corazon aquino

The lady in the simple yellow dress, stood at the podium, addressing hundreds of thousands of Filipinos. They were gathered on a highway between two military camps in Manila in a festive, carnival-like uprising. This stirring display of “people power” on 21st September 1986 had ousted dictator Ferdinand Macros and brought Corazon Aquino to the presidency. She had been pushed into the whirlwind of politics after her husband, Benigno Ninoy Aquino, had been ruthlessly shot dead in August 1983, the very moment he landed at the airport to challenge Marco’s rule.

Just like in the song, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree” where the guy requested the girl to tie a yellow ribbon in the oak tree to indicate that he was still welcomed by the girl, all around Metro Manila yellow ribbons had been tied on trees to welcome him back. After his tragic death, yellow became the colour of opposition movement, the colour of Corazon Aquino and the colour of a revolution that spread like wildfire but simmered into ashes all too quickly.

The historic 1986 EDSA People’s power revolution occurred after Aquino called for massive civil disobedience against former strongman Ferdinand Marcos who had manipulated votes in his favour in the 1986 Snap Presidential Elections. She was the first female President in Philippines, and was chosen as the face and symbol of the opposition movement against Marcos. Martyrdom of Ninoy Aquino became the rallying point for the huge and diverse groundswell of revulsion of those who had become disgruntled by fourteen years of martial law. As the crowd chanted “Cory, Cory”, it appeared that the whole nation was behind her. 1] The promise of democracy and popular reform won her admirers from all over the world. However, within months her administration had collapsed into a din of coup attempts, assassinations and political intrigue. Reid calls her presidency a bushfire revolution; just like dry weed which catches fire but burns out hot and fast. [2] It is also a common Filipino tendency, to lose interest quickly in projects that begin with the greatest of fervor. While she was fondly hailed as “Virgin Mary” or “Saint of democracy” who restored democracy in Philippines, public opinion polls in 1991 showed her popularity at all-time low.

She had begun losing legitimacy among large sections of the population who accused her of false promises to ease poverty, stamp corruption and widen democracy. This paper argues that Corazon Aquino essentially left a mixed legacy. She led a peaceful democratic transition that did restore institutional democracy in Philippines but faced many deeply entrenched systematic and cultural obstacles in achieving democratic consolidation. She made little headway into championing the rights of rural poor, and improving the economy.

Corruption and graft became widespread, and caciques hegemony once again revived that marred progress. The real drama was the episodic power struggle within competing factions’ threatening to destabilize the regime. Ultimately, she was a survivor, having outlived six coup attempts against her, and neutralizing the warring factions of communist rebels, Muslim insurgencies and military dissidents. Before I begin expounding on her achievements and failures, it would be perhaps useful to highlight the herculean task that confronted her, especially given that she had no political experience.

Corazon Aquino essentially inherited a 28 billion foreign debt[3] from the previous regime, massive poverty, poor dilapidated infrastructure, highly factionalized military, active communist insurgency, three Muslim secessionist movements, and huge expectations from a newly awakened civil society bursting with energy after fourteen years of one man rule. Very bluntly, she had a lot on her plate. She had to come to terms with a deeply embedded culture in Philippines which operates on a network of mutual obligations and favours – where alliances are built on personal links with influential family members and patrons.

This culture eventually undermined many of her reforms. She did not have the luxury of an orderly transition. Decisions had to be made quickly and it reflected her lack of experience. Many of the problems she faced were often her own making. She was highly concerned about her image, and though stubborn, was widely accused of being soft and politically indecisive in the face of grave crisis. Her personality was a double edged sword. Aquino played an important role in restoring institutional democracy. Her administration became known for its strong emphasis and active concern for civil liberties and human rights.

On the very first day of her political appointment, she announced the right to habeas corpus. [4] Over 500 political prisoners were released despite objections of the military. Amnesty was given to political prisoners who had been detained without trial under Marco’s rule. These people had been convicted of purported cases of political subversion, sedition, or conspiracy and other offences against the requirements of the public. [5] Philippines under Aquino became the first ever Asian country to abolish death penalty, which was a great victory for many human rights activists around the world.

She allowed the free press and media to once again flourish, which had been repressed severely under martial law. Though her provisional new ‘interim’ constitution, called the freedom constitution, drafted by Father Bernas was disputed as it abolished the national assembly and gave her more powers than what Macros enjoyed under martial law as she was able to rule by decreed, the 1987 constitution drafted by the Constitutional Commission, was widely supported by the public and instituted through democratic ratification of the people.

A constitution limited the powers of the presidency and restored an American-style bicameral legislature independent of executive and functioning judiciary. [6] However, at the same time, she made many empty promises. “No favours, no excuses”, was Aquino’s campaign motto. [7] Neither was she able to end crony capitalism, nor was she able to control endemic corruption during her four years of presidency. Instead she indirectly became party to these acts of statecrafts. She displayed partiality to long-standing friends, especially by appointing them to positions of authority.

This became evident in her cabinet selection after she gained presidency, following the traditional formula of rewarding people who had elevated her to power. Cardinal Sin or Jaime Lachica Sin was an influential and charismatic Roman Catholic Archbishop of Manila who has played an instrumental role in the People’s Power Revolution and supported Aquino into power. He was immediately appointed as the Minister of Finance. [8] The catholic community under his direction had been instrumental in gaining her nomination and financial her campaigns.

Jose Conception was appointed as The Minister of Trade and Industry because of NAMFRELS support for campaign finance. In addition, many business portfolios went to Catholic business cliques. Close friends of late Ninoy were also appointed. At the forefront of the street demonstration, Ramon Mitra, who was a rich rancher and fellow senator of Ninoy, was given the agricultural portfolio. [9] Later, his personality and ineptitude became one of the stumbling blocks in negotiations with the communist factions.

Joker Arroyo, human rights lawyer and Nino’s legal defense team, became presidential executive secretary and main advisor of Aquino. He had to be later dismissed because of tussle with the military. Vice President Laurel’s faction was also accommodated though her administration was against this decision. He was a very ambitious and self serving individual, whose main aim was to consolidate power to run for presidency in the next elections. As part of her military reform, she was supposed to remove Juan Ponce Enrile, protege of Marcos who later betrayed him and General V. Ramos but retained them due to the debt she owed to them. [10] In Reid’s and Guerruro’s words, this became an issue of controversy because this meant that armed forced would remain in control by leaders of the previous regime. [11] Later on, these individuals defected against her and had to be removed from the cabinet. Favouritism towards those who had supported her, and hasty decisions to appoint those who proved to be untrustworthy in the end, resulted in severe public criticism against Cory. The culture of crony capitalism continued. There was no change.

Though she herself was incorruptible during her presidency, she was accused by critiques of turning a blind eye to family and friends who were said to be enriching themselves at the public’s expense. Her brother, Jose ‘Pepping’ Cojuanco was involved in a serious of business acquisitions, and others in the family were accused of enriching themselves through connections with her government. [12] One disillusioned official said, “What good is Virgin Mary is she is surrounded by Sodom and Gomorrah? [13] This was a common feeling not only among public officials but people at large.

As Thompson writes, ‘her family was out of control and she could not do much. ’ She initiated the formation of Commission on good government to recover Marco’s stolen wealth. However, the corruption watchdog itself had to be watched after several months. It was not a break from the past but the continuation of looting of state coffers. Benedict Anderson labeled her as an instructive liar and for good reason. She was not the champion of poor poverty stricken. Half of some 65 million people continued to live in poverty by the end of her presidency.

In Manila, thousands of hungry homeless children were growing up in streets. In villages, sweet potato had replaced staple food rice which was an indication of growing impoverishment. [14] Above all, inequality had grown. Economic growth brought about by unleashing the economy to market-oriented forces and privatization benefited mainly the metropolitans. At the heart of economic disparity was land equity and limited land reforms. Contrary to her image as a simple lady, she was essentially from one of the wealthiest and most powerful dynasties within Filipino oligarchy. 15] Anderson argues that under her rule, there was a revival of old caciques and old fiefdoms, which blocked land reforms. Land reforms were essential for Philippines because most of the wealth was concentrated in the powerful hands of large agricultural land owners and capitalists. Distribution of such power was required. After coming into power Aquino promised to expand agrarian reform to cover all agricultural land and not simply corn and rice producing holdings to which Marcos land reform was limited.

Aquino announced that “Land reforms must be balanced against the need to enhance production. However, like most of her policies, this was also marked by an exit clause. She carefully avoided promises to break up large estates including her father’s 12 thousand acre sugar plantation and informed her decision to sit down with family and discuss. [16] By 1987 the cries for land reforms had become louder with organizations like COLOUR were sending resolutions to her administration and threatening civil disobedience.

However, little was done to address this problem. Ben Anderson argues that 1987 elections for Senate and House of representatives was not only a triumph for Aquino because most of her supporters won, but it was after these elections that the power of the elected senior officials was felt. Caciques came back to power. Jose Cojanco himself also recruited many notorious Marco’s caciques such as Thaddeus Deo Durano into power, under Cory’s party banner, PDD-Ldan. [17] Corruption was rife. Caciques began to claim their own.

Bonifacio Gligo, chairman for the House on Committee of Agrarian Reforms lamented that 17 out of 21 members on the committee were landlords who eventually blocked land reforms. She had a tendency to delegate tasks to subordinates, and despite calls to step in to address these reforms, she left the decision to the legislature, cowered by the looming influence of elites who supported her. The legislature responded by passing a bill that exempted 70 percent of all agricultural land from redistribution. [18] She also had to protect her own family interest; Hacienta Luista, sprawling 7000 hectare sugarcane plantation remained intact. 19] When a reporter asked an impoverished employee in Hacienda Lucieta who had voted in favour of Aquino, he said that ; “while the horses get Australian grains and eggs, we hardly have meet to eat. ” [20] In sum, land reforms did not occur that would address the poverty stricken situation of many Filipinos, and instead leadership was transferred back into the hands of elites and caciques hegemony, who took advantage of the opportunity to consolidate their wealth and power, choking reforms. When Corazon came to power, she inherited a highly factionalized military.

There were six coup attempts against her administration – testimony to the raging power struggles. Though she managed to neutralize the rebellious factions in the end, this came at a cost – that of greater military intrusion in civilian affairs. With each coup, she leaned more towards the right, making concessions with the armed forced and dismissing many cabinet members who were associated with the left. Her cabinet became more and more homogenized – stark contrast to the diverse segments that initially was appointed after the people’s power revolution.

Disgruntled by the neglect under Marco’s rule, Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM) of the Armed Forces of the Philippines ( AFP) had played a pivotal role in toppling the dictator. Once Aquino came into power, they felt that the place that rightfully belonged to them had been taken away. Moreover, to them nothing less than a military junta led government was acceptable. This was followed by Ramos and Enrile being awarded top positions in the cabinet, as AFP Commander and Secretary of National Defense respectively. She also appointed leftist human rights lawyer Arroyo who had defended many victims of human rights abuses against the military into cabinet position. Her soft stance against the communist groups further aggravated the military which had witnessed the deaths of many comrades during military crackdowns against them. [22] Her main challenge when she came into power was achieving political peaceful reconciliation with communists without alienating the armed forces that had brought her into power. The army was also given less funding. Their defense budget of the military had also been slashed.

Thus it was a combination of stifling of both economic and political interests of the military that resulted in such resentment. The result was several coup attempts against her administration. Though staged under the guise of dissatisfaction with corruption in Aquino’s government and mass poverty, the real motivations of the 1989 coup was struggle for power among the militia. Supported by loyalists in the military and foreign ally United States, her regime was eventually protected. However, the near success of the coup revealed many was an indication of the growing dissent among members of AFP.

The David Commission report of 1990 that help ten months of exhaustive hearings in the entire cycle of coup attempts revealed that soldiers had become increasingly disenfranchised by the corruption, poor military leadership, lack of genuine reconciliation and failure of government to improve economic conditions. There was an imperative need for reform of Aquino government. Besides the military, even middle class segments which had propped her up into power were getting disillusioned by the widespread poverty.

Even though, the coup attempts were essentially power struggle of the military rebels against civilian leadership, which she effectively neutralized, it did open a window into the weakness of her regime, and the many glaring problems in society that had not been promised but not fulfilled. Corazon’s battle with Muslim secessionists can be considered a step forward. The conflict in the South was a result of large numbers of Christian immigrants who moved during American colonialism, secratarian violence, and due to martial law and displaced the inhabitants who were Muslims. To resolve the problem, just like with the communist factions, she initiated peaceful reconciliation with the Muslim secessionists. She is till today remembered in the South as the “mother” of Muslim autonomy.

She personally met personally Moro National Liberation Front Chair Nur Misuari in Maimbung, in September 1986. The President’s unprecedented gesture led to the resumption of government-MNLF peace talks, which had broken down during the Marcos administration. The renewed peace talks eventually led to the creation of an autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao ( ARMM) . This region 9 s now a self governing constitutionally mandated entity with its own legislative and executive branches. A popular peace advocate, Oblate priest Fr. Eliseo Mercado Jr. , said it was Mrs. Aquino’s consultative approach in addressing the quest of southern communities for self-governance that led to the creation in 1990 of what is now the ARMM. However, the e ARMM set-up did not entirely satisfy the MNLF or solve the Muslim secessionist problem in Mindanao, but President Aquino’s initiative was a progressive start. The MNLF, for one, settled with a final peace agreement in 1996 during the Ramos administration.

She started the process of negotiation and stood by her decision to never resort to force. It was her spirit of peaceful political reconciliation which marked her presidency and was captured in her personal endeavors. Similarly Aquino attempted to peacefully reconcile the communist insurgency that had mushroomed under Marcos’s rule. They had drawn their support base from the largely impoverished peasantry which was resentful of Marcos’ failure to carry through agrarian reform, and the working class, which were the main victim of the Marcos-World Bank economic policy. Her strategy was to bring them into democratic mainstream. She invited rebels to lay down arms in return for legitimizing the party. Upon gaining office, she released two prominent leftist prisoners, Sison and Buscanyo, against the will of the military. [28] She established a panel led by Jose Dionko to negotiate with the top leaderships of National Democratic Front (NDF) and the New People’s Army (NPA), two leading organizations of the Communist movement.

In the infant stages of the negotiations, Dionko passed away due to health issues, and the reins were passed to Ramon Mitra, who became despised for his lack of professionalism and commitment to the negotiations. Apart from safe conduct guarantee of top communists, most of the demands of the left such as economic growth, human rights abuses, and land reforms were in harmony with Aquino’s own plans. However, the military created obstacles to negotiations constantly; with Ramos making inflammatory and contradictory press statements and small scale abuses by military in communist villages.

Cory’s strategy was working, the left agreed for ceasefires. However, the January 22 incident spilt cold water on all the efforts. Jaime Tadeo, a leftist, was camping infront of Ministry of Agrarian Reforms to demand the government to turn over state lands promised to landless peasants. He was joined by ten thousand civilians who marched to the palace to see Aquino herself due to the lack of response from the ministry. The military fired and injured several of the civilians which resulted in the breakdown of the ceasefire. Efforts of reconciliation had failed and violence continued.

However, the left movement was eventually neutralized because by 1988 they began to be viewed by many people, especially among the middle strata, as a threat to Aquino’s democratic enterprise, as a force that resorted to arms because it could not win in the electoral arena. The left made several strategic errors which resulted in its own isolation. Not only did they boycott the 1986 elections, which had become a massive popular movement in ousting Marcos, but also by placing emphasis on armed struggle in the countryside such as the assassination of police officers and army units in Summer 1987 it lost legitimacy among its rural supporters.

Though eventually the insurgency lost its steam, it was due to a combination of factors. In sum, In the end, though it was a combination of factors that helped neutralize the communist insurgency, Aquino did keep her commitment and promise to offered peace, and made efforts to accommodate the left. Just like the mixed legacy she left, she was herself a bundle of mixed contradictions. Reid writes that her image was very important to her and was also very cosmetic one. Many of her public decisions were made to protect her public image.

Her personality played a large role in both her achievements and failures. Personally she was a warm, simple, and supportive woman. “It was very easy to talk to her”, wrote one military official. Many women in her administration came to her with their personal problems. She was also very passionate about the poor. However, at the same she was very image conscious. Upon gaining presidency she decreed that Malacanang, the presidential palace, be converted into a ‘Museum of Decadence’ to break all ties with the previous regime.

She refused to be associated with brother Peping in public forums because of his reputation. While she was loyal to those who provided unquestioning devotion to her such as leftist Buscanyo and Arroyo, she was uncompromising towards those who opposed her. She refused to negotiate with Enrile and Laurel on several recommendations after they had been removed from their posts. After the 1989 coup when Bush’s envoy, Robert Gates, was sent to deliver a forceful message to Aquino to get her act together, the reporters caught whiff of its earlier than she did. Such public humiliation angered her.

When Dick Cheney was sent a few months to discuss the future of military bases, she outrightly refused to see him. Her personal qualities such as her proud and vindictive personality destroyed her relation with Bush. “Never again would he be as accommodating to Aquino or Philippines”, and began advising reporters that the best option would be for her to end her rule. Thus, many of the problems she faced were often her own making. However, as a virtuous, spiritual and strong woman, she herself was never once found to be corruptible. In conclusion, Corazon Aquino essentially left as mixed legacy.

While she managed to restore institutional democracy, negotiated for peace with Muslim secessionists and neutralized the military and communist fragments by the end of her presidency, there was much left to be desired when the baton was passed onto the next President. Mass poverty, inequality lack of land reforms, corruption, revival of elite democracy and cacique hegemony marred her legitimacy. While the international press hailed her as the sainted champion of people power, many Filipinos had lost faith in her. It was an unfinished revolution. Her greatest achievement was to begin the healing process.


  1. Rosenburg, David. , The Changing Structure of Philippine Government from Marcos to Aquino. In Rebuilding a Nation : Philippine challenges and American policy Carl H. Lande. Washington Institute Press: Washington D. D, 1987. 346
  2. Robert H Reid. , Elieen Guerrero . , Corazon Aquino and the brushfire revolution Louisiana State University Press : London ,1995
  3. Journals Benedict. Anderson “Cacique Democracy in the Philippines: Origins and Dreams” New Left Review, vol. 169( May/June 1988): 3-33
  4. Mark. R. , ThompsonFemale Leadership of Democratic Transitions in Asia Author Pacific Affairs, Vol. 5, No. 4 (2002-2003), pp. 535-555
  5. Sheila S. Coronel. , The Lost Revolution. Foreign Policy, No. 84 (Autumn, 1991), pp. 166-185 Sandra, Burton. ,
  6. The Center Holds Foreign Affairs, Vol. 65, No. 3, America and the World 1986 (1986), pp. 524-537
  7. Walden Bello and John Gershman John. Democratization and Stabilization in the Philippines, Critical Sociology 1990; 17; 35
  8. Electronic articles and websites Greenwald, John. , 1990
  9. The Philippines Cory, Coups and Corruption. 15 Jan. ( accessed date 3 Novemeber 2009) Marco Garrido. , 2003. The evolution of Philippine Muslim insurgency.
  10. Online Asia Times. March htttp://www. atimes. com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/EC06Ae03. html (accessed date 6 November 2009)
  11. Kristine Aquino to the Manilla Times, November 7, 1989 Corazon Aquino and the brushfire revolution. in Reid, Robert H. , Guerrero. Eileen. , Louisiana State University Press : London ,1995
  12. 179 Greenwald, John. , 1990 The Philippines Cory, Coups and Corruption. 15 Jan. ( accessed date 3 Novemeber 2009)
  13. The Phillippine Daily Inquirer, 23 January, 1988 in “Cacique Democracy in the Philippines: Origins and Dreams” Anderson, Benedict New Left Review, vol. 169( May/June 1988): 3-33

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