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Cory Lives!

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 the poor and put themselves at the service of the rich.

If the military had been an instrument, like an organ, that Cory could have sat down and played, and, when she pulled out the tuba stop, the tuba sounded, and likewise the flute, the cor anglais, and so forth—that would have been a happy state of affairs for Cory. But the military was a different kind of instrument. The cor anglais stop came off in her hand. When she pulled out the flute, a jet of oil squirted into her eye, and at one touch of the tuba stop the organ seat bucked like a colt.

Cory’s coming to power in 1986 had been assisted by something called RAM, which was understood to be an officer’s organization dedicated to the Reform of the Armed Forces. But it was not long before the RAM officers decided that they had been cheated of the spoils of revolution and began their journey into the underground which culminated in the seventh attempted coup by rebel troops during the Cory era, the one of December 1989, which is widely credited with providing the final set-back to the economic revival the country had seen hitherto. More than 600 people were wounded in the December fighting and 119 were killed. After 1989, RAM came to stand for Rebolusyonaryong Alyansang Makabayan, the Nationalist Revolutionary Alliance. Reform of the armed forces had only been a pretext.

Nor was RAM the only problem. The Philippine Military Academy was openly seditious. After the serious coups, it proved hard to persuade the “loyal” members of the armed forces to hold on to the important rebels they had detained. Rebellion was a game which went largely unpunished when played by the military, who were nevertheless quick to object when any member of Cory’s entourage proved too radical for their taste.

Now when people say that Cory should have introduced land reform by fiat, at the beginning of her regime, they mean that she should have done it when her government was still essentially revolutionary and her power rested on the military. Marcos had already been proclaimed president by the old assembly when the uprising against him took place in February 1986, and although people generally believed that Cory had won the election of that year, nobody ever finished tallying the vote. Cory abolished the old assembly and the Marcos constitution; she organized the commission to draft a completely new constitution on US lines and in the meantime governed by means of her local and national appointees. She did much by decree, but she left the land reform bill aside until there would be a constitution ratified by popular vote and a newly elected congress to debate and enact the proper legislation.

Whether this course of action was right or not, it was inevitable that there would be a congress, and that if congress was in the control of landed interests, they would have their opportunity to affect both the legislation and how it was carried out. For instance, however the land reform scheme was introduced, it is likely that the program would have involved compensation to landowners. This is what happened, and it was the compensation that proved hard to finance. You can of course have land reform without compensation (Qaddhafi, the other day, got tired of tribal land disputes and set a match to all title deeds) but this tends to go with a different character of political regime. If the Cory you wanted was what the British would term of the Cuddly Left then someone was eventually going to have to legitimize whatever action she took by presidential decree during the period in which she was “acting like a dictator.”

Another comment might be made about the widespread use of land reform as a shibboleth: one is entitled to ask whether the breaking up of all agricultural holdings over a certain size—five hectares or seven hectares—is such a good thing. A man who owned five hectares of rice land (12.35 acres) with good irrigation (tenants in the Cagayan Valley over the last year have been handing land back to the landlords because of drought) would be very well off by peasant standards. Five hectares of coconuts is a different matter. You might be able to subsist on the coconut harvest, you might not. If the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program had been implemented in full, nobody would have had more than seven hectares of agricultural land.

This isn’t, by the way, what the Communists of the New People’s Army meant by the land reform they introduced in certain regions. They didn’t address themselves to the question of land ownership; they merely insisted that the rent of the land (or the proportion of harvest paid to the landlord) should be tilted radically in the tenants’ favor. And that sort of reform cost the public nothing. I’m not saying that it’s the answer, merely an illustration that there are other approaches to the problem of rural poverty than the redistribution of land. Cheap bank loans, for instance, rather than the extortionate rates demanded by the small-town usurers, which sometimes amount to more than 80 percent a year. Cheap medical care, especially, since it is hospital bills and prescription charges that so often force peasant families to mortgage or dispose of their land. It’s the moment when you have to take a relative to a hospital in Manila that your nightmares really begin, and a reasonably prosperous family with one such member can fall into financial ruin.

I saw a lot of such peasant families during the Cory years, while putting together an agricultural project with Filipino friends in Quezon Province, only a hundred miles or so from Manila, but in a region made remote by a twenty-five-mile stretch of appalling mountain road. We began as victims of prawn fever, taking over a semideveloped fishpond to grow prawns, not long before the market for them slumped. Converting to milkfish, we also cast our eyes at the idle lands that lay around us, coconut groves of poor quality, supposedly infested by the New People’s Army but in fact, as I discovered, largely uninhabited. Part belonged to a judge who was rumored to have gone mad. Part had been acquired in payment of bad debts by the local doctor, now retired. It took a deal of detective work to discover what belonged to whom, and how reliably. Indeed, I am sure that, had it not been for the land reform then being enacted, none of the owners would have sold. At the same time, as we went back through deeds and documents, a colorful picture of rural skulduggery, landgrabbing, and boundary-shifting emerged which would have been more entertaining had it not, once or twice, caught us by surprise, involving us in endless chugging in motorboats through mangrove swamps to meetings with leaders of shadowy organizations and tedious barrio captains with an eye on the main chance.

Eventually we put together what I like to call an integrated farm, with around twenty-five hectares each of coconut land and fishpond. Everything was as legal as it could be, by which I mean that legality, in that part of the world, is a condition to be aspired to rather than taken for granted. In Manila, I used to hire a fixer merely to get my car registered. In Quezon, it took a day’s journey to the provincial capital, and perhaps another day for fixing something as routine as the registration of a boat. Fishpond papers are another matter altogether—they seem to wander from department to department. And it is typical of the fishpond owners that acquiring a complete set of legal papers will prove beyond their means. Many of them are pioneers who have constructed their ponds over the years, until capital has run out, in the hope of either finding a capitalist to support them, or selling the pond as a going concern. These hopes fade, and what you find instead is a lot of wrecked mangrove, and nothing to show for it.

We were hoping to make something worthwhile out of this situation. Fish farming is a labor-intensive industry only at certain moments of the cycle—during the construction of the ponds, and their preparation between harvests, and at the harvest itself. In between times, the large local work force spends its time paddling through the swamps in search of casual work. The point of combining agriculture with aquaculture was to provide permanent work—when there was no work on the fishpond, there might be land to prepare for growing vegetables, construction work on the poultry farm, and so forth. Given a large enough number of fishponds in the project, there might anyway be enough work at any one time to occupy our group of “casuals.”

You can see, perhaps, the romance of such an idea. In practice, the legal difficulties were as follows. As a foreigner, I was not allowed to own land. So we started a corporation. I wasn’t allowed to own more than 40 percent of that (under a law which has recently been abolished) so we divided the shares among the people who were at the center of the project, and kept our fingers crossed that this would not cause problems in the future. Meanwhile, owners had to be found for the different parcels of land and pond, as they were acquired. The legal character of the whole structure is reasonably sound, I hope, but the presumption among the locals is, of course, that this is just another dummy corporation.

Now, as a way of running a business, this has nothing to recommend it; it is entirely dependent on the good will of the participants. The alternative was to found a cooperative, but this is easier to achieve when the people involved in a project have something that they can put into it. If land reform goes ahead as planned in the Philippines, then the cooperative system will be the only way of achieving any economy of scale in agriculture. There is already one highly successful example in Tarlac Province, run by the former NPA leader Dante Buscayno. But Buscayno is an exceptional person and whether his success can be generally imitated I do not know. What one hopes is that the country does not get stuck halfway between a failed land reform and the possibility of any other approach.

Buscayno is an interesting man and an intelligent critic both of the left and of Cory. In the early days of “Democratic Space,” the era ushered in by the February 1986 revolution, he was involved in the Partido ng Bayan, the People’s Party founded by former Communists in order to contest the congressional elections of May 1987. In those early days, when politics seemed to be dominated by the question what would happen to the insurgency and the left, there was a widespread desire to establish a place for left-wing thought within legitimate politics. Cory had fulfilled her election pledge of calling a cease-fire, and the combined Communist Party of the Philippines and the National People’s Army had sent their representatives to the conference table.

There was perhaps an element of plain theater about this: Cory had established her good intentions of finding a peaceful solution to the conflict; the NPA, whose leaders privately thought she was no more than a transient phenomenon, were obliged to establish theirs. Meanwhile the military looked on in horror as the insurgents they had been hunting attended demonstrations in Manila and appeared on television chat-shows, assiduously showing a human face. The NPA and Communist Party leaders believed that they could use the ceasefire to score a huge propaganda victory. Then they would go back to the hills, Coryism would collapse, and they would face the military again with renewed strength.

The Mendiola Massacre, the bloody peasant demonstration which brought an end to the peace talks in January 1987 after about twenty people were killed, showed the identity of interest between extreme left and right on the matter of the armed struggle. But Democratic Space proved that it had a few more tricks up its sleeve. To the irritation of the left, people persisted in believing that they were freer under Cory than they had been under Marcos. They continued to delight in the glamour of the February Revolution (in which the left had notoriously played no part), since it seemed like a blow struck on behalf of the good name of the Philippines.

That there was freedom only up to a point was shown by what happened to the Partido ng Bayan, one of whose leaders, Leandro Alejandro, was murdered in September 1987, while an attempt was made on the life of Buscayno. The message was clear: as far as the right was concerned, there was to be no place for people like that in national politics. And when it came to the polls the PnB did hopelessly badly. Cheated or not, that way forward seemed to be blocked for them.

Now at this point, if the hard-line Communist position had been correct, support would have drifted back to the CPP/NPA and other advocates of armed struggle. But that’s not what happened among the people I knew in Manila. Bit by bit, their disillusionment with the revolution became something they could freely acknowledge and talk about. Some of the shrillest hard-liners turned out to have been agonized doubters all along, or so they said later. It is hard to retreat from a political commitment of a radical kind, and it was hard for those who had grown up since martial law (declared in 1972) to adapt to the new state of affairs. On the other hand, there was Democratic Space—a free press, an economic recovery which averaged 6 percent per year for the first three years of the Cory regime, and then all the novelty of the new Congress elected in 1987.

The left began to crack up. I knew one man, for instance, a victim of torture under Marcos, who in the days before the February Revolution was quite hard to convince that, for instance, the Khmer Rouge had behaved in the manner depicted in the film of The Killing Fields, and who was incensed by an article by Ross Munro in Commentary, widely disseminated in the Philippines at the time, which suggested that if the NPA were to win, the country might face a similar sort of future. Three years later the allegations in that article would have shocked no one on the left. News had already leaked out about purges of DPAs (socalled “Deep Penetration Agents”) in various places up and down the country, and enough people knew someone who had disappeared in such a way as to give the story some credence.

People found ways of getting out of the movement without seeming to—discovering an urgent need to study abroad, sloping off (this was very common) into assorted Green causes, or becoming pointedly apolitical. The underground had for years benefited from a vast number of sympathetic, but legal, groups in Manila and the other big cities, but gradually the support of these groups began to wane. A key moment which sticks in many memories was the Tiananmen massacre, after which Crispin Beltran, leader of the left-wing union the KMU (May the First Movement) came out in support of Li Peng. It was obvious that most people on the left in the Philippines would have supported the democracy movement in China—it had a touch of the People Power with which they could identify, as had the popular movements in Burma and Korea. (For while the left had played no formal part in Aquino’s success in 1986, and had denied at the time that it amounted to anything like a revolution, they were happy retrospectively to bask in its reflected glory.) The Chinese revolution had always been the inspiration of the NPA. But the KMU’s support of the Deng regime seemed merely absurd and contemptible, particularly to my once-tortured friend who happened to be working in China as a photographer at the time of the crackdown.

I asked him the other day what on earth has happened to the left during the recent elections, and he confirmed that they had not managed much. On May 1 there had been a rally, at which KMU members had held up posters of six of the seven presidential candidates, with their faces crossed out, and this had shocked several people, who had thought that the left would support Jovito Salonga, the Liberal Party leader and Senate president, because he was seen, after his opposition to the US bases, as a genuine nationalist. Nobody had given much thought to the fact that the missing poster had been that of Imelda Marcos until a few days later. My friend had been covering a meeting at which Imelda’s senatorial slate was due to be presented to the public. There was a delay, and one of the functionaries said they were just waiting for Beltran. “Beltran who?” “Crispin Beltran.” The man who had spoken out in favor of the Tiananmen crackdown was playing footsy with Imelda.

He never turned up, though, and a denial was issued, claiming he had never been going to. But this anecdote was the only thing I heard about the left’s involvement during the elections. The contrast with 1986, when even though they were boycotting the elections the leftists held marches and demonstrations and made their presence absolutely clear, could not have been stronger.

As far as the NPA was concerned, they were not going to interrupt the polling. Indeed, they were involved in it on a provincial level because they were collecting money from the candidates. This was done on a sliding scale. Those politicians who had “supported them” (that is paid money and given favors) in the past, and who were considered in some sense “pro-people,” were treated lightly. The politicians they disliked, or newcomers to the game, were made to pay the full whack. The money was demanded in return for free access to the countryside. I met someone whose job it was to act as courier between the politicians and the NPA, and was told the top rate paid by a province (for a governor and four mayors) was ten million pesos (around $400,000).

The NPA still exists, but it seems to have been decapitated. The old leadership is behind bars, Manila is a point of weakness in contrast to its old strength in the city, and the guerrillas are only strong in certain provinces. The electoral pacts that the leaders strike with the politicians may be, as indicated, pleasantly lucrative, but the NPA’s position generally amounts to a kind of opting out of politics in favor of bribe-taking, tong-collecting, as it is known. The national organization of the Communist Party made no political impact on the election, nor did its leaders have any clear plan of what they would do if, for instance, there was a coup. My impression was, though, that General Fidel (“Eddie”) Ramos, Cory Aquino’s defense minister, whom she endorsed as her successor, was the candidate they least wanted to succeed to the presidency.

It seems funny, I know, to be still talking about the NPA and the Communist Party in the Philippines. One wonders how long it will be before they choose to hear the bad news. But it is worth making the comparison with 1986, and remembering that in those days the prospect of a Communist takeover was indeed taken seriously by the Americans. Indeed, if the absence of the left was noticeable during the elections, so too was the absence of any major issue involving the US. I remembered how, in 1985, Marcos had started the ball rolling toward his defeat by announcing on American TV that he was holding a snap election, neglecting to tell his own nation first. This time around, by contrast, there was no American angle worth speaking of. People tried to look for a pattern in the voting, to see whether senators who were against American bases had been penalized by the voters, yet the universal favorite for vice-president, Joseph Estrada, had been against the bases. The issue was still in the air near the bases themselves, of course, around Olongapo and Angeles City, but in Manila only one person I talked to volunteered the fact that he had voted for Ramos on the grounds that he might get the Americans back. But the Americans were not coming back. Nor, it appears, is American aid on any large scale.*

The absence of Americans and any international controversy gave the election a somewhat dull, provincial character—precisely the kind of dullness that many people thought would be a good thing for the country. What, no bases? no imperialist theme? what, no White House reaction to day-by-day development? no Richard Lugar? no Stephen Solarz?

What, no guns? That was a bit of a surprise. Comelec, the commission of elections, had banned them from being carried during the campaign, and appeared to have enforced the ban. And, just as among the former head-hunting tribes of Borneo it is considered okay for a young man to travel down to Brunei, work there for a while, and bring back a ghetto-blaster—that is, a ghetto-blaster counts as a head—so among the modern political minders a cellular phone counts as a gun. I’d never seen so few guns or so many phones—it was quite festive. The crime rate had dropped 20 percent.

What, no nuns? In 1986 the place was teeming with them. This time, unless they were being kept in reserve, like riot police, on side streets, they appeared to have been confined to quarters. But the Church was doing its bit. The Catholics made an announcement after mass on the eve of voting, which went something like this: “Tomorrow there is a general election, and of course it is up to you to vote according to your conscience. Please do not vote for the Iglesia ni Kristo candidate.” This was a reference to Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco, reputed to be the richest man in the Philippines, who had secured the support of the curious, home-bred rightwing Church, which had once supported Marcos and which bused in an extraordinary crowd for Danding’s miting de avance. This was the only one of the mitings which came anywhere near to the size and interest of the 1986 campaign—people had been brought in from all over Luzon—and was an act of conspicuous consumption, with helicopters and cellular phones galore, and natty supporters’ T-shirts in Gucci colors. The very success of the miting was enough to make Danding’s opponents concentrate on the question: Is he stoppable, or are we going to roll back to the Marcos years?

It was chilling enough when Danding returned from exile to the Philippines (he had left with Marcos, having been the king of the crony capitalists) and failed to be successfully prosecuted for anything. Chilling enough to find that he had regained control of his shares in the San Miguel Corporation and the Cocobank. If Danding gained the presidency, you would soon see whether “nothing had come of 1986.” But the trouble was that the broadly Coryist vote had been split among rival ambitions—those of Ramon, Ramon Mitra, the speaker of the house who had his own large political machine, Jovito Salonga, Miriam Defensor Santiago, the former immigration chief who ran mainly against corruption—she made a hit with young voters, but eyebrows were raised at the number of generals on her slate, and her endorsement of General Alfredo Lim as mayor of Manila—and Vice-President Salvador laurel. Only one woman was big enough, fearless enough, inexorable enough to stand against Danding, and that woman was…

…Imelda Marcos, who seems to have had a falling-out with Danding, perhaps over the division of certain spoils. It was Imelda who, by claiming to represent the spirit of her late great husband, could split the loyalist vote. And stand she did, in all her glory, with her leg-of-mutton sleeves, her towering hairdo, and the bosom that she seemed to pour into the crowd as she reached forward to shake hands with the poor, the ones who had always loved her, always understood her, and whom she had always loved and understood, the ones whom she would shortly treat to a very long account of her trials and tribulations in the United States, to her indignation at the mean-mindedness and vindictiveness of the Cory regime, and her plans for the future of her country. As she bobbed past me, apparently borne up by the crowd, people came up and asked me what I thought. “Very impressive,” I said. “Isn’t she beautiful?” they gushed. “Now you can see how the people love her, and it’s not true what they say.” And we watched in awe as she reached the platform, but the magnetism of the crowd seemed to pull her back down, and her assistants had to hold on as she reached toward the proffered hands.

So Imelda wooed her supporters, and got just enough votes to help stop Danding, while in the meantime the Church and the presidency were split over whom to support. Cardinal Sin discovered (having spent the last few years with him in government) that Eddie Ramos had a past, that he had administered martial law. Besides, Ramos is a Protestant, and there was no guarantee that he had repented, or that he would be pro-life. So Sin supported Ramon Mitra, but Mitra got caught using the congressional facilities to print his publicity material—a peccadillo, I would have thought, but it apparently told against him. A more telling objection to Mitra was that he was an old associate of Danding; this may be why Cory never trusted him, and why she went all out to support Ramos’s campaign.

But the more obvious explanation for Cory’s support for Ramos was her deep indebtedness to him for supporting her during the past six years, through seven coups. Those who dislike Ramos may do so for a variety of reasons: my friend dislikes Ramos because he was tortured under Ramos’s, as it were, dispensation; Cardinal Sin dislikes Ramos (although he will now pretend to like him) because he’s a Protestant and not predictable on the pro-life issue; the Marcoses dislike Ramos because he betrayed them and went over to Cory (at a time, be it said, when they were probably about to get rid of him); the RAM-boys dislike Ramos very much, because he betrayed them by not betraying Cory. Of the people who voted for Ramos, one might reasonably say that a proportion belong to the sentimental fascist school—he’s a strong man, a military man, and so forth. But given the fact that the sentimental fascist vote was highly motivated to turn elsewhere, there must be another reason why he did so well.

As the election returns came in, it soon became clear that, so far from wishing to do away with the Cory era, the voters were quite prepared to prolong it. That’s what the Ramos vote really means and you can see it also from the proportion of reelected senators. Cory’s first Senate included twenty-two of the twenty-four candidates on her slate, and of these a high proportion had gone to the Senate after serving in the first government in its “revolutionary” stage. It is true that some of the Marcos crowd have returned to public positions, but in the main it was the Cory crowd that won.

People Power is both dead, in the sense that there were no nuns stopping tanks on the streets this time around, and alive, in the sense that there were no tanks to squash the nuns. It is Eddie Ramos who is generally credited with coining the term People Power in 1986, and he who will take over as Cory’s chosen successor on June 30. The achievement may not glitter in the way it did six years ago, but the handing over of office to an elected successor was indeed a part of her original undertaking. A moment, I would say, worth a respectful salute.

June 16, 1992


From the Coffee Shop September 24, 1992

  1. *

    See “Administration Slashing Assistance for the Philippines,” The Washington Post, June 14, 1992.

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