Retaining her image as a friendly, folksy housewife while taking on the burdens of a chief of state looks like tough work for Philippines’ President Corazon Aquino.
According to a close associate, Aquino likes to be called Mrs. President, and people who work with her or know her socially say how warm and appreciative she is, how unassuming. It is said that she makes excellent pate and pasta, likes to play mah-jongg and that she says the rosary daily. In the guest house where she occupies an upstairs office, her daughters roam freely. A receptionist sat at her desk with a baby on her lap.
But most housewives run homes, not countries. And Aquino is even less accessible than one would expect. Much talked about in Manila is the cordon sanitaire, an elusive network of aides who shield the president from outside contacts.
For three weeks, a team from The Times’ Food department that included a Tagalog-speaking native of Manila, home economist Minnie Bernardino, tried to obtain a brief interview with Aquino. The topic we had wanted to discuss with the president was one of interest to her personally and of vital concern to her country--food.
Other governmental representatives were, not surprisingly, much more readily available. Asked about the importance of food in rebuilding the economy of the Philippines, Jose S. Concepcion Jr., the new minister of trade and industry, said: “Since 70% of our people are dependent on agriculture, which is basically food, it becomes a very crucial area.” Concepcion appeared at a Food and Plants Market Week held at the International Trade Center in Manila.
At the same event, Niflora Gatchalian, a quality control specialist, reported that five of the top 10 exports of the Philippines are food items. These are bananas, pineapple, sugar, coconut oil and desiccated coconut. However, while basic resources are rich, agricultural production is hampered by poor transportation, poor handling of crops after harvest, inefficient processing, inadequate packaging and failure to meet quality standards of foreign nations, she said.
In the provinces outside Manila, we saw how crops are brought out by horseback, then loaded onto jeepneys for transport over roads that are often rough and narrow, a primitive mode of distribution.
At the International Rice Research Institute at Los Banos in Laguna Province, we saw machinery designed to aid Third World farmers, including a pump operated by foot power.
We attended a lavish party where the elite, including members of the Aquino family and the new government, dined liberally and chose from a well-stocked bar. At the other extreme, squatters in the district of Manila called Tondo said that they ate on an average of every other day.
The Night Rider II, a restaurant near Manila International Airport, advertised for a food attendant whose pay would be 30 pesos, which is roughly $1.60 a day. Manila restaurateurs complained about the exorbitant duties imposed on luxury goods by the Marcos regime. The high costs made it difficult for them to obtain the quality ingredients needed to appeal to tourists, they said. Even in the best restaurants, the beef was tough.
In 1985, tourist arrivals in the Philippines dropped by 5.34% from 1984, according to figures released by the Ministry of Tourism. The new minister of that department, Jose Antonio Gonzalez, said that his annual budget will be $1.5 million. “That’s peanuts,” he observed, and insufficient to mount an advertising campaign in the United States to attract more tourists.
We worked through many channels attempting to see Aquino, including contacts as close as a sister of her assassinated husband, Benigno S. Aquino Jr. We were unsuccessful. We had our calling cards rejected by a receptionist. We spoke with secretaries of secretaries.
A sympathic nun volunteered that the rank and file of the religious, so prominent in the revolution, have not been received by the president. She told how nuns attempting to deliver a letter had to hand it to an Aquino daughter spotted on the guest house grounds. Women entrusted with a letter to Joker Arroyo, the president’s executive secretary, were turned away at the door. And a colonel who described himself as “a pillar of the revolution” was heard letting loose a stream of invective when not allowed to present a document that, he said, involved the security of the state.
Unlike other petitioners, The Times’ representatives were finally admitted to the guest house by one of Aquino’s trusted aides for the purpose of interviewing her caterers. Inside, we found a mix of communicative people and haughty secretaries. After our first interview, we were ushered out like bothersome paparazzi by one of the latter. We were told the president could not be photographed in her dining room or while eating. As compensation, we were handed small black and white mug shots of Aquino.
On a return visit, the atmosphere was different. We were treated by caterers Digna Charni and Luz Bardos to colas and tuna sandwiches along with chocolate cupcakes left over from the president’s lunch. And we learned that Aquino had inquired at length about our preliminary interview with Bardos, apparently enjoying the session vicariously.
While it was impossible to see the president, it was amazingly easy to learn about her habits from security personnel at her home. On a quiet afternoon, we drove to the house at 24 Times St. in Quezon City, a suburb of Metro Manila. The address is no secret, and many cars, even busloads, of tourists pass by to see the modest structure.
The eaves are decorated with yellow abaca string balls trailing faded yellow and white ribbons. Guava, palm and mabulo trees grow in front of the house along with dama de noche (lady of the night), a plant that opens its fragrant blossoms only in the dark. Under the portico was a white Ford Telstar that had been Aquino’s campaign car, a green Toyota Corona that is used by her daughter Kris, and the white Mercedes of her son Noynoy. The rear window of the Mercedes is decorated with stickers saying “Ninoy is Our Hero,” “Cory Aquino” and “I Love Jesus,” the word love represented by a heart.
As we chatted with the security guards, parties of balikbayans, the name for Filipinos returning to their country from abroad, posed in front of the house for photos, and a Magnolia ice cream vendor sold Popsicles and pili nut crunch bars.
We were able to learn the number of guards, their shifts and locations. In addition to the personal guards, the house is protected by an air force contingent that also escorts Aquino to and from her office. The president is driven in a black Mercedes, the guards said, and democratically stops for traffic lights rather than pulling rank over other motorists.
The air force men, who said they had been defectors at the time of the revolution, work a 24-hour shift, spelling each other to sleep. They have no rest but report for duty at Malacanang Palace when their shift is over. Lounging in a Land Rover, loosely balancing M-16 rifles, the guards seemed to enjoy talking and willingly posed for a photo with a little boy in our party.
They were screened for the demanding job. “We do it for the people and for the president, of course,” one of them said. Like many others, he felt it “very risky” for Aquino to continue living in this small, exposed house so far from her place of work.
The guards complained that their pay is low. From the 1,500 pesos (a little less than $80) that they receive each month, roughly $19.75 is deducted for food and $10.50 for quarters. They are entitled to free hospitalization.
Too Shy for Lengthy Interview
They are also entitled to eat meals prepared in Aquino’s kitchen by cook Aida Gutierrez. Too shy to talk for more than a moment, Gutierrez does the marketing and cooks such simple dishes as chicken-pork adobo, fried chicken, a sour soup called sinigang made with pork or fish and, for breakfast, the popular Filipino combination of dried fish and garlic rice.
Aquino’s own culinary repertoire includes Peking duck. In case she becomes hungry for that or other Chinese dishes, she can obtain them from two Chinese restaurants at the end of the block. They are Hong Kong Island and Shangri-La, which advertises 24-hour dim sum and a takeout counter.
The president’s house looks much like others on the quiet street until you get close and read the yellow signs attached to the gate. One bears a drawing of her late husband framed with the Tagalog words “ Mahal ka namin Ninoy. Ninoy hindi ka nag-i-isa ,” meaning, “We love you Ninoy. Ninoy, you are not alone.” The other salutes the recent event that brought Aquino to power: “Thank you God and Mother Mary for your loving mercy on the Filipino people--February 25, 1986.”