Congress Cheers Aquino; House Votes Aid Increase
Philippine President Corazon Aquino, in a speech to a joint session of Congress that drew three standing ovations, pledged Thursday to take up “the sword of war” to end the bloody Communist insurgency that has plagued the Philippines for 17 years if rebel leaders spurn her government’s offers of peace.
Declaring that the revolution that brought her to power was “the cheapest revolution ever,” Aquino also told cheering lawmakers that her nation deserves to be freed from the “slavery” of its devastated economy. She appealed for both the U.S. government and private investors to “build a new home for democracy” in the Philippines, now staggering under a $26-billion foreign debt.
Just hours later, the applause translated into dollars.
The House approved, on a 203-197 vote, an emergency $200-million aid appropriation to help deal with the Philippines’ economic distress. House Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said, “Let’s just say the emotion of the moment saved the day” for the appropriation, which, if endorsed by the Senate, would boost total U.S. aid to the Philippines in fiscal 1986 to $705 million.
Aquino’s tough yet intensely personal address marked her first appearance before Congress since she helped overthrow former Philippine strongman Ferdinand E. Marcos last February.
Aquino wore her signature yellow suit, and nearly every senator and congressman in the hall marked the occasion by wearing in his lapel a yellow rose--the color of Aquino’s three-year protest campaign. Many of the lawmakers and Cabinet members present, including Secretary of State George P. Shultz, also wore yellow ties.
Aquino’s speech was interrupted 11 times by applause, and when she finished an address laced with personal references to her assassinated husband, Philippine Sen. Benigno S. Aquino Jr., every member present stood and applauded for three minutes. As Aquino weaved her way through the crowd of lawmakers afterwards, shaking hands, several members chanted “Cory, Cory, Cory!”
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) congratulated Aquino, telling her, “You hit a home run.” Aquino smiled broadly and quickly replied, “I just hope the bases were loaded.”
Hoped for Catalyst
Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), who is sponsoring a similar but long-pending $200-million aid appropriation in the Senate, said in an interview that he hopes Aquino’s speech will be a catalyst for action on the bill, which has been threatened by special-interest amendments.
One such amendment, sponsored by Sen. John Melcher (D-Mont.), would require previously earmarked aid to the Philippines to include surplus American wheat and powdered milk, which Lugar and other experts say would hurt the economy of the Philippines, where there is already a wheat surplus.
Of the speech itself, Lugar said, “Those who attended were transfixed--it was awesome.” Lugar was instrumental in bolstering Aquino’s victory last February as chairman of a team of congressional observers who witnessed massive election fraud by Marcos’s supporters.
Noting that his role in the Philippine election was controversial, Lugar added, “I felt entirely vindicated when I saw all these senators and congressmen falling all over each other after the speech to get photographed with her (Aquino).”
Aquino used the occasion to personally thank members of Congress for defending her and her protest movement, even when the Reagan Administration continued to support Marcos after her husband’s August, 1983, assassination, a murder for which Aquino has said the former president is, at least indirectly, responsible.
“We Filipinos thank each of you for what you did--for balancing America’s strategic interest against human concerns,” Aquino declared.
She appealed to Congress to accept her approach to ending the 17-year Communist insurgency that continues to threaten the stability of her government. Under the military approach Marcos employed during his two decades in power, Aquino said, the insurgency grew from 500 armed guerrillas to more than 16,000.
Marcos “went at it with hammer and tongs,” Aquino said of Marcos’ counterinsurgency strategy, which alienated far more Filipinos than it overcame. “I think there is a lesson to be learned about trying to stifle a thing with the means by which it grows.”
Nonetheless, Aquino vowed that if her attempts to solve the insurgency through cease-fire talks and a rural-based economic revitalization program fail, “I will not stand by and allow an insurgent leadership to spurn our offer of peace and kill our young soldiers and threaten our new freedom.”
Justifies Her Approach
Aquino also justified her “path of peace” approach to ending the insurgency, saying that it provides “the moral basis” for “laying down the olive branch of peace and taking up the sword of war.”
As a further justification for her approach, Aquino quoted from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural speech.
“Like Abraham Lincoln,” Aquino declared, “I understand that force may be necessary before mercy. Like Lincoln, I don’t relish it. Yet, I will do whatever it takes to defend the integrity and freedom of my country.”
Several aides said Aquino was trying to persuade Congress to support her peace initiatives in the face of criticism from some officials within the Reagan Administration who want the Philippine government to take a harder line against the Communists. Most of the criticism comes from Pentagon strategists who have noted a marked increase in the rebels’ strength since Aquino took power.
After meeting Aquino on Wednesday, President Reagan made it clear he supports Aquino’s talk-then-fight strategy, and the reaction of Congress on Thursday indicated that it, too, endorses current Philippine policy.
Shown Live in Manila
Lugar said Aquino’s address “definitely” helped silence factions within the Administration that oppose Aquino’s approach. Even more significant, he said, was that the address was telecast live by satellite in Manila at U.S. government expense.
“It was great theater,” he said, “But it was also important that the people in the Philippines see the response in Congress to this. I think there is now a feeling, certainly around this town, that President Aquino has a plan.”
Lugar added that many of the congressmen and senators present clearly were touched by Aquino’s personal references to her late husband--allusions Aquino’s aides said were meant to inspire sympathy among the congressmen.
Aquino began her speech by recalling that, “Three years ago, I left America in grief to bury my husband, Ninoy Aquino,” who had returned to the Philippines from exile in the United States and was slain at Manila’s airport. “Today, I have returned as the president of a free people.”
With her husband as a martyr, Aquino said, the Filipino people won their freedom “by themselves and need only the (Americans’) help to preserve it.”