The family and friends of the late President Corazon Aquino marked her 90th birthday on Jan. 25. No one in government even mentioned it, but it would have been surprising if any one of them had done so. Not only is the Executive branch of government firmly in the hands of the immediate family of the dictator she helped oust in the 1986 People Power uprising (the 37th anniversary of which will be in 22 days); its allies and other kin are also in control of both houses of Congress and the Judiciary.
Neither was there any indication that the citizenry took notice of it or was even aware of it, since, in the first place, they are troubled by such concerns as coping with the high prices of basic commodities, where to get the wherewithal to make both ends meet, surviving unseasonal floods, and the surge in the crime rate, and the many other ills Filipino flesh is heir to.
But in testimony to how successfully the trolls and media hacks of her and her family’s political foes have reinvented the events of 1986 to 2016, if Corazon Aquino had been remembered at all in recent times, it was mostly in less than positive terms.
She has been maliciously and falsely depicted as indifferently playing mahjongg with Carmelite sisters when she was in Cebu during the initial days of the 1986 civilian-military mutiny, when thousands of Filipinos began massing at Quezon City’s Epifanio de lost Santos Avenue (EDSA) to protect military elements opposed to Marcos Sr. Her running against the latter in the 1986 “snap” elections has also been painted as no more than a selfish attempt to advance her family’s economic interests. She has been accused as well of being “pro-communist” and of prolonging the country’s problems with the insurgency when she released political prisoners upon her ascension to the Presidency.
Mrs. Aquino was far from perfect, but neither was she the evil plotter that she and her family have been depicted by the partisans of dictatorship and tyranny. A member of Tarlac province’s Cojuangco dynasty, whose antecedents had been in government since the First Philippine Republic, she was educated in the country’s most “exclusive” Catholic schools. She also attended universities in the United States, from one of which she graduated from with a major in the French language, which she spoke fluently.
She later married into the then rising Aquino family, and was thrown into the maelstrom of Philippine politics by the aspirations of her husband, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr., for the Presidency. That goal brought them into a collision course with the far more aggressive ambitions of Ferdinand Marcos, Sr.
The assassination of Ninoy at the then Manila International Airport tarmac on Aug. 21, 1983 upon his return from medical treatment in the United States forced her to contest the Presidency against Marcos Sr. during the “snap” elections of Feb. 7, 1986. The latter had reluctantly called those elections under pressure from the US, the government of which believed that without a regime legitimized by credible elections, the so-called “communist insurgency” would grow even more rapidly.
During the campaign, the Marcos camp ridiculed Mrs. Aquino for supposedly being unskilled in the arts of governance, and described her as “a mere housewife” unworthy of the Presidency. But neither those claims nor the fraud, vote-buying, and intimidation during those elections succeeded in convincing most Filipinos that Marcos had won it.
Independent election watchdogs as well as the Catholic Church found Corazon Aquino the winner. The disgruntled sectors of the military supported her at the EDSA uprising that eventually escalated into Marcos Sr.’s ouster and the “mere housewife’s” rise to the Presidency.
The 1986 overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship fanned hopes that the political, economic, and social changes that had been at the heart of Filipino aspirations since the reform and revolutionary periods of Philippine history would finally be realized. But Corazon Aquino and the politicians and bureaucrats around her soon dashed those hopes to pieces.
Like other members of the political, social, and economic elite, she could not escape the limitations of her class and the demands of her familial interests. Instead of the “revolution” that the 1986 EDSA Mutiny promised, under her and her allies’ direction it restored the limited democracy that had been in place during the three decades prior to the imposition of martial law.
For instance, instead of prodding her allies in the reconstituted Congress into crafting a bill abolishing the tenancy system that the US Agency for International Development’s (US-AID) Roy Prosterman had then described as “the worst on the planet,” and whose continuation, he also warned, would lead to full-scale civil war, what Corazon Aquino supported and what passed that landlord-dominated body in 1987 was a supposedly “comprehensive” agrarian reform program that contained so many exceptions it hardly addressed the festering land problem that had driven rebellions for decades. Neither could she prevent the police’s massacre at Mendiola of farmers demanding authentic land reform. And she also favored Senate approval of a new treaty that would continue to allow US military bases in Philippine territory, not only because the US supported her against the succession of coup attempts against her, but also because she believed in the benevolence of that country’s intentions.
But she did dismantle the Marcos dictatorship, and by doing so made possible the resumption of the democratization process that kleptocracy had interrupted. Through a new Constitution, she restored Congress, the independence of the judiciary, and the freedoms, such as the right to due process, that had been curtailed by one-man rule.
Its emphasis on human rights, equality, and the rule of law makes the 1987 Constitution the most progressive among the other basic laws — the Malolos Constitution, the 1936 Charter, and Marcos Sr.’s 1973 version — that the Philippines has had. If there is anything for which Corazon Aquino deserves to be remembered, it is for her enabling the making of that document possible. She convened the 1986 Constitutional Commission of libertarian lawyers, artists, writers, and public servants who, with the horrific lessons of the martial law period in mind, put together a document protective of human rights and restrictive of the coercive powers of government to preempt another dictatorship.
The 1987 Constitution has been repeatedly threatened with amendments by those ruling oligarchs and their front men who claim to be interested only in amending its economic provisions, but who are also likely to extend their terms in office and to tamper with its Bill of Rights and the limits on the Presidential power to declare martial law. The very same attempts could be in the offing again: the dynasty-dominated House of Representatives began hearings on charter change on Jan. 26 despite widespread opposition to it.
Defending the Constitution, particularly its Bill of Rights and its other provisions such as those favoring Filipino primacy in the country’s economic development from the self-serving advocates of tyranny and of opening the country to unrestricted foreign exploitation is even more urgent today than in times past.
Should Congress decide to either convene itself into a constituent assembly or to call for elections for delegates to a constitutional convention, the citizenry must closely monitor the process — not because the 1987 Constitution is Corazon Aquino’s most outstanding legacy, but because, at this critical stage in the country’s history, it is among the people’s few remaining means of defense against the return of authoritarian rule and the further ruin of this country.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).
Published in Business World
February 2, 2023