Friday, July 31, 2009

Corazon Aquino Dies

I was sad to learn a few hours ago that former Filipino President Corazon Aquino has died of colon cancer at the age of 76.

A couple of years after Geraldine Ferraro made history in the United States by becoming the first woman on a major party's national ticket, Aquino made the kind of history Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin could only dream of 20 years later. She was the first woman president of the Philippines, "swept into office on a wave of 'people power' in 1986," recalls Seth Mydans in the New York Times.

If you were old enough to remember when Aquino won the presidency, you must have compared the electoral frenzy that propelled the "plain housewife" to the movement that made Barack Obama first the nominee for president and then the president–elect in this country.

And if you were honest, you had to concede that Aquino's triumph was much more dramatic.

After Filipinos went to the polls in early February 1986, the Commission on Elections provided the "official" tally showing corrupt President Ferdinand Marcos the winner over the widow of one of his leading opponents, but the National Movement for Free Elections' "unofficial" tally had Aquino in the lead. Late that month, the People Power Revolution installed Aquino in the presidency and drove Marcos into exile.

Aquino was president until 1992. In his obituary, Mydans correctly observes that, when Aquino said she could offer only her "sincerity" to her countrymen, that "was what they hungered for and what she delivered as president."

That, I think, makes Aquino comparable in another way to Obama. At the end of the day, most Obama voters probably will say they responded to the appeal for change (much like the voters' response to Aquino's pledge of sincerity), but they differ on what shape that change should take.

I know many people who voted for Obama believing he would pursue an agenda that would involve such social policies as permitting same–sex marriage and legalizing marijuana, but he hasn't supported either. His attempts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions fall far short of what scientists say will be necessary. And his health care reform package leaves much of the influence in the hands of the insurance companies.

Similarly, as Mydans points out, Aquino "did not lead the social revolution that some had hoped for."

And she discovered that, in a democracy, power had limits. "Under pressure from her restive military," Mydans remembers, "she was forced to abandon one of the most strongly held ideas she brought to her presidency, an amnesty and reconciliation with a Communist insurgency."

Aquino's presidency was a mixed blessing for the Philippines, but it may have been the only way to achieve real reform there, and she kept the admiration of her people for the rest of her life. The Manila Bulletin writes that Aquino was "the country's Icon of Democracy." And that was part of her legacy.

But Mydans is correct when he observes that Aquino's election "set a difficult precedent in the Philippines, where people nostalgic for their shining moment continue to see mass movements as an acceptable, if unconstitutional, answer to the difficulties of a flawed democratic system." That, also, is part of her legacy.

Does that mean the glass is half empty or half full? Aquino was an optimist. I think she would say that, on balance, her presidency was a success.

Rest in peace.

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