The political widow and former housewife led a revolution that restored power to the people in the Philippines and inspired millions across Asia
By SANDRA BURTON
To the dismay of the soldier who was driving Corazon Aquino to her swearing-in ceremony in 1986, the housewife who would be President insisted on stopping at red lights to let civilian traffic pass. Eager to signal a break from the past, she chose to abandon the imperial-style motorcades of Ferdinand and Imelda
Marcos. Although the military high command was quick to quash that egalitarian notion as an unacceptable security risk, she found countless other ways during her six years in office to drive home the message that distinguished her from the dictator she had toppled: she owed her power to the people. Aquino was still at it on the day in 1992 when she rode away from the inauguration of her successor, Fidel Ramos, not in a government-issue Mercedes, but in the simple white Toyota Crown she had purchased to make the point that she was once again an ordinary citizen.
Aquino's achievements as President ranged far beyond the symbolic. They were substantial--even revolutionary. She restored the democratic institutions Marcos had destroyed, presided over the promulgation of a constitution designed to be dictator-proof, freed political prisoners, launched a peace process that eliminated communist and Muslim insurgencies as major threats to national stability, and laid the foundations for economic recovery.
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Yet it is her slight, bespectacled embodiment of People Power--at once fragile and invincible--that defines her hold on history. Her determination to "lead by example" helped restore Filipinos' faith in government--and themselves. Beyond the archipelago, her ability to overcome force without resorting to violence made her a role model for an ever-lengthening line of women leaders--Violeta Chamorro, Benazir Bhutto, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Khaleda Zia, Megawati Sukarnoputri, Aung San Suu Kyi--who, like her, were thrust into public life by the violent fates that befell husbands and fathers.
In the beginning Cory Aquino did not seem like the prototype for a new breed of democrat, much less a trailblazing woman. Sure, she knew about democracy, having come of age in the newly independent Philippines and worked as a volunteer in Thomas Dewey's 1948 presidential campaign during her college days in New York. Later, as the wife of Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino Jr., a charismatic politician whose popularity doomed him to become Marcos' best-known political prisoner, she learned firsthand the thrill of electoral victory and the agony of martial law. Ninoy's 1983 assassination on his return to Manila from exile in the U.S. catapulted her out of his shadow and into the spotlight. But she lacked the self-confidence to take up his fight to restore democracy on her own.
When I met her shortly after Ninoy's funeral, she was under the illusion that as soon as public curiosity about her waned, she could retreat to the privacy of her old life and fight Marcos from the sidelines. Little did she--or anyone--foresee the potential power of her role as a widow. Despite her growing influence within the opposition, she refused to think of herself as a political leader. She rejected appeals to run for office and made light of her ability to help elect others. "It's very simple," she would say in her sweetly self-deprecating way. "I just tell my sad story, and people weep."
Not until late 1985, when Marcos suddenly called a "snap" presidential election in an attempt to capitalize on opposition disarray, did Cory finally acknowledge that she alone could unite the anti-Marcos forces and transform the race into a political morality play. This revelation came to her after 10 hours of meditation at the convent of the Sister-Servants of the Holy Spirit of Perpetual Adoration, not far from Manila. "We had to present somebody who is the complete opposite of Marcos, someone who has been a victim," she concluded. "Looking around, I may not be the worst victim, but I am the best-known."
Once she believed the Lord was on her side, she could pursue even the most impossible mission with serene confidence. Yet to assume that she proceeded on faith alone was to underestimate her, as I discovered on the last leg of her campaign for the presidency. All day I watched her work her magic on the mammoth crowds. I shared her view that she could win the vote. But what, I asked, led her to believe Marcos would let her win the count? During our late-night flight back to Manila, she stunned me by confiding that she had recently received a delegation of reformist military officers who had pledged in secrecy to support her in the likely event that Marcos rigged the vote. "I think the military will come into the picture if they perceive gross irregularities will be committed," she said bluntly.
Within days history confirmed the strength of her faith and the quality of her military intelligence. Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Deputy Chief of Staff Fidel Ramos mutinied against Marcos, claiming massive electoral fraud. When Marcos forces threatened to retaliate, the influential Archbishop of Manila, Jaime Cardinal Sin, broadcast an appeal for "people power" to protect them. By the time Marcos' tanks began rolling down a key highway, which bore the inspired name Epifanio de los Santos (EDSA for short, after a Filipino hero), toward the defectors' camp, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos had gathered to pray the rosary and stop them in their tracks. In four days the so-called "Miracle of EDSA" swept Cory into power with the backing of the victorious rebels and whisked Marcos off to exile in Hawaii.
The hard part began as soon as she took office. To survive seven coup attempts by disgruntled military elements within her makeshift coalition, Aquino was forced to transcend her conciliatory nature and steel herself to make unpopular decisions. Her defining moment came when forces identified with Enrile threatened to topple her if she fulfilled her campaign promise to negotiate with the communist guerrillas. Typically, she dithered and prayed. But then, in a move that marked her coming of age as a leader, she cemented her relationship with General Ramos, fired Enrile, announced a controversial ceasefire with the insurgents and calmly took the heat. Six years later, after both the communists and the coup-plotters had been marginalized, she made one of the least popular--but most responsible--decisions of her career. Defying her core supporters in the liberal community and the Catholic Church, she endorsed Ramos, an architect of martial law and a Protestant, as the candidate best equipped to restore stability and promote economic recovery.
Then, Ninoy's mission accomplished, Cory retired with a clear conscience to play with her grandchildren, write her memoirs and paint landscapes as sunny as her outlook. She also pioneered a new role as ex-head of state, something nearly unprecedented in Asia, where leaders rarely left office voluntarily or alive. Commuting regularly to a family-owned office building in the heart of Metro-Manila's Makati business district, she directs a portfolio of projects aimed at furthering the spread of Asian democracy from the bastions of the middle class where it began to the villages it has barely reached. No longer shy about courting controversy, she has played host to visiting groups of oppositionists-in-exile and delivered a speech smuggled out of Burma in the name of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. She has also extended a public podium to Wan Azizah Ismail, who--shades of the young Cory--is struggling to fill the political shoes of her jailed husband, Malaysia's ex-Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.
"I tell them I don't have any formula for ousting a dictator or building democracy," says the former housewife who managed to do both. "All I can suggest is to forget about yourself and just think of your people. It's always the people who make things happen." Provided, of course, they have a leader who can touch their hearts.
Sandra Burton, who covered the People Power revolution for TIME, is now a contributor to the magazine