In 1986, I joined a group called “Youth for Cory and Doy” in Cagayan de Oro City, where I grew up. It was my first taste of political activism, and it was exhilarating. There I was, a freshman in college, staying out late at night at the city plaza, singing decidedly subversive songs, joining other activists to denounce Ferdinand Marcos. Like many Filipinos at the time, I was convinced that Cory Aquino, the widow of the assassinated Marcos foe Sen. Benigno Aquino, was definitely better than the dictator; that, although she was what Marcos had derisively called a “mere housewife,” she represented a moral, honest leadership. She promised a new beginning for all of us.

Twenty-five years after the Filipino people toppled the dictator, I am not sorry that I joined the struggle to oust Marcos and install Cory to the presidency – despite the fact that Cory, for all her much-vaunted success in restoring democracy and all that, turned out to be one of the worst presidents we have had.

I am not sorry because ousting Marcos was the right thing to do, regardless of how it turned out later, regardless of how Cory and her minions bungled every opportunity to make this country great.

Cory Aquino in 2003 (Photo by Carlos H. Conde)

I wished Cory had thought as well that ousting Joseph Estrada in 2001 was the right thing to do, an act that should not be second-guessed just because of how Estrada’s successor, Gloria Arroyo, performed later.

But by apologizing to Estrada in December 2008 for leading the movement to remove him, Cory virtually proclaimed that the Filipinos in Edsa Dos were all wrong in ousting a corrupt president.

Make no mistake – Estrada did not deserve to be president. He was corrupt, he was incompetent. He is a convicted plunderer later pardoned by an equally corrupt regime.

Corazon Aquino, who died in 2009, is viewed as a saint because we often compare her to the monster that was Marcos. But a look at what she had done as president should tell us that she was one deeply flawed saint.

Debt repudiation

When Cory took power, the Philippine foreign debt was around $26 billion. As a supposedly revolutionary government, her regime was well within its right to repudiate that debt, most of which were odious debts anyway. But Cory did not.

She succumbed to the pressure of international creditors, like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as governments such as the US, which propped up the dictator Marcos (a support that, in turn, allowed him to amass all that debt) and then later propped up Cory. The pressure was such that even Cory’s finance secretary at that time, Jaime Ongpin, threatened to resign if Cory repudiated our debts.”I don’t want the responsibility for a debt repudiation policy on my shoulders, because in my judgment the consequences would be beyond the ability of this government to control,” Ongpin said, according to a New York Times report.

Aquino with her close adviser Jaime Ongpin, who resisted debt repudiation and debt caps, even threatening to resign if Aquino did any of those (Photo from Makati Business Club website)

She and her advisers, as well as the central bank, even resisted attempts by legislators and economists to put a cap on debt repayments, to allow the country more breathing space as it tried to pick up the pieces caused by Marcos’s devastation of the Philippine economy. Ongpin said Cory “would have to find someone else to administer the new policy” if the debt-cap proposal was implemented. (Twenty-five years later, Cory’s son, President Noynoy Aquino, also refused any limit on debt repayments, vetoing a provision in the 2011 budget that restricts the government’s borrowings by up to 55 percent of the GDP.)

To be sure, repudiating the debt would have had serious consequences, something that Ongpin and his friends at the IMF and World Bank had warned about (then again, Ongpin et al were also against the idea of a debt-repayment cap of at least 10 percent of export earnings). There are arguments, however, that the advantages to a nation of debt repudiation far outweigh its cost and that, in any case, given the extreme popularity of the Edsa revolt worldwide, the Philippines would have no trouble finding other creditors. Besides, the Philippines was under a revolutionary government at the time. Such a repudiation, or at least a repayment scheme that would be easy on Filipinos and the government, would have been the right thing to do. But Cory did no such thing.

And so, to this day, we are saddled by the effects of this (in)decision, with the largest chunk of our national budget going to interest payments alone, taking away money that should be going to education, health care and other basic services.

Perhaps more than anything else, these debts prevented the Philippines from developing, from breaking from its past. In fact, if there’s one thing that makes Edsa an ersatz revolution, it’s Cory’s failure or refusal to repudiate Marcos’s onerous debts.

Human rights

Members of a notorious cult that Aquino's military unleashed on leftists, resulting in horrendous human-rights abuses (Photo from Life.com)

While the Marcos dictatorship was responsible for horrendous human rights abuses, it was during Cory’s term that the “total war policy” against leftists and their perceived supporters was launched systematically and cold-bloodedly – a policy that continues to this day, albeit going by other names like Oplan Bantay Laya. It was during her term that cannibal vigilantes went on a rampage in the provinces, used by the Philippine military to terrorize villagers and activists.

Again, as a president whose ascent to power was partly made possible by a broad people’s movement, the “total war policy” against the Left was a betrayal, to say the least. (Don’t believe the myth being peddled by some that the Left was not at Edsa during the first people power. For one, many of them were not there because they were busy fighting the dictator’s army in the hills, their victory in the countryside no doubt helping to cripple the dictatorship. For another, they had been in the streets, braving Marcos’s water cannons and batons and bullets way before the middle class and the “snooty members” of society that supported Cory decided it was cool to march to EDSA, rosary in hand).

She had been taken hostage by the military establishment, which later developed a sense of entitlement to “people power” as shown by their later assertions that such a revolt can only succeed if the military “withdraws support” from the sitting regime. This was evident in the movement to oust Estrada and the attempt to topple Arroyo.

Agrarian reform

Never able to rise above her class interest, Cory was also responsible for the monumental failure of the country’s agrarian reform program. She promised to make it the centerpiece program of her administration and she failed at it miserably, as we can see now. Then again, to believe that a landlord would give away her land just like that is to believe a liar when he says “Trust me.”

Cory's agrarian reform has been denounced as bogus, with farmers and peasants still unable to own land. To this day, her own family has resisted the government's effort to put their sugar estate under land reform. (Photo from bulatlat.com)

It was Cory’s regime that crafted and passed a faulty agrarian-reform law that gave too much leeway to landlords, allowing them to duck the program, and not enough resources to peasants and farmers that would allow them to develop whatever land they would get out of it.

The program was a failure because the Congress was, and still is, dominated by landlords. It was designed to fail. Cory, of all people, should know how silly the idea that landlords would just easily give up their lands. Proof: Hacienda Luisita remains in the hands of her family, when it should have been the first one to be parceled out to farmers if she really wanted the program to succeed.

(Need I point out that the Mendiola Massacre and the Lupao Massacre – atrocities that victimized peasants and farmers mainly — occurred during Cory’s term as well?)

Make no mistake: I believe in what many say that Cory was honest and was never corrupt. But she was way too naive and way too vulnerable to the pressures brought to bear on her. More importantly, she simply failed to transcend her own and her family’s interest for the larger good.

Apparently, she was also conflicted about the principle of “people power” itself. This was evident in her 2008 apology to Estrada. Filipinos who struggle for good governance and accountability should take that as an insult and a repudiation of what they stand for.

Corazon Cojuangco Aquino an icon of democracy and moral leadership? To many, perhaps. But to me, she is an icon of everything that is wrong with this country.

(This is a slightly revised version of an entry I posted on my former blog at www.gmanews.tv, a reaction to the December 2008 apology by Cory Aquino — the Philippines’ “icon of democracy” and leader of the anti-Marcos People Power revolt 25 years ago — to Joseph Estrada, the president who was ousted in the second People Power uprising in 2001 due to corruption).