As the election campaign drew to a close in the Philippines in early May, the received wisdom in the world’s press seemed to be that Cory Aquino’s reputation was at its nadir, that “People Power was dead” and that the opportunities provided by the 1986 February Revolution had been thrown away. But on May 11, election day itself, that judgment (the joint effort of local pundits, briefing diplomats, and revenant hacks) was given a light flick of the wrist: suddenly Cory had achieved what she had set out to do. She had established, preserved, and handed over a working democracy. The election had been unusually peaceful and unusually clean. Cory, so it was said, was “the real winner in the polls.”
It is characteristic of the Philippines that what appears in the world’s press—despairing think pieces from heavy-weight magazines, tart editorials from the Bangkok or Washington Post, trite agency situationers designed for consumption far away—gets eagerly reprinted in the local papers. And thus the clichés emanating from Manila file past those on the way back, as outgoing holiday-makers glimpse their returning selves at airports, on the far side of a transparent screen. And how irritatingly they swagger, these returning clichés, with that look that says: I have seen the world.
Thus, at the time Cory was freshly established as “the real winner,” the Asian edition of Newsweek arrived on the Manila bookstands, and we were able to read an interview with F. Sionil José, the Filipino novelist, in which he “tried very hard” to think of some valuable contribution by Cory but could come up with nothing. She “had no vision.” She could, in her early days of power, have instituted land reform before refounding congress. She could have “turned the country around” and “addressed the moral decay” the Philippines suffered under Marcos. But she had not done so, and now, given that a presidential candidate might win with only a plurality, perhaps with as little as 20 percent of the vote, Mr. José believed that “under conditions like this it’s better to have a military coup. People are always shocked when I say this. The military is perhaps the best of all Philippine institutions…. I still hold great confidence in the officer corps. It comes from the middle and lower classes. You would expect there is some loyalty to their class origins.”
This was the anti-Cory cliché at its most radical and absurd—Cory’s achievement being normally assessed by her ability to reduce the military involvement in civilian life, getting the generals out of their grace-and-favor positions in banks and businesses, for instance. And one may wonder why, if the Philippine military is such a good institution, it has succeeded neither in its legitimate activity (the elimination of the insurgency) nor in its sideline (the fomenting of revolution). And, if members of the officer corps are indeed true to their middle-to-lowerclass origins, one wonders why they are so notoriously prone to tax …
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From the Coffee Shop September 24, 1992