Cory Aquino and the Philippines Magical Democracy

Those of us who had grown up in the shadow of the Marcos dictatorship had not heard or seen Cory Aquino until August 1983, when she returned to Manila to bury her husband Ninoy. I remember catching a glimpse of her as I joined the crowd lining up at the Sto Domingo church to view Ninoy’s body, which was laid out in the bloodstained white suit that he had worn to his homecoming and death.

Only three years later, when Cory was going around the country to campaign for the presidency, did she tell Filipinos what happened the day she returned. In a voice that betrayed no emotion, she told the large crowds that had gathered to see her that she had asked to be left alone with her husband’s body. “Ninoy,” she told him, “itutuloy ko ang laban mo (I will continue your fight).”

Those who did not live through the 1980s will find all this too melodramatic. But the Philippines was a different place then. We were a country ruled by a dying dictator being kept alive by frantic doctors and dialysis machines behind the walls of the highly fortified presidential palace. As Ferdinand Marcos lay on the throes of death, palace factions conspired, the army was restive in the barracks and the air was rife with rumor and intrigue.

Into this twilight came Cory Aquino. She was the grieving widow of Marcos’s martyr. She had been purified by suffering, her agony mirroring the nation's. In 1986, she told the crowds that gathered in rapt attention, “I am just like you, a victim of Marcos.” How could any Filipino not be moved?

The period from 1983 to 1986 were the years of magical politics. We were saved. We got democracy without shedding a drop of blood. And we did it – as so many of us still believe, and certainly, Cory Aquino more than anyone else – with the grace of God and the Virgin Mary and the power of prayer. Jaime Cardinal Sin preached that the Edsa Revolution was a miracle, a gift from God. And if you ask those who stood before the tanks, praying the rosary and begging the soldiers not to shoot, they will tell you it was.

Cory was the patron saint of that miracle. She believed in it more fervently and more fiercely than any us ever did. "I believed," she told me in an interview in 2006, 20 years after people power, "that it was important for us to restore democracy. I believed it was important for us to oust the dictator in a peaceful manner."

I never had the strength of Cory’s faith. And unbeliever that I am, I am skeptical about this magical thinking about our democracy, this thinking that the miracle of people power will save it again and again and again. I have watched too many times how this faith propelled all sorts of people out into the streets and out of the barracks – often with disastrous results.

Ultimately all of us will judge Cory Aquino according to whether she has lived up to our hopes and expectations. Many will credit her for reestablishing democratic institutions and doing away with some of the most egregious legacies of the Marcos dictatorship. They will also say that only Cory, of all the presidents after Marcos, remains untainted by corruption, although they will not vouch for some members of her family.

But others will not be as kind. They will blame her for resurrecting the pre-martial law political system dominated by elite families and patronage-seeking politicians. They will say she had not transcended the interests of her clan and class.

Today as I join Filipinos in remembering grieving for Cory Aquino, I will suspend judgment and disbelief. After all, Cory’s presidency made it possible for me as a journalist to write freely and to expose wrongdoing without fear. For that alone, I am grateful.

In the end, if one only one thing can be said about Cory Aquino, it is that she believed in this country and its people. She knew, much more than we ever did, that the well of greatness lies within us. Cory reminded us we had a taste of greatness once and maybe we can have it again.

Sheila S. Coronel, founding executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and the Creative Communication Arts in 2003. She is now the executive director of the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism of the Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in New York.

Printed with permission of PCIJ.