The Cory Aquino leadership

Posted: March 19, 2010 in Cory Aquino, Philippine politics

Almost immediately after EDSA I, I essayed the position that in relative terms, Cory was a ‘restorationist’ (implying that she was not truly revolutionary) and that Marcos was the ‘real’ revolutionary.  At the time, I thought it was a good corrective to the euphoria of those glorious and heady days.

Two weeks before she died,  I wrote a blog extolling her ‘quiet charisma’ and praised her for not exercising her dictatorial powers during the interregnum between EDSA I and the establishment of Congress under the 1987 Constitution—particularly to repudiate our (then) $26 billion foreign debt (or at least the odious ones) or to decree a land reform program.  For this blog, I was ‘mildly’ rebuked by some friends and fellow activists.

Truth to tell, my views on Cory Aquino had both changed and not changed.  Let me explain.

First, my 1986 contrapuntal remarks.  Marcos upset the system that prevailed from 1946 to 1972 and his faction monopolized power through the declaration of martial rule.  Worst of all, the property rights of political rivals were summarily erased.

The property rights system of the country is a product both of its colonial history and developments over the past few decades.  The Spanish colonial state sought to impose property rights regimes that were alien to those previously instituted by the indigenous peoples of the archipelago, which included stewardship, usufruct, and communal ownership.  In the process, massive asset theft typical of all colonial ventures occurred in the country.  The main object of theft and ownership then was arable land.  The American colonial state introduced the distinction between public and inalienable land and privately-owned and alienable real estate.  In the process, several indigenous peoples in the highlands were disenfranchised of their so-called ancestral domains.  The 1946-1972 post-colonial state continued these Western-originated property regimes even as the asset structure diversified over time.  In general, access to political power guaranteed security of property rights and elites at various levels consolidated their political and economic positions.

Up to the eve of the declaration of martial law in September 1972, the property rights of rival elite factions were generally secure regardless of the political cycle’s outcome.  Ownership rights were not extinguished by an electoral loss.  The elites were organized into two political parties that alternated in power at the national level.  The ability of an elite faction to regain power in the next election deterred the faction in power from erasing the property rights of the ‘outs.’  Elite factions, therefore, were prevented by the possibility of electoral defeat from disrespecting the property rights of their rivals.  The default behaviour was for the ‘ins’ to plunder the state treasury instead of confiscating the property of the ‘outs.’  Notwithstanding a constitutional provision for two presidential terms, no president has been able to win re-election until 1969 when Ferdinand Marcos won an unprecedented second term.  In this sense, 1969 already represented the start of deviation from unwritten rules of the elite game.

The balance of power between the rival elite factions shifted decisively in favour of his faction after Marcos’ unprecedented re-election in 1969.  He monopolized political power through the declaration of martial law in September 1972 and proceeded to violate the property rights of his political opponents.  The demise of the dictatorship in February 1986 saw the post-Marcos elites attempting a restoration of pre-martial arrangements with respect to property rights and access to political power.  The properties of the anti-Marcos elites (such as the Lopez, Lopa, Elizalde, and Jacinto families) were returned to their former owners while a new constitution adopted in 1987 provided the ground rules for political contestation and all but forestalled the possibility of new dictatorships.  After an initial lock-out period, even the Marcoses were allowed back into the country and managed to win electoral posts or stand for elections.  Despite the formation of a presidential commission mandated to recover the so-called ill-gotten wealth of the Marcoses and their cronies, these properties got entangled in a quagmire of unresolved law suits filed within and without the country.

The violation of elite property rights by Marcos during the dictatorship’s heyday is like a genie let out of the bottle.  Despite all efforts to date, the mess created by the initial massive cancellation of property rights has not been sorted out to satisfaction.  The ownership of substantial portions of the equities of major Philippine corporations (including the top-ranked San Miguel Corporation and the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company) remains contested.  The fall of the dictatorship also led to the recognition of new asset claimants—the thousands of human rights victims who were tortured or murdered by Marcos’ security forces and the coconut farmers disenfranchised by the so-called coconut levy.  The claims of the human rights victims against the Marcos estate had been repeatedly recognized by US courts while the Philippine Supreme Court had repeatedly ruled that the coconut levy was a public fund and must be taken from the control of businessman Eduardo Cojuangco, who used the money to wrest control of the country’s premier business firm—the San Miguel Corporation (SMC).  To date, however, none of these judicial decisions have been enforced since rival claimants have managed to secure restraining orders against them.

Given the above discussion, Cory’s task was akin to putting back what was shattered by the dictatorship—and that is procedural democracy and restoration of erased elite property rights.  Property rights of elites associated with the Marcoses were similarly erased to remedy the imbalance of power and wealth created during the dictatorship.  The idea was to restore the pre-1972 balance of power between rival elites that will serve as the basis for elite democratic contestation.  Of course, this was not entirely a transparent or not unsavoury process.  In fact, some graduate students should write their dissertations on how the Lopezes etc. regained their assets and how the PCGG worked (or did not work).

A more thorough dissection of her leadership

I think the task of coming up with a definitive assessment of Cory’s leadership is to recognize that she morphed from being a relative unknown to national leader and historic icon.  I see four phases in the over-all process:

  • end-game against the Marcos dictatorship from August 1983 to EDSA I
  • revolutionary government from Feb 25, 1986 to convening of Congress in July 1987
  • regular government from July 1987 to June 1992
  • post-presidency Cory (July 1992-July 2009)

Though flat and unspectacular, Tita Cory drew a wide following and led the nation in the end-game against the dictatorship.  While I do not subscribe to the view that she ‘gave’ us back our democracy (we actually won it for ourselves with her), she indeed led us at this crucial phase.  She was a reluctant leader assuming the role after her husband’s assassination.  Mocked by Imelda as a ‘mere housewife’ who lacked the bombast and the experience of traditional ‘strong men’ Filipino politicians, she challenged the wily Marcos 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 that she did not 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 such a riposte with sarcasm indicated political sophistication; sophistication that was not apparent to an adversary consumed by hubris.

During the revolutionary government period, Cory’s government freed political prisoners and initiated peace talks with the communist insurgents, among others.  She also kept her options open regarding the continued stay of US military bases in the country.

We must realize that revolutionary governments are most vulnerable to political challenges until they get consolidated, that is, until they get regularized or institutionalized.  It is my opinion that while outmaneuvered by EDSA I, the balance of power has not really shifted away from the pro-Marcos, reactionary, and anti-democratic forces in the country.  Early in the revolutionary government period, the insurgents welcomed Cory’s initial moves but could not as of yet enter into a strategic alliance with her government.  Rightist forces were mobilized precisely by fears of such an alliance and the possibilities of asset redistribution away from the propertied.  The US government under President Reagan had to discern Cory’s position on the bases and the local communists before throwing full support behind her government.

Given this background, it is understandable that the first challenges to her government emanated from the militarist right—the coup-ku-ruh-ku-coups prior to August 1987—who felt they should capture what they failed to capture in February 1986.  At the sub-national level, landlords formed anti-peasant militias while anti-communist vigilante groups were armed against the insurgents.

The country’s politics could be modelled as a three-person strategic interaction game between the left (personified by Jose Maria Sison), the center (personified by Cory) and the right (personified by Juan Ponce-Enrile). A two-person alliance shifts the balance of power against the third one.  So the dynamics of the game is for either the left or right to frustrate the formation of such an alliance against it.  Cory’s center initially tilted left, inviting rightist attacks to force the center’s hand and to alienate the left from the center.  Key events included the Mendiola massacre of left-leaning peasants in January 1987 and the assassination of two leftist leaders—Lean Alejandro and Jun Olalia—by unknown forces.  After January 1987, the peace talks were scuttled and the sword of war was unleashed against the insurgents.

During this period, the greater threat to the survival of Cory’s government came from the right rather than from the leftist insurgency.  For this reason, her government will be more inclined to adopt the rightist agenda further straining its relationships with the left.  Things came to a head when the rightists mounted the most serious coup in August 1987.  The centrist government felt it was strong enough to rid itself of its extreme outlier and fired JPE, Jaime Ongpin and Joker Arroyo and Bobbit Sanchez.

The key agenda was to defend democracy (albeit procedural) from its rightist and leftist adversaries.  For this reason, I understand now (though I did not then) why she did not repudiate our foreign debt or decree a land reform program before the adoption of the 1987 constitution and the establishment of Congress when she practically enjoyed dictatorial powers as head of a revolutionary government.  Her landlord/upper class origins are a factor but not the sole one.  I think she knew that deciding unilaterally on such major issues will divide us and seriously threaten the transition from authoritarianism.

An executive order on land reform would have destabilizing effects.  The coup attempts against her government so far would have enjoyed broader support from threatened big landed interests (those with the wherewithal and the will to organize anti-land reform armed groups).

A bolder foreign debt policy does not have straightforward effects.  It is true that capital was precisely dried up at that time, that is, there was a heavy 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.  However, the uncertainty of the policy’s success may further split Cory’s center (e.g. businessmen who fear inability to open letters of credit) making her government more vulnerable to attacks. A bolder foreign debt policy can also alienate foreign governments and interests.  I am still reflecting on this issue.

Nevertheless, land reform and debt policy was to be decided upon jointly by the executive and the legislative after July 1987.

I did not agree with everything she had done during her presidency.  The influence of the Catholic Church on her was excessive.  I squirmed every time 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 are Catholic.

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

But then she does a class act when she files an ordinary citizen’s suit against one of the journalists who parlayed that rumor.

She got humiliated when the Senate ignored a personal appeal to extend the bases agreement with the US in September 1991.

At her term’s end, Tita Cory reported to the nation that she accomplished a single-minded, 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 a choice between flawed democracy and Marcosian rule, my preference is clear.

The post-president Cory was a stateswoman. Divining the self-serving purposes of incumbents, she opposed repeated attempts to amend the constitution.  She helped oust Erap peacefully.  She called on GMA to resign after the “Hello Garci” scandal.

However, I did not agree when she apologized to Erap.  It is equivalent to a repudiation of EDSA II.  As a political scientist though, I can understand why she did so.  It was to help consolidate the anti-GMA front.

A key albatross on Cory’s legacy (and Noynoy’s current bid for the presidency) is Hacienda Luisita.  There is in fact some credence to the suspicion that Cory parted ways with GMA in mid-2005 not because of the ‘Garci scandal’ but over Luisita.

Nowhere is the problem of land rights and agrarian reform more starkly illustrated than in Hacienda Luisita, the family estate of the powerful Cojuangco family which President Corazon belonged to. The family patriarch took out loans on two separate occasions, each guaranteed by government financial institutions on the condition that the land would be redistributed to the peasants.  The redistribution should have happened in 1967 and 1978 and the farmers turned to the courts for redress.  In 1985, after a long legal battle, the courts ordered that the land be given to the farmers.  During the 1986 snap presidential elections, incumbent President Ferdinand Marcos used the case as an election issue against Aquino.  However, Corazon Aquino was declared President of the Republic in February 1986 when the Marcos dictatorship was dismantled by a bloodless popular uprising.  In spite of the court’s 1985 decision, the Cojuangcos signed in 1988 a stocks-for-land agreement with their farm workers.  There were allegations that many farmers were forced to agree and give up their land rights.  There were also complaints that returns on the stocks were meagre and could not support the farmers and their families.  In July 2005, the Cojuangcos broke politically with President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo when Corazon Aquino asked for her resignation.  Afterwards, the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) started issuing adverse rulings against the Cojuangcos. Things came to a head in November 2005 when thousands of peasants went on strike in protest over the 1988 agreement.  When a massive military-police force moved to disperse them, violence ensued and several farmers were killed.  In 2006, the Cojuangcos asked the Supreme Court to stop the DAR from distributing the estate to the farmers claiming there was no proof that the farmers wanted the stocks-for-land agreement to be rescinded.  The case is still pending before the high tribunal.

In sum, while Tita Cory had been unable to transcend her limitations, she had been able to frequently rise up to meet crucial challenges.  In the process, she managed to endear herself to a people hungry for role models.

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