Keeping politics out of the five days of mourning after her death last August 1st until her funeral last Wednesday seemed especially incongruous. In the end the initially earnest efforts to keep politics out had to yield to the obviously political message the very presence of the throngs flooding the streets — and some of the placards they were holding up — were sending.
Few have remarked on it in recent days, but Corazon Aquino was not only politically active until the time of her death, having opposed charter change and added her voice to the clamor for Gloria Macapagal- Arroyo to resign. She was also the first woman president of the Philippines, which was itself a fact of far- ranging political significance.
When she came to the presidency in 1986 the Philippines was a Catholic country where women were supposed to know their place, and which for decades had been dominated by testosterone-driven male politicians.
The Philippines is still Catholic and still feudal. But unlike in such “advanced countries” as the United States, having a woman for president has long ceased to be impossible, novel or outrageous in the Philippines. For all her unpopularity, no one holds her gender against Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and few Filipinos today would refuse their vote to a woman for being a woman. No, it’s not for her gender that Senator Consuelo “Jamby” Madrigal’s quest for the presidency may prove futile.
Cory Aquino never said anything that could be construed as feminist. She insisted in a 1986 interview with the US feminist magazine Ms. that, for supposedly holding the household purse, women were more equal than men in the Philippines. But during her six years in power her mettle was tested far beyond that of any Philippine president before or since.
She came to the presidency with the treasury emptied by 14 years of dictatorship and the country burdened by a $28 billion debt. A military establishment whose support Ferdinand Marcos had kept by giving the officer corps a taste of power and a thirst for it surrounded her and five times tried to restore authoritarian rule via coup attempts that may have been comic in their clumsiness, but nevertheless wreaked further damage on the fragile economy. Millions — some estimates say 50 percent — lived in abysmal, grinding poverty, most of them condemned to that state by the antiquated land tenancy system that ruled the countryside.
Cory Aquino has been criticized for not declaring and implementing a land reform program that would have dismantled that system. If she had used her law-making powers in 1986 before Congress convened to abolish tenancy, analysts point out that she could have pushed the country into the prosperity most of its neighbors now enjoy. But that would have required a vision beyond, or at least different from hers, which for the most part was focused on the making of a new Constitution, the holding of free elections, the convening of Congress — the restoration, in short, of the institutions of liberal democracy Marcos had gutted.
Cory Aquino had promised no more than that, and she made good on it by releasing political prisoners, and in the next six years, by defending the democracy she was restoring against the remnants of authoritarian rule in the military and the political class that tried to unseat her.
Early on she presented to the people, who ratified it overwhelmingly, one of the world’s most liberal constitutions, which among other features enhanced the protection of press freedom, free expression, and free assembly. Its other provisions — the limitations on foreign media and land ownership, for example — she may not have agreed with. But apparently she did not insist on her opinions, given the survival of those provisions in the present charter. In a major concession to democratic discourse she had even appointed former Marcos officials such as former Labor Minister Blas Ople to the Constitutional Commission she created that drafted what’s now known as the People Power Constitution.
It is that Constitution Gloria Macapagal- Arroyo and her henchmen in Congress have been trying to dismantle for the last five years. It is that Constitution whose liberal and progressive provisions, particularly the Bill of Rights, and those that make the declaration of martial law subject to judicial and congressional review, that need to be defended and even strengthened against the self-serving attempts of Arroyo and company to hang on to power beyond 2010.
Yielding to cries of “Tuloy and laban” (the fight continues), last Wednesday Senator Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III pledged to resume the fight once their period of mourning ends, even as his sister Kris alluded to the need for Ninoy and Cory Aquino’s children to take up their parents’ advocacies.
Those advocacies certainly include the defense of Cory Aquino’s and EDSA 1’s most lasting legacy, the 1987 Constitution, resisting tyranny and authoritarian rule, and opposing the Arroyo camp’s plot to keep itself in power. These advocacies were the subtext, eventually exploding into the text, of the vast outpouring of grief and defiance that through typhoon winds and rains swept not only Manila but also the other towns and cities of this archipelago.
Those advocacies need not and should not end there. The Marcos dictatorship was a throwback to colonial times. It was an offense against history, a deviation from the country’s march towards freedom and authentic democracy. History chose Cory Aquino to lead the battle to bring the country back to that path. It’s a path that many expected would lead to land reform, an industrialized Philippines, a society of justice and peace — the social revolution that has eluded this country and its people for over a hundred years.
Impossible for that goal to have been achieved during Cory Aquino’s watch, given the tasks she had assigned herself, and the challenges she had to face. It now needs the living to work towards that goal: to see to it that the tears the long suffering people of this country have been shedding, in the last few days as in decades past, will be more than tears lost in rain.