In a year of setbacks for U.S. foreign policy, the peaceful transition of power in the Philippines was a major success story. The ascension of Corazon Aquino to the presidency, with the help of breakaway reformist elements of the Philippine Armed Forces and millions of Filipinos who heeded the call of the country’s Roman Catholic primate to take to the streets in their support, was a rare victory for democracy. In a world where popular revolutions have tended in recent years to catapult religious zealots or Marxists to power, Aquino’s triumph in ousting one of the world’s most durable dictators infused that heretofore moribund slice of the ideological spectrum—the political center—with new dynamism.

II

Credit for the virtually bloodless uprising against President Ferdinand Marcos belongs to the Filipino people, who were jolted out of long indifference to the loss of their freedoms under martial law by their outrage over the assassination on August 21,1983, of the president’s chief rival and most popular potential successor, former Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr. Nearly two million mourners joined Aquino’s funeral procession, and for the next three years the streets of major cities echoed with the chants of anti-Marcos demonstrators.

The Reagan Administration had stood squarely behind Marcos through successful negotiations to renew the bilateral agreement assuring continued operation on Philippine soil of America’s largest overseas military bases. Suddenly it was faced with a major policy dilemma. In September 1983 President Reagan canceled a planned visit to Manila, albeit reluctantly. The State Department scrambled to reinforce the efforts of the non-communist Philippine political opposition to resist a communist-led boycott of the May 1984 National Assembly election and to establish an independent citizens’ organization to police the polls against anticipated fraud on the part of Marcos’ party, the New Society Movement.

The failure of the boycott to diminish nationwide voter turnout significantly, and the success of the moderate oppositionists in winning one third of the seats in the legislative body, indicated to U.S. policy makers that the vast majority of Filipinos still believed that change was possible through democratic means. Accordingly, Washington intensified its efforts to prepare for the post-Marcos period by pressuring the regime to democratize repressive institutions and by broadening contacts with newly victorious opposition leaders, disenchanted military officers and increasingly politicized members of the business and professional communities.

In late 1984 a National Security Decision Directive drafted by the Department of State formalized those efforts. In the first comprehensive redefinition of U.S. policy since martial law was declared in 1972, the U.S. government clearly targeted the enemy as the Communist Party of the Philippines, together with its military and political wings, the New People’s Army and the National Democratic Front. Containment of the insurgency, rather than human rights violations or other shortcomings of the Marcos regime, thus became the consistent justification for the reforms pressed on Marcos by the Reagan Administration. However, a careful distinction was made by the United States between true communist sympathizers and those anti-Marcos nationalists whom Marcos routinely accused of being subversives. The latter were regularly invited to luncheons at the residence of U.S. Ambassador Stephen Bosworth and included on the agendas of visiting officials from Washington, to the considerable annoyance of, for one, Imelda Marcos, the ambitious wife of the president.

While the State Department blueprint identified the ailing and increasingly isolated Marcos as part of the problem, its authors were loath to repeat the mistakes made by the Carter Administration in Iran. Thus, they took care not to suggest his ouster as long as Imelda Marcos and the blindly loyal armed forces chief of staff, General Fabian Ver, were positioned to seize power during the chaos that would inevitably follow his downfall.

The process of setting the stage for the succession was not yet complete by November 1985, when Marcos made the fatal mistake of calling a snap presidential election more than one year ahead of schedule. Partly in response to U.S. prodding, a revitalized political opposition had been set up and mechanisms designed to select a common candidate. Meanwhile, the military reform movement, which official U.S. visitors never failed to praise in Marcos’ presence, had gained a toehold inside the Armed Forces of the Philippines. It was these two groups, supported by the most powerful nongovernmental institution in the republic—the Roman Catholic Church—that would ultimately accept Marcos’ electoral challenge and wrest a fraudulent victory from him.

This was one of those rare occasions when a U.S. policy composed in the midst of an ongoing crisis was able to draw strong support from both sides of the congressional aisle and from the Pentagon. Its implementation was entrusted to diplomats and bureaucrats who were thoroughly familiar with the country, its problems and the key players. Together they issued criteria for what would constitute free and fair elections and dispatched a team of official American observers to monitor the polling of votes. At first President Reagan was unprepared to acknowledge the glaring anomalies of intimidation and fraud perpetrated by the Marcos forces on election day, February 7, 1986, and in the subsequent counting of the ballots. He was quickly set straight by on-the-spot reports from diplomats and intelligence sources in the Philippines, as well as congressional and State Department emissaries fresh from the scene. "Once the administration moved to support Cory Aquino, it received the strongest bipartisan support in a foreign policy crisis in the past decade," said Richard Holbrooke, former assistant secretary of state for Asian and Pacific affairs, after Marcos had been airlifted from his besieged palace and transported to Hawaii by the U.S. military.

III

Corazon Aquino came to power not only because she was the widow of Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, but also because she was not a professional politician. From the moment her husband was slain, she became a symbol of protest against the crimes of the Marcos regime. Because she was perceived as but a simple housewife, she became a figure around whom the ambitious and ideologically incompatible leaders of the fragmented anti-Marcos movement could rally. Fortunately, as she proved once she became the common presidential candidate of the opposition, she was up to the job. A fearless campaigner, inspiring speaker and determined consensus-builder, she was blessed with nerves of steel, an innate sense of confidence in the people from whom she drew her strength, sharp political instincts and a superb sense of timing.

Her campaign against Marcos was viewed both inside and outside the Philippines as a modern Third World morality play, pitting the forces of justice and freedom against those of graft and repression. The only charge lobbed by Marcos which seemed to find its mark was that she was soft on communism. Doubts about whether she was tough enough to deal with the guerrillas grew to the point where the powerful Roman Catholic Church was drawn into the electoral fray to remind the faithful that her piety, like that of the Filipino people, rendered her impervious to the blandishments of a godless ideology.

When she was robbed of probable victory in the counting of the ballots, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines convened to assess the election. One week after the election the churchmen rendered their judgment that a "government that assumes or retains power through fraud has no moral basis to govern." When computer operators engaged by the government Commission on Elections to tabulate returns walked out, protesting that votes for Aquino were not being tallied, they were extended protection by the Archbishop of Manila, Jaime Cardinal Sin, and by reformist military officers. Then, on February 22, Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Acting Armed Forces Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Fidel Ramos staged a revolt against Marcos. This rescued the election for Aquino, and many hailed it as a victory for both might and right.

Auspicious as the advent of the Aquino government was, however, the fact remained that the so-called four-day revolution neither kicked out all the rascals nor vested the new leaders with the wisdom to rebuild quickly an economy saddled with a $26-billion foreign deficit or bring an end to the 17-year-old communist insurgency that affected the lives of Filipinos in 20 percent of towns and villages throughout the archipelago. Given the magnitude of the problems and the lack of experience of the woman who was expected to solve them, American policymakers wisely tried to cap their expectations. They knew that the hard part lay ahead, though there was once again at least some room for hope. "With Marcos we had only an end," said a U.S. embassy official in Manila. "With these people we have a beginning."

Aquino arrived in office with what was not so much a platform as a set of beliefs. One was her religious conviction but the other, just as strong, was a belief that people who are free to choose what is best for them will choose peace and freedom and democracy over communism. At the same time, she knew that those who live in poverty, as some 60 percent of her countrymen do, or under threat from guerrillas, as is the case in almost all of the nation’s 73 provinces, are not free to choose. Therefore, economic assistance and pacification of the countryside were just as essential to the viability of her recovery programs as the restoration of human rights, the one area in which her administration has already succeeded.

She entered public life not as the leader of a strong party with a mandate to implement specific programs, but as the unifying force within an unlikely coalition of center-to-left parties and cause-oriented groups, which was joined at the eleventh hour by defectors from Marcos’ military, led by Enrile and Ramos. Deprived of a transition period by the suddenness of Marcos’ departure, the new government, not surprisingly, lacked a clear and coherent plan of attack on the problems with which it was confronted.

Had the largely psychological war between rebel officers and Marcos loyalists lasted longer than four days, Ramos and Enrile might well have wielded considerably greater influence over the transitional government which they urged Aquino to establish. But the tables were turned on them when Marcos was airlifted out of his besieged palace the very night that Aquino was inaugurated. The civilian leadership moved quickly and shrewdly to begin fulfilling its campaign promises to release political prisoners and restore the writ of habeas corpus—hardly top priorities of the new Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Before objections could be raised, President Aquino had taken charge and named a cabinet. Although it was primarily moderate in composition, important portfolios were given to several left-leaning human rights lawyers who had supported and defended Ninoy Aquino when he was Marcos’ most prominent political prisoner, and Ramos and Enrile were the prime enforcers of martial law. The military and civilian elements of the de facto coalition government were bound to clash eventually, given their adversarial roles in the past and their dual claims of credit for the overthrow of Marcos.

IV

The hotline linking Enrile and the office of the president went cold by summer. The military found itself reacting to memos sent not by Aquino but by her executive secretary, Joker Arroyo, a human rights lawyer who had represented numerous victims of military abuse in the past. The top brass resented what was regarded as his anti-military bias and objected to being shut out of discussions about preliminary peace negotiations with the communist insurgents.

The smoldering bitterness between the military and leftist ministers flared into the open following the aborted Manila Hotel coup on July 6, 1986, when Marcos’ vice-presidential running mate Arturo Tolentino attempted to establish an alternative government. President Aquino’s closest advisers accused Enrile of having advance knowledge of dissident troop movements. Shortly thereafter Enrile began to criticize publicly the competence of the civilians named to explore peace talks with the communists and even to question the legitimacy of the Aquino government, which had abolished the 1973 constitution fashioned by Marcos and appointed a committee to draft a new one.

For the next four months the jockeying for influence between the military and civilian components of the Aquino government dominated the news in the newly unfettered press. The power struggle that was played out on the nation’s front pages drained energy and diverted attention that might better have been focused on the monumental tasks of reducing the gap between rich and poor—the widest in Southeast Asia—and moving decisively to stem the only expanding communist guerrilla movement in the region. Highly publicized rumors of an imminent coup by frustrated officers identified with Minister Enrile also frightened investors away from channeling badly needed foreign exchange into the ravaged economy.

The talk of a coup built toward a climax in early November, on the eve of the president’s state visit to Japan. Before she left, Aquino declared, "I shall oppose any attempt from any quarter to interfere with or dictate to my government." She threatened to call her supporters into the streets in a second display of "people power" if necessary. In an effort to defuse the crisis, General Ramos urged disgruntled officers to present their grievances to the president in writing and give her an appropriate period of time to respond. They agreed, and immediately upon her return from Tokyo Ramos forwarded a respectful but pointed bill of particulars calling for replacement of certain of her ministers, restoration of a central role to the military in drafting the strategy to be used against the communists, and the setting of deadlines for cease-fire talks with the rebels.

With coup rumors still making headlines, Aquino met privately with each of the service commanders to try to gauge the depth of their discontent and to discuss what should be done. Then she summoned General Ramos for a long meeting, which she termed "the frankest" they had ever had. The two apparently agreed on measures to pacify the military and bring an end to the infighting so that the government could speak with one voice as it prepared to begin peace talks with the rebels.

The following day, November 22, Ramos acted on the pretext that Enrile was planning to lead a group of former pro-Marcos assemblymen to occupy the National Assembly and declare the Aquino government illegitimate. He set up roadblocks around the National Assembly building in a remote area of the capital and ordered troops to ignore commands issued by Enrile. On Sunday morning, November 23, Aquino asked for the resignations of her entire cabinet and pointedly accepted Enrile’s. She subsequently balanced the ouster of her outspoken defense minister with the firings of four ministers targeted by the military for corruption and leftist sympathies.

Aquino’s well-timed action was widely applauded. Her coalition government was now less broadly based, but it was more stable without some of its most controversial members. Enrile was now free to move into open opposition, and Aquino was free to continue with two major initiatives: a truce with the communist insurgents and a campaign to gain approval of the new constitution in a national referendum. After Enrile’s ouster, the new defense minister, Rafael Ileto, told a group of Manila businessmen: "We will endeavor to observe only one policy line in matters of national security." He added that the military "fully supports the peace initiatives of President Aquino" and promised to "always uphold civilian supremacy."

Nonetheless, the military’s direct intervention in civilian affairs for the second time since February 1986 signaled a new balance between the military and the civilian government. By working quietly behind the scenes, the inscrutable Ramos had achieved what the flamboyant Enrile had vainly sought: veto power, albeit limited, over the president. One reformist officer identified with Enrile called the turn of events "a new precedent for military intervention in civilian affairs." Ramos, a military professional and a political pragmatist, was known to share some of the plotters’ complaints, but he also appreciated the value of a popular leader like Aquino and therefore was determined to effect a compromise. Said Edgardo Angara, president of the University of the Philippines and a middleman in earlier efforts to effect a reconciliation between Aquino and Enrile: "The military will have a more influential voice in government."

V

On November 27, four days after replacing Enrile, Aquino seized the initiative by concluding a 60-day cease-fire with representatives of the rebels. Formal talks to reach a truce had begun in August between Philippine government negotiators Ramon Mitra, Jose Diokno and Teofisto Guingona, and National Democratic Front leaders Satur Ocampo and Antonio Zumel. The cease-fire began on December 10, to run two months, through the referendum on the constitution. On December 23, the government and the communists’ representatives began substantive peace talks. At year-end the truce, though shaky, was holding.

A 47-member constitutional commission set up by Aquino in June had approved its final version of the new constitution, which will be submitted to a national plebiscite on February 2. The first landmark along the road to long-hoped-for stability, the plebiscite has been turned into a vote of confidence in President Aquino, who would serve a full six-year term if the charter is ratified. The new constitution establishes a U.S.-style system of government while greatly reducing the presidential powers that Marcos had decreed for himself. A second landmark will follow in May 1987, when elections for a bicameral legislature will be held. A third will be reached in August, when thousands of provincial governors and local mayors will be elected to fill positions currently held by highly controversial Aquino loyalists, who were appointed as "officers-in-charge" to replace the pro-Marcos officials who were in office when the government changed.

On both the issue of the new constitution and the issue of negotiating with the insurgents, Enrile will lead the challenge to the Aquino government as the de facto leader of the new political opposition. He is likely to exploit pockets of discontent in northern Luzon, home of both himself and Marcos, and on the embattled island of Mindanao, where Christians and Muslims alike oppose the charter’s provision for granting only limited autonomy to predominantly Muslim provinces.

"Now we shall see who are the fascists," commented Enrile, as he launched his campaign against the constitution and prolonged negotiations with the communists in a series of public rallies across the country. Although Enrile’s own presidential aspirations tend to color his credibility in criticizing Aquino, a serious issue lies at the heart of his dissent over government handling of national security matters. That is the question of how much time should be allowed to pass before the cease-fire talks reach what most observers foresee as their inevitable breakdown and the military is called upon to resume fighting the insurgents.

He fears that if the government and the National Democratic Front negotiators seek to string out the peace talks until after the upcoming elections, the seeds of a de facto coalition government will already have been sown, because local politicians in communist-infiltrated areas will have to obtain the support of the rebels to win office. He argues for a resumption of military action now, "while our resources are still capable of dealing with the situation without depending too much on the U.S." He adds, "We do not want to place ourselves in the position of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, to the point where they became involved in the politics of the U.S. and then when it was no longer tenable for the American government to support them, it pulled out and they were captured by the Marxist movement."

The government has already acted to meet that argument by declaring the rebel negotiators’ demand for a coalition government "non-negotiable" and by separating the upcoming congressional election from the local contests, in which communist gains in areas of heavy infiltration are more to be feared. The prospect for renewing the current cease-fire after it has lapsed in February appears dim.

Given the seemingly irreconcilable differences between the two sides, it is more likely that the current round of talking will be followed by a resumption of shooting, at least in certain regions. Ileto has intimated that he is considering the same sort of divide-and-conquer strategy against the rebels as was employed against the Huks in the 1950s and the Muslims in the 1970s, stating that the government is prepared to grant regional cease-fires if the nationwide peace cannot be maintained. Meanwhile, Ileto, a highly respected West Pointer who is known for his expertise in counterinsurgency, pleads for patience and good faith. "The cease-fire is a test of our faith in democracy and the potential success of the Aquino leadership to build a just society and attain an honorable peace," he says.

VI

Just as important a test for the government is its ability to pre-empt the insurgents’ promises of nationalized industry and radical redistribution of land and wealth, which have fallen on fertile ground, especially in the rural areas where 70 percent of Filipinos live. Aquino’s technocrats have drafted a blueprint for economic recovery entitled "Policy Agenda for People-Powered Development," which proposes to harness the forces of capitalism to raise rural incomes, provide jobs and rekindle consumer demand that would eventually stimulate a revival of flagging industry.

As the year ended, the government was preparing to launch its long-delayed program of economic development measures and rehabilitation centers designed to spark economic recovery and give non-hardcore members of the New People’s Army incentive to surrender their firearms and shift their struggle from the hills to the political arena. The attendant infusion of resources into the countryside only weeks before the February 2 referendum on the new constitution prompted charges that the program was nothing but the old-fashioned political pork barrel, which was by tradition served up to voters on election eves.

During the last years of the Marcos regime and the early months of the new government, the Philippine economy had shrunk by 12 percent, as investment dried up and annual service on the country’s $26-billion deficit consumed 37 percent of its foreign currency earnings. As thousands of jobs were lost in urban industry, many of the unemployed returned to their family homes in the provinces, where incomes were already suffering from depressed world prices of Philippine commodities like sugar and coconuts. The first update on family income to be published in ten years revealed that 60 percent of all families are living below the poverty line of $120 per month.

Taking an opposite tack from the export-driven growth strategy that was so successfully pursued by the Philippines’ East and Southeast Asian neighbor states but failed when applied by Marcos, the country’s new economic planners are counting on a $200-million program of public spending to create one million jobs by the end of 1987. They propose such labor-intensive development projects as schools, irrigation projects and roads, primarily in the rebel-infested countryside. Regional Development Councils are being established to identify, implement and monitor these projects and to channel foreign investment into small and medium agriculture-based industries capable of competing in export markets.

While the economy registered some gains in 1986, anticipated foreign investment was not forthcoming. Japanese, American and European businessmen responded positively to the government’s debt-equity swap program, unveiled in August 1986, to sell off millions of dollars of government holdings in bankrupt state corporations. But investors were waiting for the chaotic political and national security situation to stabilize before injecting new money or bringing back capital that had flowed out during the turbulent last years of Marcos. Meanwhile, a delay by the country’s 483 foreign commercial creditors in the rescheduling of $6-$9 billion of private commercial debt due to mature between 1987 and 1991 threatened to sharpen differences within the Aquino cabinet over debt repayment terms.

VII

As the Aquino government completes its first year in power, the stakes are rising. The honeymoon it enjoyed for much of 1986 is already over, and it will become even harder for the president to impose her will on her quibbling cabinet and her restless constituents once the checks and balances enshrined in the new constitution are put in place. A lot is riding on the ability of the new government to bring about by democratic and capitalist means the critical changes that are necessary in the Philippines if the political center is to remain relevant. "This may be the last chance for the political center to make good the promise of a free economy," wrote the Far Eastern Economic Review.

Indeed, Corazon Aquino has become the best advertisement for the democratic alternative in years. But as she reminded the U.S. Congress with just a touch of bitterness during her moving speech to a joint session last September, the resulting assistance forthcoming from the industrialized democracies had not been "commensurate with the calamity that has been visited on us." Arguing for more U.S. aid and private investment, she told an adoring audience, "You have spent many lives and much treasure to bring freedom to lands that were reluctant to receive it. And here you have a people who won it by themselves and need only the help to preserve it."

If the revival of democracy in the Philippines were to falter and the communists to gain the initiative in the strategically located archipelago, acknowledges a U.S. official, "our inability to do something about it would be regarded as another example of American impotence." Thus, the United States has good reason to do all within its power to help the new government through this perilous period before recovery takes hold—without, however, trying to dictate the terms to a proud nation or become deeply involved in the internal rivalries that have long characterized the culturally and ethnically diverse archipelago.

That means budgeting the full amount of security owed the Philippines in return for the U.S. military facilities, the Gramm-Rudman law notwithstanding, offering the best possible trading terms on export quotas for such products as sugar and textiles, encouraging private investment, and helping to broker a settlement on the "hidden wealth" of President Marcos. It also means not falling prey to the seasonal longing for an advance guarantee that U.S. military bases on Philippine soil will be retained beyond expiration of the U.S.-Philippine Military Bases Agreement in 1991. No government can responsibly provide such assurance prior to the formal review process, which will begin in 1988.

Emmanuel Pelaez, a former foreign minister who is currently Philippine ambassador to Washington, points out that President Marcos’ assurances to that effect were useless, given the fact that he was overthrown before the expiration date. Moreover, by accepting Marcos’ guarantees, the United States opened itself up to manipulation by the Philippine leader. "Marcos was motivated by the obsession to remain in power for life," says Pelaez, "for which he needed U.S. assistance and support."

Precisely because sentiment against the bases runs high in the ranks of the left-of-center nationalist groups that support Aquino and because closure of the American bases is a condition for a political settlement set by the Communist Party of the Philippines, it is important not to whip up emotions over the subject prematurely. President Aquino has pledged to honor the current agreement for the length of its life and to keep all her options open after that with regard to renewing it or letting it lapse. While she, like most Filipinos, would prefer that Philippine sovereignty not be diminished by the presence of any foreign facility, she is aware that the U.S. military bases are her country’s third-largest employer, and that the other free-market countries in the area consider the continued presence of the bases critical to regional security. On the issue of renewing the bases agreement, Michael Armacost, under secretary of state for political affairs and a former ambassador to Manila, said: "We can afford to let this issue lie for the meanwhile. I am personally confident that our security relationship will endure beyond 1991."

The best guarantee of the future of the bases is a stable and prosperous Philippines with a leader who is responsive to the needs of the people and thus able to deliver on whatever agreement is ultimately reached between the two countries. The committee that wrote the new constitution rejected a provision that would have barred foreign bases from the Philippines. The final draft of the constitution gives the president a free hand to renegotiate an agreement, subject to legislative approval. The controversial subject may also be put to a plebiscite.

VIII

With so many question marks on the political page in the Philippines, President Aquino’s greatest gift may be her ability to exude optimism that problems can be solved and confidence that they will be. Shortly after the cease-fire took effect, she spoke with satisfaction about her new, smoother relationship with the armed forces. She feared neither its influence nor the seductive powers of the communists, she said, because she had faith that the Filipino people were sophisticated enough to make the right choices. "I am so convinced that this country of ours has become so conservative," she said. "Anything in the extreme is very upsetting to a great number. At the same time, people are not going to let the military rule it over them. We have gone through so much controversy and division that people would like officials who won’t divide them."

If President Aquino spent most of her first year in office favoring the left wing of her unruly coalition, as the military, with some justification, feels she did, it would appear that she has recently swung back toward the right to assure that the military is with her during the highly sensitive period ahead, whether it is one of peace negotiations or renewed hostilities. Though such support-building maneuvers are necessary to keep her government together in the near term, her aim remains to wind up back in the center. In the longer term, however, she must expand the center over the years ahead to include more of those on the left and the right. Only then can democracy ultimately prove workable in the Philippines.

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  • Sandra Burton covered the Philippines for Time magazine from 1982 to 1986, and is currently Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Copyright © 1987 by Sandra Burton.
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