By Tess Cruz-del Rosario
Author's note: An original version of this article appeared in the Singapore Straits Times on 4 August 2009, entitled "Cory Aquino's One Great Legacy." Tess Cruz-del Rosario is a visiting associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SINGAPORE--In 1981, I went to Harvard Kennedy School of Government as a Mason Fellow. There, I met Senator Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino who was then in exile with his family.
He was a fellow at the Center for International Affairs and had been giving speeches all over the intellectual community in Massachusetts. I made sure I listened to each one of them.
From the first night he spoke at Kennedy School in the fall of 1981 to talk about Philippine-US history, I recognized the power of his speech. His voice was unwavering; he was sharp, fast, and crisp as he recanted the bitter memories of the Philippine-American War at the turn of the 20th century.
Harvard honed his speaking skills as well as his propensities for methodical research. From the glib politician I listened to as a student activist in the early 70s just before Martial Law was declared, Ninoy became in my eyes a seasoned public speaker, the kind that held audiences at the edge of their breath, as he traveled across a range of topics that was the envy of any aspiring politician and public lecturer.
Then he was shot dead on August 21, 1983, minutes after his plane touched down in Manila, supposedly by an assassin on a hit mission by the New People's Army--the armed guerrilla force of the Communist Party. The television news showed both dead bodies on screen lying on the tarmac, deathly cold on the sweltering airport pavement.
In Manila, the entire city was awake and agitated with the news of his assassination. Cory Aquino, his widow, was already being interviewed non-stop in her Newton home. That old familiar rage of my undergrad years as a student activist returned.
Shortly after the 1986 uprising, I returned to the Philippines and interrupted my graduate student career. Cory Aquino became president of the newly-democratized Philippines after a spectacular four-day people power uprising. I decided it was time to shed the cloak of safety at Harvard and venture into the messy task of democratic governance.
For two years, I worked with Cory Aquino's government, contributing my share to what I regarded was an important period in my country when the structures of democracy were being crafted and made to work. Her government, besieged by seven coup attempts, was struggling to recover its footing with each military misadventure and preserve the infantile democracy that it had just won through the popular uprising of 1986.
At the same time, this period comprised the acid test of applying the lessons learned during my activist and graduate student days to the concrete tasks of reform and social change within the context of state power.
It was tough.
Cory Aquino inherited a collapsed economy that was the result of excessive cronyism and outright misrule. She also inherited a centuries-old social structure that was beset by severe inequality, made worse by years of government neglect for the conditions of the poor and the marginalized.
At the Department of Agrarian Reform where I served as assistant secretary, my colleagues and I faced severe policy conflicts--those that in graduate school termed "policy trade-offs." Government however was non-textbook stuff, but constituted a real struggle between an industrialization agenda and a social redistribution program. The tensions were clear:
Convert thousands of agricultural land into industrial zones to give way to domestic and foreign investment or award land tenure rights to farmers to provide them with economic assets.
In the end, the policy choice was made: economic redistribution and social equity took a backseat, and land conversion out of agriculture saw its heyday in Cory Aquino's government. Not very long after, we--a bunch of ex-activists wanting to give government a fair shake--resigned in frustration.
In circles too many to enumerate, Cory Aquino was often criticized for having missed the "reformist moment," succumbing instead to the dictates of family and clan interest to preserve social status, power, and wealth derived from concentrated landholding.
Perhaps this is a fair judgment of her six years as president, but it is a fairer judgment still, that her contribution to the global democratic movement through peaceful and direct citizen action cannot be discounted. If indeed she inspired the succeeding people power movements across the globe, this alone towers above her domestic shortcomings. Hers was a one-term presidency to accomplish a monumental task--to restore a democracy, however imperfect and oftentimes flailing, so that it can resist any and all future attempts to demolish it.
And now, three presidents and 24 years later, her son is President. Both mother and son, the embodiment of a national trait to never give up on hope. He inspires it daily, from the Tagalog speeches to the refusal of privilege. President Noynoy, born into power and privilege, has elevated ordinariness to the status of virtue. Suddenly it is alright to be frisked at airports, to queue up, to bear slow-moving traffic with Buddhist patience. Perhaps these will not solve the national deficit nor usher double digit growth. But if hope is social capital, it is a wonderful time to be Filipino again.
Back to the hallowed halls of academe, I reflect on Cory Aquino, the only president I have ever served. I recognize full well what she has left behind: She gave the Philippines its one singular moment when millions of Filipinos took their courage and ventured out into the streets, armed with nothing more than their faith to confront a bankrupt dictatorship and force its demise. That's surely more than anyone can expect from one lifetime.