It is hard to recall the hope sometimes because the Philippines is such a mess.
Birth rates are among the highest in the world, a third of the workforce is either unemployed or underemployed. The country is kept afloat financially by remittances from its chief export, Filipinos who labor as maids in Hong Kong, cooks in Saudi Arabia and doctors and nurses in the United States. Remittances from millions of overseas workers reached a record US$10.35 billion (HK$80.73 billion) last year, equal to a quarter of total export revenues from all other sources.
The country's president is accused of stealing the last election in 2004. Communist insurgents are growing again after years of decline, their numbers rising inexorably in remote areas; clashes with the military are a daily occurrence. Assassinations of journalists and political activists are commonplace and seldom punished. The place seems weary of itself and its best minds and strongest backs look abroad for a future.
"Why stay? It is sad, but I am leaving next month," a young doctor, a graduate of the best university in the country, told me in December on the island of Mindoro. She had already taken board exams to practice in the US and was leaving for good. "There is nothing here for me."
But 20 years ago, on February 25, 1986, the country seemed to have a new future. At about 11pm, two hours after Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos fled the Presidential Palace in Manila, I was standing in the inner sanctum of the couple and believed, along with people worldwide, that a better day had come. The dictator had been chased from his lair, few shots had been fired, a dignified and kind woman, Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, was now in power and it seemed like something of a political miracle.
In the presidential bedrooms of Malacanang Palace, I can still recall the sweet odor rising from the flagons of Chanel No.5 and Joy perfume left behind in the rush to pack the jewels and other valuables stashed on the American helicopters that took the couple away from the country they had ruled for more than 20 years. In her bedroom, there was a ouija board on a side table, mystic insignia on the headboard of the canopied bed and numerous glass display cases emptied of their treasures. In his bedroom was an oxygen tank, a hospital bed and official papers strewn on the floor.
It was quiet, weirdly so. I had expected the place to be thoroughly looted once the soldiers fled and the angry crowd massed at the main gate of the palace gained entry to the grounds. The mob never made it to the bedrooms, however, and those few who did penetrate the chambers seemed as awed by the experience as the handful of reporters wandering the halls.
Outside there was rejoicing. Emerging from the palace sometime later, it was impossible not to be moved by the site of an impromptu shrine erected to the Virgin Mary on the grounds. People were kneeling, praying the rosary, lighting candles, adorning the statue with the yellow ribbons that were the symbol of the widow Aquino's drive to oust from power the man her supporters held responsible for her husband's murder.
Sparked by a succession of complex events – a fraudulent snap election, a failed bid by military rebels to seize power, Roman Catholic leaders calling on people to join a mass protest against Marcos – a peaceful four-day revolt had toppled a dictatorship that once seemed impregnable.
It can be difficult now, with the Philippines mired in political decay and economic stagnation, to remember that "People Power" was an immensely hopeful event with global reverberations. It was felt a year later when a largely peaceful uprising toppled a dictator in South Korea. Its echoes were in Tiananmen Square in June 1989 and in the collapse of the Soviet Empire. The "Orange Revolution" in the Ukraine in 2004 was often compared to the revolt Filipinos named the EDSA Revolution, after a highway running past the military camps where rebel soldiers holed up on February 21, 1986, after their plot to overthrow the regime was uncovered.
After the soldiers broke ranks, that highway filled with hundreds, then tens of thousands then hundreds of thousands of people. The expected counterattack by Marcos never came. Armored vehicles really were stopped by people kneeling before the treads in prayer. I remember diving into a ditch for cover inside one of the camps on Day Two of the revolt as a flight of helicopters flew overhead in what seemed to be attack formation. Then a yellow flag fluttered out of an open door and the choppers landed to announce their refusal to attack. Soldiers wept and hugged each other.
The Marcos government was a staggeringly corrupt regime. I know a businessman who routinely carried a briefcase of cash into the palace just to secure an appointment with one of Marcos's cabinet ministers. His job was to build badly needed power plants financed by the World Bank. Infrastructure projects and entire industries – coconuts, sugar, mining, media – fell under the sway of cronies of the president, especially in the years following his 1972 declaration of Martial Law. Billions of dollars were siphoned abroad. Little has been recovered.
The night Marcos and family escaped the wrath of some one million people who had massed in various parts of the city was the culmination of a political drama that was almost Shakespearean. Cory Aquino's ambitious and charismatic husband, Benigno, known as Ninoy, had been a thorn in Marcos' side going back to their days as senators in the early 1960s. Ninoy had even dated Imelda for a time before he married Cory, the proper convent-bred daughter of one of the country's wealthiest families.
Imprisoned under Martial Law, Ninoy was allowed by Marcos to go to the US for medical treatment in the early 80s. Determined to regain his political stature despite the threat of arrest and further imprisonment, he returned on August 21, 1983.
That was the day I got caught up in the drama. As a rookie freelance reporter, I was at the airport when Ninoy was escorted from a China Airlines plane down to the tarmac and into an assassin's bullet. I was in the family home later that day, along with a mob of reporters. I witnessed his amazing funeral procession, the largest demonstration ever seen in Manila. Soon his widow, a decent woman but a reluctant reformer at best, became the center of aspirations for change. I grew to like her very much.
Meanwhile, the economy went into free-fall, Ninoy's assassination remained unsolved (as it is today, with some soldiers jailed but no mastermind ever brought to justice), communist rebellion was on the rise and even the US was slowly withdrawing its support. So Marcos, frail and ill, called for a snap election on February 7, 1986.
The widow against the dictator. It was a match made in media heaven.
The official election results gave the decision to Marcos, but fraud charges were everywhere and an array of domestic and foreign observers complained of abuses.
It took two weeks for the end game to begin.
The coup plotters, led by Marcos's long-time henchman and Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile, whose motives are unclear to this day, and the No2 man in command of the armed forces, General Fidel Ramos, were getting ready to move.
Cory Aquino was drawing huge crowds at mass rallies. Stephen Bosworth, the enormously influential American ambassador in those days when the former US colony still hosted the massive military bases that were withdrawn in 1992, quietly shifted his country's support to Aquino.
Businessmen were in a panic and Catholic nuns were gathering to protect ballot boxes and hold all-night vigils insisting on a recount.
Just two days before the revolt began on February 22, when it was unclear what might happen and reporters were trolling for clues and conspiracies, the regime's disarray was captured in one indelible moment for me. Jose "Jolly" Benitez, a close protege of the former First Lady, was sitting late at night in the ornate lobby bar of the Manila Hotel, Imelda's favorite haunt.
"What happened? How did you guys lose control?" I remember asking him.
A very powerful man in those days, Benitez was visibly drunk and slurred his words.
"Nuns. How could we know those f***ing nuns were going to sit on the ballot boxes?" he said before launching into a crude string of epithets. He took another gulp of his scotch and added there was no way out for Marcos. "We don't know what to do," he said before lurching off into the night.
But in 20 years the country never dug itself out from the abyss that began under Marcos.
In the mid-1960s, during a time when China was hopeless and Thailand, Korea and Singapore were just beginning their ascent, Manila was one of the finest cities in Asia and the Philippines a place where the region's elites came for medical treatment and foreign students flocked to study at the universities.
For decades now, Filipinos have been asking what went wrong with the country, its politics, themselves. The tragedy is that People Power, for all its patina of bravery and honor, did little to reverse the trend begun under Marcos. On what should be a grand anniversary, it is difficult to find much to rejoice in.
Mired in her own escalating series of crises, President Gloria Macapagal- Arroyo, another daughter of the super- elite whose father was president before Marcos, is herself accused of vote- rigging while her husband is in semi- exile in the US because of his tarnished reputation as an alleged gambling overlord.
It is almost as if the entire country has given a collective shrug to the current political mess because the details become numbing. She was secretly taped apparently discussing the 2004 presidential election's vote count with an election official on the telephone. The tapes were made public under mysterious circumstances.
Arroyo ascended to power in 2001 in an ill-conceived uprising cooked up by business elites, the Catholic Church and military leaders fed up with the corrupt antics of the former actor and hero of the poor, President Joseph Estrada. People Power 2, as they called it, was a sad replay of the first revolt because those behind it were unwilling to wait for a constitutional process to unfold.
Now the country waits, in vain apparently, for People Power 3 to get rid of Arroyo.
"I don't have the energy to overthrow another president," a friend of mine said last year when the Arroyo scandal began, and it seems that weariness, rather than any lingering credibility, is what will keep Arroyo in office.
The heroes of 1986, Cory Aquino and former President Fidel Ramos, who succeeded her in 1992, have both called on Arroyo to step down. She has no intention of doing so and her administration is downplaying the 20th anniversary of People Power, perhaps wary of reminding people of what they could do if they decided to act.
A Congressional probe into her actions stalled because she had more votes than anybody else. It is doubtful anything will come of any investigation into Arroyo's alleged misdeeds or anything else, for that matter.
You see, no one ever gets to the bottom of anything in the Philippines.
I think about this a lot, probably more than a reporter should. It is not my country, of course, but I spent almost a decade there and I return frequently. I think of it as my second home, it was my best story and I was filled with as much hope as anyone 20 years ago when those candles flickering in the night marked the removal of Marcos.
Sadly, though, People Power was not even close to being a revolution. It didn't even mark a significant period of genuine structural reform. Other than restoring civil liberties and giving rise to a vibrant and free press, it is hard to see how the country has changed.
The problems began early. Marcos was never summoned home for trial, perhaps because Aquino never trusted her hold on power; he died in exile in Hawaii and his body is still mouldering in a glass tomb in his hometown as his heirs demand he be buried in the national heroes' cemetery in Manila.
The moneyed elites that have always run the country for their own benefit, some of whom had run afoul of Marcos, returned with a vengeance. Through legislative sleight of hand in 1987, a long-promised land reform exempted the vast sugar holdings of Aquino's own Cojuangco clan in Central Luzon. Others returned to reestablish business empires that had been seized by Marcos. Most of the holdings of Marcos's cronies also were returned by the courts after being sequestered by the government.
It was business as usual.
At the time, ordinary Filipinos waited for Aquino to call on them to do something, to volunteer, to go to the villages to help, to continue what they had begun. But Aquino was no populist rabble rouser, and the call never came.
Back-door deal making returned in the Congress, political alliances realigned. No major Marcos official ever went to jail and his former allies quickly found homes in the political parties of the new rulers. His son became a provincial governor and his daughter is a rising power in Congress. In 1998 Imelda Marcos's conviction on corruption charges was reversed by the Supreme Court after a 12 year legal battle. The elderly former beauty queen, still finely laquered and manicured, is a fixture on the social scene.
Other factors also prevented the country from moving forward.
Emboldened by its role in putting both Aquino and Arroyo in power, the military never returned to the non- political role it had in the past. A succession of coups nearly toppled Aquino but the plotters were largely forgiven and the main culprit, Gregorio Honasan, served three terms in the senate; his patron, Enrile, is still a powerful political figure.
Another mini-coup, 2003's shopping mall putsch aimed by young officers at Arroyo was yet another reminder of the restive military. "I assure the world that this event does not in any way injure our national security and political stability," Arroyo absurdly asserted following that event. Some of those detained in that uprising recently escaped from prison.
The other pillar of the country, the Catholic Church, was also returned to power in 1986. Since then, the government largely has been unable and unwilling to mount any serious population control program. The church won't stand for it and as both Marcos and Estrada learned, any political leader who runs afoul of the church risks his position.
I was idly thinking about all of this the last time I arrived in Manila a few weeks ago. The plane from Hong Kong taxied past a new but never used airport terminal that has been mothballed since 2003. The victim of interminable squabbling, corruption, legal battles and finger pointing, the facility has been awarded to the government by the courts but the company that built the badly needed terminal was also granted compensation of three billion pesos (HK$450.5 million) in lost revenue. The government refuses to pay so instead visitors taxi toward the tattered old terminal at Ninoy Aquino International Airport. It still looks the same, grey and down at heel, just as it did on the day he was martyred. From the window I can see Gate 8 where he was shot. I always look for it reflexively when I arrive, a familiar touchstone of sadness.
Peter Wallace, an Australian business consultant who has been in the country for more than 25 years, wrote recently: "I think it's no exaggeration to say that the terminal, standing there almost finished, needed, unpaid for, unused is seen as a symbol of what's wrong with the Philippines today."
He's right. It is as good a symbol as any.