Aquino Pursues the Gentle Fight

The Seattle Times
May 2, 2002
By Alex Tizon

In one of the most famous true-life fables of good vs. evil in the late 20th century, the good guy wore yellow, and she wasn’t a guy. Corazon Aquino, the demure housewife who overthrew Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the “people power” revolution of 1986, still wears her trademark yellow, her fighting color, and for good purpose: She’s not done with the revolution.

She’s still working on behalf of the Philippines, still campaigning for her people, one handshake, one speech at a time.

Aquino will receive an honorary degree from Seattle University today. She will give a speech, which she says is a chance to “make friends” on behalf of the Philippines and the Filipino people. She certainly doesn’t need any more degrees. By her last count, the number of honorary degrees given her worldwide is “right at two dozen,” she says, “Maybe 25.”

At 69, she is an elegantly aged version of the “Cory” who captivated the Philippines and much of the world in the mid-1980s. She wears the same basic hair style but with some gray at her temples, the same style of clothes; she carries herself with the same small-yet-invincible demeanor that has compelled some to characterize her as saintly.

Sitting in the small living room of a student dorm, Aquino sits at the edge of her seat, obviously not out of nervousness but of earnestness. She listens intently, folding and unfolding her hands. The natural expression on her face, even as she speaks, is a smile.

Her manner is easy, appearing not to have an imperial bone in her body. With little prompting and over a short span, she will talk about poverty in the Philippines, the importance of history and how her square-rimmed glasses hide her “eye bags.”

She will tell you about her seven grandkids, and if she had time, might introduce you to them because they all accompanied her to Seattle. Someone in the dorm room asks: “How many former presidents travel around the world with seven grandkids?”

Family was always of utmost importance to Aquino. It was to a large degree the loyalty to her husband that pushed her to become the 11th president of the Philippines. Before 1986, Aquino had never sought the limelight, content to be the quiet support behind her husband, Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, a dynamic advocate for democratic reforms and widely recognized as Marcos’ chief political rival.

When Marcos declared martial law in 1972, he jailed Sen. Aquino. The Aquinos were eventually exiled to the U.S. Returning to the Philippines in 1983 to lead the opposition against Marcos, Sen. Aquino was assassinated before he stepped off the plane in Manila. The subsequent uproar snowballed into a popular uprising.

The term routinely used to describe Aquino’s ascendancy was that she was “swept” into power. In fact, she was carried and protected by the masses, and compelled by the memory of her husband and by her own conscience, which, according to her memoirs, she consulted in a sweat during a 10-hour prayer at a convent before finally acquiescing to her fate. During that prayer, she realized what had been apparent to her backers: that she was the only one who could rally the divergent forces against Marcos.

When she finally applied for the presidency, the story goes, she wrote, under “occupation,” simply “housewife.” Aquino evolved from grieving widow to reluctant leader to lightning rod of the 1986 bloodless revolution that, over a period of four days, forced Marcos out of office and ushered in a new era for the Philippines. She survived seven coup attempts during her six years in office, and is credited for restoring democracy and civility to Philippine politics.

But the country is again in political and economic turmoil, fresh from the fall of yet another embarrassing president, the high-living former movie star Joseph Estrada, and still adjusting to the MO of the new president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The Philippines still needs support from the international community, Aquino says. But first the world needs to be reminded that the country is still there, still struggling; awareness comes before action. Aquino says she’ll continue doing what she can. “We need friends,” she says plainly. “I’m here to make friends for the Philippines.”