MANILA, JULY 27 -- Philippine President Corazon Aquino, addressing the inaugural session of the new Congress, today sharply criticized the international lending community for refusing to grant more concessional repayment terms for the country's $28 billion foreign debt.
In a 35-minute address to mark the country's passage from authoritarian rule, Aquino also sounded a tough call against threats to the new democracy, including "totalitarian slavery on the left and reversion to fascist terror and corruption on the right." She urged the new Congress to make "a sober assessment" of the adequacy of the military and the need to increase defense spending so the Army can be better equipped to meet the threats.
The Congress opened today amid extraordinary security precautions. Hundreds of left- and right-wing demonstrators staged protest marches and there were rumors of another possible coup attempt by followers of deposed president Ferdinand Marcos. Brig. Gen. Alexander Aguirre, chief of the military capital command, said a total of 3,000 military and police personnel had been deployed. Dogs and electronic sweeping devices were used to search the old parliament building for bombs before the Congress convened.
Aquino's speech was delivered before a joint session at the complex that housed the old Marcos-dominated parliament, which last year proclaimed Marcos the official winner of the 1986 "snap" presidential election. Aquino today called that action "the dictatorship's last mockery of democracy."
Today's first session of the two chambers elected May 11 restored the U.S.-style Congress that Marcos abolished under martial law in 1972.
Aquino reserved some of her harshest words for the country's international lenders, mostly American private banks led by Citibank.
"Our extraordinary achievement in fulfilling the first requirement of renegotiation -- the establishment of free and responsible government -- gained us applause but no substantial accommodation from our foreign creditors," Aquino said.
Aquino was referring to the terms of an agreement between the Philippines and more than 400 creditor banks rescheduling $13.2 billion of the country's $28 billion foreign debt.
"The saga of democracy had made great television, but no appreciable change on their business priorities," she said. "We were treated not much better than other debtors, even those who had rejected the austere discipline mandated by restructuring."
Over the next six years, the country must pay more than $20 billion to official and private creditors, payments that could equal 40 percent of the government's total expenditures and 45 percent of its export earnings, Aquino said. "We have been left little room for domestic error," she said.
The fiscal realities of being strapped with such a massive foreign debt, she suggested, caused her to curb plans for a more ambitious legislative agenda.
Her tough remarks, tinged with a nationalist flair, won wide praise.
"I agree with her entirely," said U.S. Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.) who attended today's session as an invited guest. "I think there should be a dividend paid for democracy even in the cold-hearted world of international finance."
"I think she has a good point to get mad," said Rep. Jose Rono of Samar, a former Marcos loyalist and local government minister in the deposed regime.
Congress officially opened with the election of veteran politicians Jovito Salonga as president of the 24-seat Senate and Ramon Mitra as speaker of the 200-member House. Both served as members of Aquino's cabinet.
"The problems we face today are many, the challenges staggering, and the expectations rather high," Salonga said. "But we are determined to build anew from the ruins of a corrupt, ruthless dictatorship."
Mitra told his House colleagues: "Our experience with strongman rule teaches us there can be no substitute for checks and balances." But he said Congress must exercise its new powers "with wisdom and restraint."