; that he may not have loved his country and our people. I look at his ashen face, the bullet wound and blood all over his shirt. No Ninoy I said to myself, I have no more doubts. You loved your country and your people. God be with you always wherever you may be.”
Ninoy’s martyrdom transformed a political struggle into a morality play that inspired its audience to aim high, pointing to something greater than their individual selves. It paved the way for Cory and other Filipinos who facilitated the democratic transition, to take his “melted wax and reshape it into another candle to light the dark”.
The poem Ninoy wrote while in detention in Laur, Nueva Ecija in 1976, 8 years before his death, is uncanny for its premonition. Interestingly, this valedictory, which President Corazon Aquino read as part of her State of the Nation Report to the Filipino People on 22 July 1991 , was unknowingly his way of bequeathing the torch of leadership to Cory:
I am burning the candle of my life
In the dark with no one to benefit
From its light
The candle slowly melts away
Soon its wick will be burned out
And the light is gone
IF someone will only gather
The melted wax, reshape it
Give it a new wick—
For another fleeting moment
My candle can once again
Light the dark
Be of service
One more time
March 12, 1976 (3rd anniversary of imprisonment in Laur, Nueva Ecija)
There is a leader and hero in each one of us. However, very few are called upon to lead at critical moments in a nation’s history. Heroic leadership lies in heeding the call and yielding to the challenges and opportunities at hand. Ninoy’s heroism sprung from giving up his life; Cory’s, from letting go of her solitude and deeply valued sense of privacy to lead Filipinos in the precarious transition to democracy.
As Ninoy’s widow, Cory symbolized the nation’s suffering. She achieved the remarkable feat of maintaining a non-partisan stance and image despite her elitist background. The public perception of Cory as having no hidden or personal agenda apart from restoring democracy, which critics considered a disadvantage in the period of democratic consolidation, galvanized Filipinos across different sectors and walks of life—the silent and sometimes politically cynical majority—to rally behind her. I would like to emphasize the phrase ‘no hidden or personal agenda’ because if she had any, Filipinos would have smelled it and her effectivity would have been diminished. From observation, Filipinos seem to put premium in leading by example. A leader who calls for sacrifice must be capable of transcending self-interests. In this regard, we are grateful to Cory for showing us that such leaders exist in our political firmament.
As a woman, Cory brought private, familial virtues into the public sphere. Like other women leaders of democratic transitions in Asia—Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan; Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wajed in Bangladesh and Megawati Sukarnoputri in Indonesia—she did not become a politician by personal choice in the wake of Ninoy’s martyrdam but out of political necessity. The public took this as a demonstration of her sincerity. The aura of a quiet, deeply spiritual and dignified housewife---she is even described as possessing a saintly bearing--so unnerved Marcos that he desperately attacked Cory, stressing that a woman’s place is in the bedroom. Put on the defensive, Marcos complained that she made him appear as a combination of Darth Vader, Machiavelli, Nero, Stalin, Pol Pot and maybe even Satan himself. The most serious charge Marcos hurled against Cory was her lack of experience, to which her retort was that she could not match Marcos’s experience: accordingly, she had no experience in lying, stealing, or assassinating political opponents. Hers was a nonviolent opposition that made it easier to unite and rally behind because she was less threatening to potential rivals. At the end of the day, a woman, whose life once revolved around her family, disarmed the dictatorship.
People Power I and the events leading to it represent a deviation from a common pattern of democratic transition that characterized the global emergence or restoration of democracies in the 1980s and 1990s. Rather than proceeding from a bargaining process in which an autocratic regime participates, the country’s democratic transition involved outright replacement of a leader whose regime was not only authoritarian but arguably oriented towards the benefit of particularlistic groups—the family and cronies of Ferdinand Marcos . Unlike the overthrow of most intransigent personalistic regimes by a radical opposition, however, a moderate opposition, supported by a combination of civilian resistance (people power) and military mutiny, led to the demise of authoritarian rule in the Philippines.
In his analysis of the anti-Marcos struggle, Thompson discussed how a brief united front between the radical and moderate opposition against Marcos, who retained his powers even after the formal end of Martial Law in 1981, split a year later, with the radical groups maintaining the strategy of armed struggle and the moderates stressing non-violent struggle and the polls. The refusal of the radical Left to participate in the snap elections in 1986 and succeeding events marginalized it from the ‘rainbow’ coalition that took over.
The “rainbow coalition” that managed the democratic transition, composed of moderate groups, individuals, parties and organizations with conflicting, often divergent interests, and supported by a military politicized by the Marcos regime, partly explains why it did not assume a revolutionary role, launch significant asset reforms and transform the political culture substantially. In contrast, the coalition appears to have merely restored the patronage politics of the pre-1972 regime that the Philippine media labeled democratic because of the centrality of elections.
In this earlier period, traditional clans, who controlled the country’s policy-making institutions, successfully blocked equity-oriented reforms. Masters of clientelist politics, the elite dominated parties relied on local power brokers to deliver bloc votes to national politicians in exchange for particularistic favors or for blocking progressive legislation. It was significant that in the reopened legislature the country’s most powerful economic elites dominated.
Despite empirical support for the view regarding the restoration of the patron-clientelist politics of the pre-1972 regime, there is also evidence of fundamentally new features in the post-1986 democracy. For one, its imagery includes the seeds of a vibrant and robust civil society. Ninoy’s death and EDSA I eventually paved the way for new forms of activism that were more inclusive of even less politicized or ideologically-oriented. Apart from the usual reform movements, civil society groups including neighborhood organizations and church groups such as the Couples for Christ emerged to provide venues for various efforts to address poverty and inequity and to build institutions.
Interestingly, there was also greater openness on the part of academe to critically collaborate with government with the restoration of freedom. Before Cory assumed office, it would have been unthinkable for the Third World Studies Center of the University of the Philippines, which had gained the reputation of being a critical Left-leaning institution in UP, to undertake research that would explore a range of alternative options for her government to consider. Not only did we in the Center open ourselves to contributing to the formulation of policies, we also restored the tradition of government officials addressing academe through the Academe Meets Government Series that metamorphosed into a University project under then UP President Abueva. Launched at the end of Cory’s administrations, the project entailed assessments by each administration of its achievements and the challenges it faced.
Without disregarding the constraints posed by traditional politicians to the participation of civil society groups in the governance of the country, civil society has nevertheless contributed, together with a changing socio-economic environment, to the slow erosion of patronage politics and to changes in our political frames. An imperfect indicator, Eaton argues, for instance, is the participation of nontraditional actors in the Constitutional Commission that produced the 1987 Constitution. Nearly half of its members (23 or 74.9%) participated at one time or the other, in mass actions in areas such as land reform, ethnic conflicts and gender issues.
The 1987 constitution is important because it instituted 1) term limits ; 2) a party list system, which while leaving much to be desired, promises to provide representation for marginalized groups and enhance the development of issue-based party politics within the Left as an alternative to armed struggle; 3) the strengthening of COMELEC [with the high credibility of the commissioners Cory appointed]; and 4) the call for decentralization that eventually opened up local governance as an arena for democratic reform.
I will not go into the specific achievements of the Cory government. They are properly documented in the book produced by the UP Center for Citizenship, Leadership and Democracy. Let me reiterate, however, that Cory’s most significant achievement was guiding our incomplete democracy through a turbulent transition and engaging in a life-and-death struggle to defend the new democratic government against the armed assault of the right, the left and the secessionists with, in Senator Jovito Salonga’s words, “extraordinary valor and courage.”. Her personal mission was based on her role in the restoration of democracy rather than a zeal for radical social reform.
Let me now reflect on Cory’s leadership against the backdrop of the burning issue of the day—the violent dispersal of striking workers in Hacienda Luisita.
Cory has been criticized for squandering the opportunity to correct the injustices of Philippine society and set the country on a positive course. She was perceived as having “no legislative agenda of her own to which she was deeply committed. Cabinet members had their own thoughts but they were divided on a number of issues. Her position, for example, on the foreign debt problem was ambivalent in the beginning precisely because of the sharp division in her Cabinet.” As regards comprehensive agrarian reform, she is criticized for leaving the more controversial aspects of the program for Congress to settle and enact.
I myself was disappointed at the time because a more genuine and more comprehensive agrarian reform program was not launched during the democratic transition. After the Hacienda Luisita incident, however, the question to think about is:
Had Cory been more committed to a radical land redistribution, could agrarian reform have been undertaken in the face of repeated military threats to her government? In reviewing Riedinger’s book and the dynamics of the period, the question Thompson raised is important. Had Cory been perceived as a radical reformer might she too not have been toppled by conservatives in the armed forces?.
Reflecting on Cory’s refusal to implement reform by fiat as discussed in
Riedinger’s book, Thompson further asks:
“Would such an extensive use of executive power have been any less authoritiarian because it served a ‘just cause’? Cory’s opponents had already accused her of ruling arbitrarily after she abolished the Marcos Constitution and handpicked delegates to the Constitutional Commission, granting herself virtually unlimited authority in the meantime. Although the new constitution was overwhelmingly ratified, the Congressional elections that followed shortly thereafter in May 1987 were a crucial part of the government’s claim to being democratic. To pre-empt the legislature on such a major social and political issue would have weakened this legitimacy and made it unclear whether reform was a product of dictatorship or democracy.”
To address these questions, we would need to further study the transition to democracy and analyze the political dynamics and imperatives that confronted diverse actors on different sides of the fence. I will be remiss, however, if I do not share the limited gains during Cory’s time. Despite the limits of agrarian reform, Cory was instrumental in increasing the democratic space that gave populist organizations a greater voice in public discourse and in seeing more substantial agrarian reform than under authoritarian rule. Reidinger (1995) shows that despite the toothlessness of the agrarian reform legislation passed during Cory’s presidency, there was progress in implementing the old Marcos program primarily in rice and corn lands. He argued that more reform was undertaken by Cory and Fidel Ramos than by all previous presidents taken together. Given the limits of the program, however, it did not substantially reduce landlessness.
As to the Hacienda Luisita controversy, Randy David’s column last Sunday [November 21, 2004] defines Cory’s place in this burning issue:
“There is widespread horror and indignation over the cruel dispersal of the strike at hacienda because EDSA is unequivocal in its espousal of human rights and political democracy. There is renewed interest today in the fate of the Comprehensive Agrarian reform Law also because of this. It is as it should be. We must build from the democratic gains of all past struggles and uprisings. Only by defending and remaining faithful to the values for which they fought do we honor the memory of those who offered their lives to these struggles. ..All the same, there is no justifiable reason to picket the former president’s home on Times Street or to lay the blame for the Hacienda Luisita workers’ death at her door. She has no hand in the running of a family corporation. We become a stronger people I think when we choose to remember Cory as the brave widow, who after her husband’s murder, accepted a role thrust upon her by history and catalyzed the unity of a nation against tyranny. We ultimately do ourselves a great disservice if we paint her as the enemy.”
It is difficult to think of the heroism of Ninoy separate from that of Cory. Their missions flowed into each other and have combined in an unusual way, now that Ninoy is with us only in spirit while Cory continues to redefine her purpose in our national journey. When I was younger, I thought of heroes in a static way: as extraordinary people who satisfy a checklist of ideal characteristics. Imbued with superior capabilities, I imagined them mostly as public intellectuals and perfect persons. As I matured, however, I came to the realization that heroes are imperfect mortals thrust by history into roles that they never imagined they would assume.
Thrust into such roles, both Ninoy and Cory are heroes because they wholeheartedly embraced the characters they were made to play in our nation’s narrative, unmindful of dire consequences for their personal lives. The difference between Ninoy and Cory, however, is that Ninoy’s role has been defined with finality because he has moved on beyond this life. On the other hand, Cory remains on this earth with its constant struggles. Having led the country through extremely difficult circumstances and being the deeply spiritual woman that she is, I believe Cory is more keenly aware than most of us of the challenges that call her to affirm her heroic service to humanity at this point in time. Agrarian reform and the Hacienda Luisita incident are nuanced issues and there are no easy answers to the burning questions they raise. But Cory has the inner strength, grace and enlightenment to discern her special calling at this juncture.
In conclusion, I was asked in 1996 to assess the quality of life of Filipinos ten years after EDSA for the Worldwide People Power Foundation’s Duet on Edsa.
I wrote then that
“the legacy of EDSA is the faith in the capacity of a people to mobilize against a seemingly unbeatable foe. The challenges facing us Filipinos in 1996 is to draw from this legacy and go beyond our collective achievement in EDSA. Where we had to defeat a powerful man and his forces, our adversaries now consist of complex systems and organized groups that are not easy to identify and rally against. Where a spontaneous and extra-parliamentary struggle was enough to end an authoritarian regime, addressing the problems of this century and preparing for the next one requires a planned and sustained mobilization of government, NGOs, POs, scientists and private business sector and relevant people and institutions at all levels. Where we participated in shaping our future at EDSA without the cynicism borne out of failed expectations, the current struggle against structural and cultural constraints to the development of our nation will have to transcend some of the disillusionment with the experiences of the last 10 years and draw inspiration, if not from past gains, then from the promise of the future..
When I wrote the article, I did not stress that the enemy could very well be within ourselves—our cynical views about our nation’s future and our psychological distance from the reality of our people’s poverty.
As I reflect on Ninoy and Cory’s heroic leadership, I am painfully painfully aware of the demoralization among our people because we have not put our act together for more than two decades. Many of us have become quite cynical of the future. Some who were euphoric about our capacity to mobilize against immoral rule even ask if we have what it takes as a people to rise above our present quandaries. It does not help that times are very hard and might be even harder. Against this backdrop, the younger generation see themselves migrating at some point in their lives. Sadly, they have imbibed the cynicism of their elders.
But we are far from being doomed! There are numerous pockets of hope and sources of faith that will eventually strengthen our resolve to develop this nation. Many of our people continue to live heroic lives with the same generosity of spirit that Ninoy reflected in his death and Cory, in accepting her historical role in the democratic transition and the need for her continuing moral presence in our society. All we have to do to arrest the enemy within and revive our hopeful spirit is to look around at many Filipinos who are serving quietly and who, in their own way, eloquently assert that Filipinos are worth dying for.