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'People Power' Leader Toppled Philippine Dictator

By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 1, 2009

Corazon Aquino, the unassuming widow whose "people power" revolution toppled a dictator, restored Philippine democracy and inspired millions of people around the world, died Saturday after a battle with colon cancer, her family announced. She was 76. Widely known as "Cory," the slight, bespectacled daughter of a wealthy land-owning family served as president of the Philippines from 1986 to 1992, the first woman to hold that position.

She was widowed in 1983 when her husband, political opposition leader Benigno S. Aquino Jr., was assassinated upon his return from exile to lead a pro-democracy movement against authoritarian president Ferdinand E. Marcos. It was a popular revolt against Marcos after a disputed election that later enabled Corazon Aquino to assume power.

In her six tumultuous years in office in the fractious, strife-torn, disaster-prone archipelago, Aquino resisted seven coup attempts or military revolts, battled a persistent communist insurgency and grappled with the effects of typhoons, floods, droughts, a major earthquake and a devastating volcanic eruption. Her tribulations earned her the nickname "Calamity Cory."

As she dealt with those challenges, she took pride in restoring democratic institutions that had been gutted under Marcos's 20-year rule. And she presided over a series of relatively free elections, the dismantling of monopolies and an initial spurt of economic growth.

Her administration failed to make much headway in alleviating poverty, stamping out corruption or delivering basic services. It bequeathed her successor an economic slump marked by protracted, costly power failures that reflected inattention to the country's energy needs.

Despite the turmoil that dogged her presidency, Aquino oversaw the first peaceful transfer of power in the Philippines in 26 years. She returned to private life with relief, although she remained politically active.

She played a role in popular protests that led to the ouster of President Joseph Estrada in January 2001. She initially supported his successor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, but increasingly turned against her in recent years, siding with opponents who accused Arroyo of vote-rigging and corruption.

Aquino's transition from housewife to president to respected elder stateswoman and democracy advocate represented a phenomenal metamorphosis for a self-effacing mother of five who, before being drafted to take on Marcos in 1986, had never before run for public office.

Born Jan. 25, 1933, in Tarlac Province, Maria Corazon Sumulong Cojuangco grew up as the sixth of eight children in a family of wealthy landowners in the province about 70 miles north of the capital. After attending exclusive grade schools, she went to the United States in 1946 to continue her secondary education at Ravenhill Academy in Philadelphia, Notre Dame convent school in New York and the College of Mount St. Vincent in New York.

There, in 1953, she earned a degree in French and mathematics. She returned to Manila to study law and met Benigno S. Aquino Jr., an aspiring politician whom she married in 1954. Survivors include their five children, Sen. Benigno S. Aquino III, Maria Elena A. Cruz, Aurora Corazon A. Abellada, Victoria Eliza A. Dee and Kristina Bernadette A. Yap; two brothers; three sisters; and a number of grandchildren.

For years she stayed in the background as the quiet, reserved, devoutly Catholic wife of the gregarious and ambitious Benigno Aquino, who was a governor and senator and seemed destined to become the Philippines' president until he was arrested in 1972 just hours after Marcos declared martial law.

He remained in prison until 1980, when Marcos allowed him to seek heart treatment in the United States. Corazon Aquino often described the next three years, when her husband was a fellow at Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her family lived together in a Boston suburb, as the happiest in her life.

After Benigno Aquino returned to Manila in August 1983 and was assassinated by military men while being taken into custody at the airport -- a killing that Corazon Aquino maintained was ordered by Marcos -- the 50-year-old widow reluctantly became a public figure as she sought to keep her husband's ideals and memory alive. She gradually emerged as a unifying force for the splintered opposition, even as she repeatedly ruled herself out as a presidential candidate.

But when Marcos called a "snap election" for Feb. 7, 1986, in hopes of capitalizing on his foes' divisions and winning a new mandate, Aquino reluctantly agreed to run against him, acceding to the wishes of supporters who had gathered a million signatures on a petition for her candidacy.

In formally registering to run, she listed her occupation as "housewife." Indeed, her preparation for the post was probably best summarized by her comment to reporters several months earlier: "What do I know about being president?"

Clad in her trademark yellow -- evoking the yellow ribbons that had proliferated around Manila to mark her husband's return from exile -- Aquino proved to be a formidable, and fearless, campaigner. She vowed to "dismantle the dictatorial edifice" built by Marcos in his two decades in power, "eliminate the social cancer of graft and corruption" under his rule and hold him accountable for the murder of her husband.

In one hard-hitting speech shortly before the election, she warned Marcos, "Don't you dare frustrate the will of the Filipino people, because you will have an angry people on your hands."

Days before the vote, she told The Washington Post in an interview that many Filipinos were risking their fortunes and their lives to back her. "It's really a do-or-die situation now," she said. "So many have realized that this is our moment of truth, and they just have to give their all now or that chance may never come again."

Aquino fully expected Marcos to resort to election fraud if the vote did not go his way, but she relied on the axiom that, as one Marcos campaign official put it in a moment of candor, "mathematically, you can only cheat so much." And she vowed to lead massive demonstrations if the election was stolen from her.

Indeed, a rubber-stamp legislature officially proclaimed the reelection of Marcos to a new six-year term on Feb. 16, 1986, after a protracted vote-counting process marked by widespread fraud and violence. Aquino then launched a civil disobedience campaign to protest the result.

Six days later, a military mutiny led by followers of Marcos's defense minister, Juan Ponce Enrile, broke out in Manila. It was quickly joined by Lt. Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, a distant cousin of Marcos then serving as acting armed forces chief of staff. The mutineers declared support for Aquino, and the country's Roman Catholic primate, Cardinal Jaime Sin, called the faithful into the streets to block any attack on them by Marcos's forces. Millions of Filipinos responded, giving birth to "people power."

Three days after the revolt began, Marcos was forced to flee the MalacaƱang presidential palace, where he had lived since taking office in December 1965. He eventually landed in Hawaii, where he died in 1989. Aquino took over as president, declaring that "the long agony is over."

One of her first acts was to have MalacaƱang fumigated. But even then Aquino refused to live or work there, preferring to hold office in a nearby guest house and opting to live in a modest home a block away. Initially, she even insisted that her motorcades stop at red lights -- until her security guards put an end to that egalitarian gesture.

The ouster of a dictatorship through nonviolent popular demonstrations became the model for democracy movements all over the world, and Aquino was named Time magazine's "Woman of the Year" for 1986. She was also the toast of Washington when she visited in September of that year.

When she addressed a joint session of Congress, her path into the chamber was strewn with yellow roses, and lawmakers were smitten by her commitment to democracy as she delivered an emotional appeal for aid.

"You have spent many lives and much treasure to bring freedom to many lands that were reluctant to receive it," Aquino told the standing-room-only audience. "And here you have a people who won it by themselves and need only the help to preserve it." Within hours, the House responded by unexpectedly bypassing normal procedures and voting to approve a $200 million emergency aid package for the Philippines.

When then-Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) told her after the speech, "You hit a home run," Aquino replied without hesitation, "I hope the bases were loaded."

But the honeymoon soon began to sour, and Aquino was beset at home by increasing unrest, including a series of military coup attempts. After one of them, in August 1987, she displayed her combative streak by filing an unprecedented libel suit against a Manila newspaper columnist who wrote that she "hid under her bed" during the abortive revolt. She even took a reporter into her bedroom to show that it would have been impossible to hide under the bed, which sat on a platform.

"I don't want the soldiers of the republic to ever doubt for an instant that their commander-in-chef is a woman of courage that they look upon and respect," she said in explaining the lawsuit.

When her presidential term came to an end on June 30, 1992, it was with unmistakable relief that she turned over the reins to her elected successor, Ramos, her former defense secretary. In a last bit of symbolism to show she was returning to private life as an ordinary citizen, she drove away from Ramos's inauguration in a white Toyota she had purchased, shunning the government Mercedes available to her.

In a speech at the U.S. State Department in October 1996 to accept the J. William Fulbright Prize for International Understanding, Aquino explained her role and motives with characteristic modesty.

"I am not a hero like [Nelson] Mandela," she said, referring to the South African leader who spent 27 years as a political prisoner before becoming president. "The best description for me might, after all, be that of my critics who said: 'She is just a plain housewife.' Indeed, as a housewife, I stood by my husband and never questioned his decision to stand alone in defense of a dead democracy against an arrogant dictatorship enjoying the support of the United States."

She said she ruled out sharing power with the Philippine military because she wanted to "rebuild democracy" and "there was just no room for a junta" in her country.

"Perhaps the military were also envious that in the first year of my term, I ruled by decree," Aquino said in her speech. "This was necessary to abolish the rubber-stamp parliament, sequester stolen wealth, annul the Marcos Constitution, pare down the powers of the president and sweep the judiciary clean. Each law I promulgated diminished my powers until, with the last decree, I stripped myself of the power to legislate. Could I have trusted the military to share so much power with me?"

Her departure from office as "one of the proudest moments of my life," Aquino recalled. "I was stepping down and handing the presidency to my duly elected successor. This was what my husband had died for; he had returned precisely to forestall an illegal political succession. This moment is democracy's glory: the peaceful transfer of power without bloodshed, in strict accordance with law."

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