Death has its clichés, including that which marks the passing of a notable individual as "the end of an era." Corazon "Cory" Aquino, leader of the non-violent "people's power" movement that overthrew the Philippine dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, died in Manila on August 1, at 76. But the life of Mrs. Aquino saw the beginning of an epoch--that of democratic transformations in Asia--that has yet to end.
Sadly, however, her name seemed to have vanished from global memory too soon after Marcos's fall in 1986. Many non-Filipinos today would probably remember the extravagant shoe closet of Marcos's wife Imelda before recalling the life of Mrs. Aquino. Still, her example remains relevant to American and international politics, and something of her spirit may be discerned in patterns of protest and regime change that followed her time at the center of history's stage--including in the current Iranian crisis.
Cory Aquino came to rule her country during the second Reagan administration, when the Soviet empire and the global radical left had not yet lost the psychological advantage over the West they gained in the Vietnam war. In Moscow, Mikhail Gorbachev had taken charge, but anti-capitalist rhetoric remained standard. In the Philippines, a Maoist guerrilla group, the New People's Army (NPA), appeared to lead the anti-Marcos forces. NPA propagandists dominated the discourse about Manila in the U.S. and other countries.
Aquino's husband, Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, Jr., was no friend of the NPA, and was practically unknown to most of the world when he was assassinated, on leaving a flight from the United States, at Manila International Airport in 1983. Marcos had Ninoy Aquino arrested in 1972, and sentenced him to death by firing squad in 1977, then kept him in jail, suffering from a heart condition. In 1980, he was allowed to come to America for medical treatment. Marcos, with more than a little success among the gullible, accused Ninoy and his associates of terrorism directed from inside the United States.
A few journalists, myself included, closely watched the Philippines--especially in California, where Filipino immigrants and their descendants were concentrated. We believed Ninoy was doomed from the moment he left his place of exile in Massachusetts, en route to his native land. Later, the airport where he was slain would be renamed for him, but at the moment of his death, the Philippines seemed to begin a slide into chaos, even as the Aquino family leaped to the center of world attention.
Ninoy Aquino had often quoted an inscription by American poet Archibald MacLeish, on a wall at Harvard University, which he visited frequently while exiled in Massachusetts: "How shall freedom be defended? By arms when it is attacked by arms; by truth when it is attacked by lies; by democratic faith when it is attacked by authoritarian dogma. Always and in the final act, by determination and faith." Cory Aquino was drawn into leadership of the democratic forces, and her path to victory was aided by Paul Wolfowitz, then Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, along with I. Lewis Libby, then Director of Special Projects in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and Richard Armitage.
In a memorable op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Wolfowitz acknowledged the threat of communist subversion in the Philippines, but wrote that leftist terrorism could not "be combated effectively without addressing the political and economic problems that the communists exploit. The best antidote to communism is democracy." Within the U.S. administration, Wolfowitz advocated engagement with the Philippine democratic opposition and pressure on Marcos to hold "free and fair" local elections promised for 1986, to be followed by credible presidential balloting in 1987.
Marcos accelerated his political demise by calling for a presidential vote in early 1986. Cory Aquino reluctantly became the main opposition candidate. The election campaign was pathetic, from the Marcos side, with "Ferdy" and Imelda appealing for votes by singing romantically to each other at public rallies. When the results were announced, Marcos claimed victory, much as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has done in Tehran. The Filipino people were not convinced. Military defections from the Marcos camp were followed by peaceful mass demonstrations, with Aquino at their head, to protect the rebel officers and their troops. By then U.S. political opinion had mobilized against Marcos, who issued bloodthirsty threats against his opponents and denounced foreign critics as "imperialists." But Cory Aquino's most powerful ally inside the country was Roman Catholic cardinal Jaime Sin, a major figure in Asia's only Christian-majority nation.
Marcos was sworn in as president, and immediately fled the country. Aquino's "people power" had won. The peaceful transition from authoritarianism led by Aquino stunned the radical left, which had expected to use their arms and foreign support to push the democratic effort aside. The NPA lost most of its appeal almost as soon as Marcos departed--in the 1980s and 1990s the organization underwent murderous, Mao-style purges that further depleted its cadres. It was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department in 2002. It survives, we are told, but its influence is marginal at worst.
Aquino served as Philippine president until 1992, giving her country a new constitution and instituting widespread reforms. "People's power" in Manila, and the self-confidence of Mrs. Aquino, reinforced by her religious commitment and her alliance with Cardinal Sin, got the headlines. But the removal of Marcos also had much to do with a phenomenon little understood outside the Philippines. The country's middle class had grown, as its entrepreneurs had grown up. What was once a dependent nation had produced a business community tired of submitting to the corruption of the Marcos order, an obstacle to normal economic transactions, and they backed Aquino. Similar developments--free elections backed by the local financial elite--would be seen in Taiwan in 1996, South Korea in 1998, and Indonesia, the Philippines's giant neighbor, in 2004.
Cory Aquino was the first woman to serve as chief executive of an Asian country. She was a forerunner of Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the anti-military movement in Burma beginning in 1988, and of Violeta Chamorro, whose election ended the Sandinista dictatorship in Nicaragua in 1990. During Aquino's presidential term, and afterward, she had to face and overcome weak coup attempts by military rivals and usurpations of power by political successors. The lessons of her life are universal and deserve to be remembered far and wide, and not least in the U.S., where the neoconservative commitment to global democracy, which found in her its first luminous hero, has become an object of loudly-expressed contempt among the chattering classes. Cory Aquino and Philippine people's power proved that, in MacLeish's words, determination and faith can win against oppression, and that the yearning for liberty abroad benefits from American help. Let us hope she is recalled, and mourned today, above all in Tehran, as well as in Washington.
Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.