Monday, April 4, 2016

Corazon Aquino, President and Revolutionary

Corazon Aquino was the 11th president and first female president of the Philippines, restoring democracy and defeating the dictator who assassinated her husband.

Photo by Diane Walker, Time Life Pictures/Getty
"The nation was awakened with that deafening shot." ~ Corazon Aquino

Corazon Sumulong Cojuangco was born on January 25th, 1933 in Tarlac, Philippines to a wealthy political family. She went to school in Manila until 13 years old then completed her education in the United States, graduating from New York's College of Mount St. Vincent in 1953 with a degree in French and mathematics.

After returning to the Philippines, Corazon enrolled in law school in Manila in 1954. It was there that she met Benigno Aquino Jr., a journalist who also came from a wealthy family, and she left school so they could get married. The couple would have five children; a son and four daughters.

Benigno would move from journalism into politics over the next few years while Corazon remained in the background, raising their children at home. Benigno quickly established himself as a bright and popular leader. He was elected major, then governor, then senator.

The President of the Philippines at that time was Ferdinand Marcos. Elected in 1965, Marcos was a tyrant whose rule was rife with corruption and civil rights violations. Benigno and Marcos were already opponents for their political views, but perhaps adding to the fuel from Marcos' perspective (and certainly in the media) was that at one time, long before he met and married Corazon, Benigno had dated Imelda Romualdez, who was now Marcos' wife.

As Benigno grew more popular with the people, Marcos declared martial law in 1972, denying his citizens their democratic rights and imprisoning his opponents, including Benigno. Under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, Benigno spent 1972-1980 in jail.

While her husband was in jail Corazon supported him as well as she could, keeping his memory alive in the media and passing notes from him to members of the press. When international pressure mounted Marcos released Benigno from jail, on the condition that he go into exile in the United States.

For three years Benigno and Corazon lived in Boston before Benigno decided to return to the Philippines to offer himself as an alternative leader to Marcos. On August 21st, 1983 Benigno arrived back in the country and was assassinated by a lone gunman as he disembarked the plane, surrounded by Philippine soldiers.

Marcos was blamed for the assassination and the event set off a wave a protest against his rule. As the people looked for a leader behind which to gather they were drawn to Corazon Aquino, their martyr's widow. As Corazon mourned her husband, she became a symbol of reform and justice waiting to be restored in a country that was screaming for new leadership.

In the meantime, Marcos gathered his political allies to demonstrate that he still had power, lest the people try to challenge his rule. One of these allies was U.S. President Ronald Reagan, a long-time friend of the dictator. To prove he still had the popular vote, Marcos unexpectedly demanded an election in February of 1986.

Corazon did not want to run for President - she had no experience - but the people rallied behind her, and after they presented her with over one million signatures asking for her candidacy, she realized she had to be the one to unite them against Ferdinand Marcos.

With the color yellow becoming a theme at all of her rallies (a reminder of the yellow ribbons that were tied around trees in Manila by supporters welcoming her husband home on that fateful day in 1983), Corazon was met with tears and passionate responses, and hundreds of thousands of people came out to hear her speak.

Photo by Erik De Castro, courtesy of Reuters/Corbis
Marcos responded by having supporters brought by bus to stage his own counter-rallies. The country seemed torn between the leaders but the decision was close at hand, for as soon as the polls closed on February 7th, 1986 Marcos declared victory, stunning the nation.

Corazon accused Marcos of cheating and voting fraud, and a quick count of the votes by the National Citizen's Movement for Free Elections said she was real winner. A tense political standoff stretched over the next two weeks. Marcos' long-time friend President Reagan sent an envoy to the Philippines to suggest Corazon share leadership with Marcos, but she angrily refused, repulsed at the idea that she would have to share leadership with the man she believed was responsible for her husband's killing.

In the meantime, Marcos' own forces were turning against him. His Defense Minister and second in command of the army staged a coup against him, declaring loyalty to Corazon, and the Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Sin abandoned neutrality and ordered that the faithful gather in the streets to support the coup in the name of Aquino. Millions of supporters flocked to the streets.

Corazon demanded that the protests be peaceful and called for civil disobedience strikes and boycotts of media and businesses owned by Marcos. These protests were popular and came to be known as the People Power Revolution. Marcos ordered troops to face the protesters, some of whom were entire families, nuns, and priests, but not a single shot was fired. The troops withdrew, and many defected.

Aquino being sworn in by a Spreme Court member, 1986.
Photo by Robin Moyer, courtesy of Getty
On February 25th 1986 Corazon was sworn in by her supporters as the first woman to lead the Philippines. Despite this, Marcos refused to give up the presidency until President Ronald Reagan, sensing the inevitable, called Marcos and persuaded him to flee for exile in Hawaii. Marcos agreed, leaving the Philippines with his wife Imelda that same day on U.S. helicopters.

In March 1986, Corazon proclaimed a provisional constitution and ordered that a new constitution be constructed. The resulting document was ratified in February 1987 following a landslide vote in its favor. The constitution restored the original structure of Congress, which had been abolished by Marcos in 1973. Elections for the new Congress were held, and Corazon followed this by breaking up economic monopolies held by Marcos' allies.

In September 1986 Aquino was received in Washington D.C. by President
Reagan, friend of her former nemesis. Her speech to Congress
was widely praised. Photo by Diana Walker, Time Life Pictures
In spite of these successes, there were many areas where Corazon faltered. Her popularity declined as she failed to make necessary economic and social reforms, and the country experienced setbacks while struggling to face such events as the devastating eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991. While she always maintained enough support to preserve the democracy her husband had died for, she had to fend off coup attempts by Marcos supporters six times.

When her six year term was up Corazon left political office and endorsed her former defense minister, Fidel Ramos, who was elected. After leaving office, Ramos remained an active voice in politics, and would take part in protests and speak publicly about pressing political issues.

In 2008, Corazon was diagnosed with colon cancer. She died on August 1st, 2009 in Makati, Philippines.

Corazon was a reluctant leader, one who had never sought the spotlight nor wanted a career in politics. She had no political experience, and after restoring democracy she was not a hugely successful leader for the rest of her presidency. Despite this, she was the figure the county needed and perhaps the only one who could have brought the people together to unite against their oppressor and restore democracy, even if she had to evoke the name of her husband to do so. In this way Corazon was indeed a public servant to her country at a time when her nation needed her most.

Additional Quotes: 

"I am not embarrassed to tell you that I believe in miracles."

"As I came to power peacefully, so shall I keep it."

"It is true you cannot eat freedom and you cannot power machinery with democracy. But then neither can political prisoners turn on the light in the cells of a dictatorship."

Sources:

Corazon Aquino, Revolutionary President of the Philippines, Amazing Women In History
Corazon Aquino's Life in Photos, Time.com
Corazon Quino, Biography.com

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