Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, in an ebullient mood after he helped lead a successful military mutiny last week that brought Corazon Aquino to power, described today how he outwitted his political mentor of 21 years, deposed president Ferdinand Marcos, during a tense standoff between their mismatched forces.
Backed by only a few hundred soldiers when the rebellion began on Feb. 22, Enrile and Lt. Gen. Fidel Ramos, the armed forces vice chief of staff, played for time in a crucial initial stage while massive street demonstrations and a steadily growing wave of military defections gradually tipped the balance in their favor.
"I was a very good student of Mr. Marcos," Enrile said in an interview. He said his two decades of service in Marcos' government had taught him how to deal with the 68-year-old president in that dangerous situation.
Enrile, who eventually talked to Marcos on the telephone during the mutiny, denied having met him in a park across from the Malacanang presidential palace shortly before the former leader fled the palace. At that time, Enrile said, he was at Aquino's residence in suburban Manila.
Enrile indicated that he had received U.S. acquiescence in his efforts to protect Philippine Air Force planes that had defected to the mutineers' side. He said the 5th Fighter Wing of the Air Force and several helicopters were moved from Camp Crame, the rebel headquarters, to Clark Air Base, a U.S. facility 50 miles north of Manila, to protect them from destruction by loyalist forces.
Enrile said the planes and helicopters were crucial because they gave the rebels a "balance of forces" against the more numerous and better armed loyalist troops.
"The president knew we had the capacity to hit the palace, and that is why he was also very careful not to use mortars and artillery against us," Enrile said.
By Monday, Feb. 24, two days after the mutiny began, "we had 80 to 85 percent of the meaningful firepower around Manila." In addition, he said, the Philippine Navy was largely under rebel control, and "all their guns were trained toward Malacanang at that point."
"We did not want the Americans to get involved more than they did," he said, "because we did not want to create the impression that this was an American-sponsored effort, which was not the case."
Enrile said he was informed on the morning of Feb. 22 that there were "troop movements toward the city" and that some contingents of marines had been airlifted from the southern Philippines to Manila. Earlier that week, he said, a meeting of generals at the palace had discussed a crackdown on reformist elements in the military who were close to Enrile and on opposition leaders. So when two of his security men informed him at his home that the reformists were about to be arrested and recommended resistance, Enrile said he agreed to "regroup in Camp Aguinaldo and take a stand."
Enrile said he "was not privy" to any reformist plans to overthrow Marcos. However, he said, the reform movement had a contingency plan to fight back, and "this is, in effect, the plan that was implemented."
Once the mutiny was under way, Enrile said, he refused Marcos' repeated requests through intermediaries to talk on the telephone.
"At that point I did not want him to know our actual condition and actual position," he said. "I knew at that point it was very difficult for him to make an analysis of our present position and at the same time project to him our resolution. And we wanted him to realize this was already a commitment beyond any dialogue."
Instead, Enrile agreed to talk to Marcos' close aide, the armed forces chief of staff, Gen. Fabian Ver, and obtained an agreement to postpone any negotiations until Sunday morning. This bought the mutineers valuable time while public and military support for them mounted.
"In a sense that was their initial error," Enrile said.
Then, Sunday evening, Enrile finally agreed to call Marcos on the phone and stalled for more time when the president outlined a solution to the problem involving "the formality of a trial" for the rebels with a promise to pardon them in the end.
"He was dealing with me like a kid," Enrile said. Enrile delayed a reply by insisting that the matter must be taken up with a nonexistent "committee" of rebel leaders. Finally, he sent word through two intermediaries that the "nonnegotiable demand" of the reformists was for Marcos to step down.
According to one of the go-betweens, National Assembly member Alfonso Reyno, when they were ushered into the palace at about 10:30 p.m. Sunday, they found the entire Marcos family, including the president's two sons-in-law, saying the rosary. "The president was in fact leading the litany," Reyno said.
Asked what finally triggered Marcos' decision to leave, Enrile said, "I think he assessed the situation, and he felt that if he did not leave, we were moving into a civil war condition."