Tita Cory’s ‘quiet’ charisma

Posted: July 14, 2009 in Cory Aquino, Philippine politics
Tags: ,

Over the past few weeks, Filipinos from all walks of life have been praying or offering masses for former President Corazon C. Aquino (affectionately known as Tita Cory).  Tita Cory is battling colon cancer and has reportedly checked into a hospital for her inability to eat.

She may still be alive but Tita Cory had long passed into the pages of our country’s history.Though flat and unspectacular, she drew a wide following and led the nation in the end-game against the Marcos dictatorship from August 1983 to February 1986.  She reluctantly assumed that role after the assassination of her husband, former Senator Ninoy Aquino.  Mocked by Imelda as a ‘mere housewife’ who lacked the bombast and the experience of traditional ‘strong-men’ Filipino politicians, she challenged the wily dictator in a one-on-one contest in the 1986 snap presidential elections.

Cory admitted that she indeed was a mere housewife (even if no ordinary housewife) and she didn’t know a lot of things.  For instance, she did not know how to engage in the record corruption that was associated with the Marcoses, their relatives and cronies.

That she was able to respond to Marcos’ riposte with sarcasm indicated political sophistication. Sophistication that was not apparent to an adversary consumed by hubris.

At her term’s end, Tita Cory reported to the nation that she has accomplished a self-imposed task—that of presiding over the troubled transition from authoritarian rule to democracy.  One can validly complain over the quality of our democracy.  However, given the choice between flawed democracy and Marcosian rule, my preference is clear.

The Social Weather Stations (SWS) recently reported a 60% trust rating for Tita Cory, the highest figure so far for former presidents.  I believe Cory continues to enjoy popular support not only because of the clear positions she has taken on current political controversies.  I think her moral ascendancy is quite apparent; that she is atypically transparent.

Of course, I did not agree with all that she had done during her presidency.  The influence of Catholic Church on her was excessive.  I squirmed everytime she appeared on TV to call on the nation to pray especially when Malacanang was beset by various coup attempts.  Obviously, it was not an ecumenical appeal.  At the time, she tends to forget that not all Filipinos were Catholics.

She appeared silly when she showed journalists her proverbial ‘no-space-under’ bed to dispel rumors that she cowered under that same bed during one of the more serious coup attempts against her government.

She got humiliated when the Senate ignored a personal appeal to extend the Military Bases Agreement with the United States.

However, I understand why she did not repudiate our $26 billion foreign debt or decree a land reform program before the adoption of the 1987 Constitution when she practically enjoyed dictatorial powers as head of a revolutionary government.  I will not attribute it only to her upper class origins.  I think she knew that unilateral decisions on such major issues will divide us and seriously threaten the transition from authoritarianism.

In my book, the quiet and boring ex-housewife, will get full credit for recognizing this crucial truth.

Tita Cory

  1. lardy says:

    And we could add that other major infrastructures crumbled in Cory’s term. The flyovers along Edsa and the approach to Nagtahan were perhaps the only visible concrete projects she embarked on and finished just before her term ended. I recall a news report that Vicente Jayme’s term in DPWH was a “clean” one simply because he didn’t pursue road projects for fear of wasting money on corruption. Back to power plants, when Ramos addressed this problem early in his term of office, he was immediately hailed as a working president, perhaps the greatest ever according to his admirers. But when the full impact of negotiated contracts and expensive power costs reared its ugly consequences, did we calibrate our assessment of the Engineer Eddie. Yes, he ushered in the tiger economy blah blah. But who first cleaned the den of wolves and bloodsuckers so the cubs can live and endure and experience a full life in a liberal co-existence? In tennis, one’s greatness is measured by the adversaries you confronted … and the number of times you win those battles under different playing surfaces. FVR, Erap and GMA should be grateful that their own terms of office were and are being defined by achievements in the standard sense. Cory’s struggles alone and winning them placed her in a different realm of history’s arbitration.

  2. Roger says:

    You left out a couple of key problems with her administration. The most glaring was how the government failed to build power plants, leading to major brown outs from 1991-1993 which wreaked havoc to the Philippine economy. Until the end, the Aquino administration blamed Gregorio Honasan for the tepid economic growth post 1990, instead of its own incompetence.

    Second, the president’s tacit agreement to allow Hacienda Luisita to convert itself into a stock company rather than be subjected to land reform showed everyone that how serious the government truly was in implementing this program.

  3. Men says:

    Yes, you’re a timid liberal. Or is it better to describe you a “neo-liberal” when it is already out of fashion? 🙂

    The fact is during that revolutionary period , ex-ante and ex-post, the balance of forces favored the liberal democrats–e.g., the composition of the Cabinet, the make-up of the Constitutional Convention and the framing of a nationalist and democratic Constitution , and the overwhelming approval of the Constitution (which also meant an overwhelming mandate for Cory). In other words, the liberals underestimated their capacity to push for reforms. What made things worse was the in-fighting among liberals!

    And even with respect to the debt, she already had strong leverage-the case of fraudulent debts. A firmer, bolder debt strategy (by the way, no major player, not even FDC, advocated total repudiation) at the time she headed a revolutionary government that was popular at home and abroad would have resulted in more significant concessions.

    Incidentally, why limit your assessment to the short period of the revolutionary government? There was much space after the ratification of the Freedom Constitution to pursue reforms. Besides, the most threatening coup happened during the period of Constitutional rule.

    You tend to argue based on theoretical grounds; e.g., on mobile capital. But what you forget is that capital precisely dried up at that time–there was a heavy net outflow of resources. The debt overhang became a binding constraint, and the only way to protect growth (and therefore neutralize destabilization) was to reduce debt servicing based on the ability to pay. Incidentally, the conventional story is that the December 1989 coup caused the economic bust. I think the real story is more nuanced–the coup accelerated the coming of the bust, but take note that the economy had already begun to slow down at the time that the coup was mounted.

    And you talk about propertied classes in the abstract, lumping together the modern elite and the backward elite, the big and the small landlords, the democrats and the Marcos loyalists.

    So what is the bottom line? Protecting and consolidating democracy was the central task, but that should not have been an excuse to undertake significant reforms that were realistic and achievable, given the balance of forces. In fact, these reforms would have contributed to strengthening Cory’s constituency and more importantly strengthening democracy both in the short run and the long run.

  4. Men says:

    Bong, I do not agree with you on the last two paragraphs, specifically about unilateral decisions. You confuse unilateral action on the debt and Cory’s use of unilateralism to craft a debt policy. Remember that Congress then was in favor of some form of unilateral action–selective debt cancellation and debt servicing based on ability to pay. Hence, by simply upholding the voice of Congress, Cory would not have been accused of unilateral action if she pursued a bolder strategy on debt relief. In fact, the Congress legislation would have given the debt negotiators greater leverage in the negotiations. Recall, too, that there was debate in the Cabinet on this, but the conservative liberals prevailed.
    On agrarian reform, the story is that one of Cory’s immediate concerns upon the installation of the revolutionary government was to put in place an Executive Order on agrarian reform. She intended to fulfill her promise especially to the landless farmers. But she was persuaded by the likes of Joker Arroyo to let Congress pass a law on agrarian reform, instead.
    Missed opportunities. Blame the timid liberals.

    • bongmendoza says:

      Men, we can agree to disagree. Take note that I am talking about her positions re the foreign debt and agrarian reform before the approval of the 1987 Constitution and the organization of the Philippine Congress, that is when she enjoyed dictatorial powers under a so-called Freedom Constitution. So there is no voice of Congress to uphold on the debt question. At the time, we were both in favor of selective debt repudiation and a bolder strategy on debt relief.

      Perhaps, now I am a timid liberal. A bold foreign debt strategy would have scared away the owners of mobile capital. The ability to retain mobile capital within the economy was especially crucial since we were cash-strapped at the time. An executive order on agrarian reform would have more destabilizing effects. The coup attempts against her government would have been supported not only by militarists and short-sighted anti-communists by also by landed interests.

      I agreed with Butch Montes that Cory’s policies (even after the establishment of Congress) were shaped by her stronger opponents. In this case, the stronger enemy was the right wing camp that did not want peace talks with the communist insurgents, unilateral asset reform, and were wary about Cory’s position on the US bases.

      Bottom line, my concern is the survivability of a fragile democracy even if still a procedural one. One cannot have substantive democracy without satisfying Schumpeter’s minimum conditions regarding electoral processes. I think it was prudent not to take away unilaterally from the propertied classes so they will agree to stick to the democratic ‘rules of the game’. Of course, the property-less classes were frustrated and cried betrayal. However, the political processes opened by the 1987 Constitution are an opportunity for political struggle and gains for them.

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