|Corazon Aquino kept her spirits up after she was diagnosed with cancer.|
Corazon Aquino; led Philippines after ousting Marcos regime
MANILA - Former president Corazon Aquino, who swept away a dictator with a “people power’’ revolt and then sustained democracy by fighting off seven coup attempts in six years, died today, her son said. She was 76.
The uprising she led in 1986 ended the repressive 20-year regime of Ferdinand Marcos and inspired nonviolent protests across the globe, including those that ended communist rule in eastern Europe.
But she struggled in office to meet high public expectations. Her land redistribution program fell short of ending economic domination by the elite, including her own family. Her leadership, especially in social and economic reform, was often indecisive, leaving many of her closest allies disillusioned by the end of her term.
Still, the bespectacled, smiling woman in her trademark yellow dress remained beloved in the Philippines, where she was affectionately referred to as Tita (Auntie) Cory.
“She was headstrong and single-minded in one goal, and that was to remove all vestiges of an entrenched dictatorship,’’ Raul C. Pangalangan, former dean of the Law School at the University of the Philippines, said in July. “We all owe her in a big way.’’
President Aquino was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer last year and confined to a Manila hospital for more than a month. Her son, Senator Benigno “Noynoy’’ Aquino III, said the cancer had spread to other organs and she was too weak to continue chemotherapy.
Supporters have been holding daily prayers for President Aquino in churches in Manila and throughout the country for a month. Masses were scheduled for later today, and yellow ribbons were tied on trees around her neighborhood in Quezon.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who is on an official visit to the United States, said in a statement that “the entire nation is mourning’’ President Aquino’s demise. Arroyo declared a period of national mourning and announced that a state funeral would be held.
President Aquino’s unlikely rise began in 1983 when her husband, opposition leader Benigno “Ninoy’’ Aquino Jr., was assassinated on the tarmac of Manila’s international airport as he returned from exile in the United States to challenge Marcos, his longtime adversary.
The killing enraged many Filipinos and unleashed a broad-based opposition movement that thrust President Aquino into the role of national leader.
“I don’t know anything about the presidency,’’ she declared in 1985, a year before she agreed to run against Marcos, uniting the fractious opposition, the business community, and later the armed forces to drive the dictator out.
Maria Corazon Cojuangco was born into a wealthy, politically powerful family in Paniqui, about 75 miles north of Manila.
She attended private school in Manila and earned a degree in French from the College of Mount St. Vincent in New York. In 1954 she married Ninoy Aquino, the fiercely ambitious scion of another political family. He rose from provincial governor to senator and finally opposition leader.
Marcos, elected president in 1965, declared martial law in 1972 to avoid term limits. He abolished the Congress and jailed President Aquino’s husband and thousands of opponents, journalists, and activists without charges.
President Aquino became her husband’s political stand-in, confidant, message carrier, and spokeswoman.
A military tribunal sentenced her husband to death for alleged links to communist rebels but, under pressure from President Jimmy Carter, Marcos allowed him to leave in May 1980 for heart surgery in the United States.
It was the start of a three-year exile. With her husband at Harvard University holding court with fellow exiles, academics, journalists, and visitors from Manila, President Aquino was the quiet homemaker, raising their five children and serving tea. Away from the hurly-burly of Philippine politics, she described the period as the best of their marriage.
The halcyon days ended when her husband decided to return to regroup the opposition. While she and the children remained in Boston, he flew to Manila, where he was shot as he descended the stairs from the plane.
The government blamed a suspected communist rebel, but subsequent investigations pointed to a soldier who was escorting him from the plane on Aug. 21, 1983.
President Aquino heard of the assassination in a phone call from a Japanese journalist. She recalled gathering the children and, as a deeply religious woman, praying for strength.
“During Ninoy’s incarceration and before my presidency, I used to ask why it had always to be us to make the sacrifice,’’ she said in a 2007 interview with the Philippine Star newspaper.
“And then, when Ninoy died, I would say, ‘Why does it have to be me now?’ It seemed like we were always the sacrificial lamb.’’
She returned to the Philippines three days later. One week after that, she led the largest funeral procession Manila had seen.
Crowd estimates ranged as high as 2 million.
With public opposition mounting against Marcos, he stunned the nation in November 1985 by calling a snap election in a bid to shore up his mandate. The opposition, including Manila’s archbishop, Cardinal Jaime L. Sin, urged President Aquino to run.
After a fierce campaign, the vote was held on Feb. 7, 1986. The National Assembly declared Marcos the winner, but journalists, foreign observers, and church leaders alleged massive fraud.
With the result in dispute, a group of military officers mutinied against Marcos on Feb. 22 and holed up with a small force in a military camp in Manila.
Over the next three days, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos responded to a call by the Roman Catholic Church to jam the broad highway in front of the camp to prevent an attack by Marcos forces.
On the third day, against the advice of her security detail, President Aquino appeared at the rally alongside the mutineers.
From a makeshift platform, she declared: “For the first time in the history of the world, a civilian population has been called to defend the military.’’
Military chiefs pledged their loyalty to President Aquino and charged that Marcos had won the election by fraud.
President Ronald Reagan, a longtime supporter of Marcos, called for him to resign. “Attempts to prolong the life of the present regime by violence are futile,’’ the White House said. US officials offered to fly Marcos out of the Philippines.
On Feb. 25, Marcos and his family went to the US-run Clark Air Base outside Manila and flew to Hawaii, where he died three years later.
The same day, President Aquino was sworn in as the country’s first female leader.
Over time, the euphoria fizzled as the public became impatient and President Aquino more defensive as she struggled to navigate treacherous political waters and build alliances.
“People used to compare me to the ideal president, but he doesn’t exist and never existed. He has never lived,’’ she said in the 2007 Philippine Star interview.
The right attacked her for making overtures to communist rebels and the left, for protecting the interests of wealthy landowners.
President Aquino signed an agrarian reform bill that virtually exempted large plantations like her family’s sugar plantation from being distributed to landless farmers.
President Aquino also attempted to negotiate with Muslim separatists in the southern Philippines, but made little progress.
Behind the public image of the frail, vulnerable widow, President Aquino was an iron-willed woman who dismissed criticism as the carping of jealous rivals.
“When I am just with a few close friends, I tell them, ‘OK, you don’t like me? Look at the alternatives,’ and that shuts them up,’’ she told NBC television in a 1987 interview.
Her term was punctuated by repeated coup attempts - most staged by the same clique of officers who had risen against Marcos and felt they had been denied their fair share of power. The most serious attempt came in December 1989 when only a flyover by US jets prevented mutinous troops from toppling her.
After stepping down in 1992, President Aquino remained active in social and political causes.
Until diagnosed with colon cancer in March 2008, she joined rallies calling for the resignation of President Arroyo over allegations of vote-rigging and corruption.
She kept her distance from another famous widow, flamboyant former first lady Imelda Marcos, who was allowed to return to the Philippines in 1991.