Corazon Aquino dies at 76; restored democracy to the Philippines

GovernmentHeads of StatePhilippinesNational GovernmentFamilyUnrest, Conflicts and WarPolitics

Corazon C. Aquino, the unassuming housewife who toppled a dictator and restored democracy to the Philippines as its 11th president, has died. She was 76.

Sen. Benigno Aquino III said his mother died of heart failure at 3:18 a.m. Saturday, Manila time (12:18 p.m. Friday, PDT). The elegant democracy icon, who was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2008, was admitted to a hospital intensive care unit in late June after she stopped eating.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who is on an official visit to the United States, declared a period of national mourning and announced that a state funeral would be held for the late president.

President Obama was "deeply saddened" by Aquino's death and extended his condolences to her family and the nation of the Philippines, said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

Aquino served six turbulent years as president of the Philippines after helping lead hundreds of thousands in a "people power" revolution that brought down the corrupt regime of strongman Ferdinand E. Marcos in February 1986.

The civilian-backed military uprising, with its stirring scenes of nuns kneeling to stop Marcos' tanks, made the Philippines a leader in the global wave of democratic movements that climaxed in the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In what she called her greatest achievement, Aquino presided over free elections, appointed an independent judiciary, encouraged a free press and restored other democratic institutions gutted by Marcos during his 20-year authoritarian rule.

She also fought to retain two of America's largest overseas military bases, Subic Bay and Clark Field, in the face of nationalist senators who finally emerged victorious in severing ties that had bound Washington to its former colony since the dawn of the 20th century.

She left office in 1992 but remained politically active until beset by illness, joining protest rallies demanding the resignation of Arroyo for alleged vote-rigging and corruption.

Seven coup attempts

A courageous woman who emerged as a reluctant leader at a time of national crisis, Aquino left a mixed legacy as president.

Her government was beset by a series of bloody coup attempts -- seven in her six years in office -- by disaffected right-wing military officers and Marcos loyalists. Challenges from communist rebels, terrorists and armed Muslim secessionists, along with a series of debilitating government scandals, left her administration lurching from crisis to crisis and, it seemed, constantly on the edge of collapse.

She appeared jinxed by a series of natural disasters that included a deadly earthquake, one of the century's worst volcanic eruptions at Mt. Pinatubo, floods, typhoons and a drought. Aquino also proved an inept and indecisive leader in her country's high-pressure and volatile political culture. Wary of wielding too much power, as Marcos had, she left agrarian reform to a newly elected Congress dominated by rich landowners, and thus little land changed hands in the feudalistic countryside. Her own family used a loophole in the law to avoid divestiture of Hacienda Luisita, a sprawling sugar plantation in central Luzon, the Philippines' main island.

Her administration had little success in alleviating the grinding poverty that affects more than half the population or in stamping out the nation's endemic cronyism, graft and corruption. A staunch Roman Catholic, she gutted birth control programs in one of Asia's most crowded and poorest countries.

And by the end of her term, the tortuous negotiations over the future of the U.S. military bases had led to a sharp decline in the Philippines' relations with the United States, its main trading partner and ally. The woman who was named Time magazine's Woman of the Year in 1987 and who won a standing ovation from a joint session of the U.S. Congress had lost much of the global goodwill that accompanied her accession to power.

"While it was the restoration of democracy, [people power] was not the restoration of good government," Father Joaquin Bernas, a former advisor to Aquino, wrote at the end of her term. "We have come to realize that it is much easier to set up the external trappings of democracy than to make it work to the satisfaction of our people."

Aquino appeared to dislike her job and, at the end, literally counted the days until she left office. But she did fulfill a key promise: She survived her term and presided over the first peaceful transfer of power in the tempestuous country in more than 26 years.

"She led the restoration of democracy back to the Philippines," Fidel V. Ramos told The Times after he was elected to succeed Aquino in May 1992. "Of course she didn't do it by herself. But she will be remembered as having led the fight against the dictatorship."

Wealthy family

In her final State of the Nation address in July 1991, Aquino seemed to speak more to her failures than to her successes.

"God knows, we have made mistakes," she said. "I hope that history will judge me . . . favorably . . . because, as God is my witness, I honestly did the best I could."

Born Jan. 25, 1933, to Jose Cojuangco and Demetria Sumulong, affluent sugar growers in central Luzon, Corazon Cojuangco was raised in luxury. The family moved to the United States after World War II, and she attended high schools in New York and Philadelphia before earning a bachelor's degree in French from Mount St. Vincent College in New York.

Back in the Philippines, she married journalist Benigno "Ninoy" S. Aquino Jr. in 1954. They had five children and, after Marcos' election in 1965, Benigno Aquino increasingly led the opposition to the president's growing power.

When her husband's activities led to his imprisonment at the start of Marcos' martial law period in 1972, Aquino visited him frequently but mostly stayed out of the limelight. Her first public appearance came in 1978, when she helped campaign for her still-incarcerated spouse in a race for assemblyman.

She continued to live in the shadow of her husband after he was released under international pressure in 1980 and allowed to move to Newton, Mass., for a heart bypass operation.

But in August 1983, the opposition leader returned to Manila and was gunned down at the airport by soldiers loyal to Marcos. His widow returned to the Philippines to lead an impassioned throng of supporters and sympathizers in a lengthy funeral march that became a unifying symbol for the anti-Marcos forces.

Marcos flees

Although she insisted she had no political ambitions, Aquino soon emerged as the most credible of Marcos' opponents. When she registered to run against Marcos after he called a snap presidential election for Feb. 7, 1986, Aquino listed her occupation as "housewife."

Later, ridiculed by Marcos for her lack of experience, she replied: "It is true. I have no experience in lying, cheating, stealing and killing. I offer you honesty and sincerity in leadership."

Wearing her signature yellow, she turned her campaign into a crusade in which she played the saintly widow taking on the evil dictator. When Marcos claimed victory after an election tainted by massive fraud, Aquino launched a nonviolent civil disobedience campaign to protest the cheating.

Then, on Feb. 22, 1986, a mutiny led by followers of Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile broke out in a Manila suburb. Ramos, at the time the acting armed forces chief of staff, soon joined in.

The mutineers declared support for Aquino, and the country's Roman Catholic prelate, Cardinal Jaime Sin, called the faithful into the streets to block Marcos' forces.

Three days later, Marcos fled aboard a U.S. Air Force plane bound for Hawaii. In a simple ceremony, Aquino declared "the long agony is over" and took over as president of the Philippines.

bob.drogin@latimes.com

john.glionna@latimes.com

Times special correspondent Sol Vanzi contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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