Corazon Aquino, known to most Filipinos as “Cory,” was born to a landed family, said to be one of the richest Chinese mestizo families in the country. She was educated from grade school to college in exclusive Catholic schools in the Philippines and the United States. After college, she returned to the Philippines to study law, but gave it up on her first year when she married aspiring politician Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr.
Ninoy’s rise in politics was meteoric. He was first elected mayor of Concepcion town, then as governor of the province, and finally as senator of the republic. As President Marcos was ending his second and final term, and becoming very unpopular, it was widely believed that his staunch and vocal critic, the voluble and charismatic Ninoy, would be the country’s next president. But Marcos declared martial law in 1972 and established a dictatorship, aborting the coming elections, and ordering the arrest and imprisonment of activists and members of the political opposition, including Ninoy. In prison, Ninoy launched a protest hunger strike that nearly cost him his life.
Cory stayed in the background throughout most of her husband’s political career. She occupied herself raising her five children, keeping house, and entertaining her husband’s political friends in their Quezon City home. As the wife of a political prisoner, she visited Ninoy in prison and brought him food and clothing, was at his side during hearings, and guided her children through the ordeal.
Through US intervention, Ninoy was released after eight years in prison and allowed to leave for medical treatment in the States. The Aquino family then lived a three-year exile in Boston, Massachussets, years that Cory the housewife is said to have treasured as among the happiest in her married life.
This quiet interlude ended with Ninoy’s decision to return to the Philippines in 1983, his subsequent assassination at the airport, and the years of political turmoil that followed. Cory and her children returned to the Philippines to bury Ninoy and were immediately in the thick of the anti-dictatorship protest actions that grew bigger and bigger and more and more powerful until Marcos, believing himself invincible, called for “snap” presidential elections in 1986.
In the three-year period of protests, Cory emerged not only as a symbol and but also a leader of the opposition. As Ninoy’s widow she became the unifying center for the opposition. Her own qualities, her steadfastness, courage, humility, and even her unwavering spirituality earned her the respect and admiration of many of the most hardened politicians in the opposition.
She was asked to run against Marcos in the snap elections, and although initially reluctant, Cory took up the challenge. Protesters and supporters then turned their energies towards securing victory for her and her vice-presidential candidate Salvador Laurel. As expected, the elections were marked with fraud and violence. Many of Cory’s supporters were harassed and some were killed. A firm Cory supporter, Antique governor Evelio Javier, was assassinated, and several others abducted.
Marcos declared himself winner in the snap elections. The anger that met his announcement was so widespread, it soon reached members of the bureaucracy and the military. Cory called for bolder actions, including a general strike and a boycott of the businesses of Marcos and his cronies and followers. The mass movement culminated in the now historic EDSA civilian-military revolt that forced Marcos and his followers to flee the country. Marcos’ political control was finally broken and his 14-year dictatorship ended.
Cory was installed as president and she immediately put up a transitional government, called a constitutional convention, and moved to restore order and civilian supremacy in government, including reopening the Congress and reorganizing the military. The 1987 constitution, drafted under her administration, is today noted for many of its nationalist, democratic and progressive features.
Cory became a world icon of democracy. She spoke before a joint session of the US Congress, was nominated for the Nobel Peace prize and named Time magazine’s Woman of the Year.
Rebuilding the country’s institutions after years of dictatorship was extremely difficult. Cory had to deal with left-wing and right-wing groups and those in between. Factions of the military continued to be abusive while others sought to weaken her government through coup attempts. The Left criticized the administration’s handling of the agrarian issue, the foreign debt issue, and continued US military presence in the country. Conservatives, on the other hand, criticized her administration for being lenient with the Left.
During her term, Cory was burdened by an energy crisis and several major natural and man-made disasters, including a very destructive earthquake, widespread flooding, a volcanic eruption said to be the world’s second most powerful in the 20th century, and the sinking of an overloaded passenger ship said to be one of the worst sea disasters in world history.
Despite these, Cory completed her six-year term, and, resisting calls to run again, ensured a peaceful transition of the next administration.
After leaving the presidency, Cory became quietly involved in non-government initiatives for good governance and in charitable activities, again away from the limelight. Her influence continued to be sought but she rarely spoke about political matters. Some exceptions were when she called for the resignation of Joseph Estrada as president over accusations of plunder, and more recently, another president, Gloria Arroyo, over findings she manipulated the 2004 presidential elections in her favor.
Cory was discovered with colon cancer in 2008, underwent medical treatment and struggled with the disease, then died the following year. Thousands, including two of Marcos’ own children, came to her wake, as messages of condolences poured from all over the world. The funeral cortege was accompanied by hundreds of thousands of mourners, and it took eight hours before her body could be laid to rest next to her husband Ninoy.