October 11, 1996 – Fulbright Prize Ceremony, US Dept of State, Washington DC
I am greatly honored yet deeply humbled to receive this award. For I am preceded in this distinction by one who took upon himself, what seemed for centuries, the impossible struggle of a people for equality, dignity and freedom in their own country. Nelson Mandela fought, not just a foe of freedom but the enemy of humanity itself. Racial prejudice exceeds all the evil that men can do to one another. Beyond the denial of rights and the suppression of liberties, racism seeks to cancel the humanity of its victims. And makes them mere things in their own eyes.
The dictatorships of the left and the right, at least, paid to liberty the same homage that vice pays to virtue in hypocrisy. They suppressed liberty only for its own good in the name of national security. But with racism, there is only the naked assertion that some are masters and others less than men.
It was this twisted moral order, far worse than an oppressive government, that Nelson Mandela vanquished, so that when he danced on the stage of his inaugural as the first black president of South Africa, good men and women throughout the world followed his steps.
And he achieved this, not by force but with reason; never with hate but with, I think, something like love; not with recriminations but with an unyielding resolve never to look back in anger but forward, with the enemy of his people, to the time when they can regard each other as one.
He had fought another fight altogether — unique already in a world that had forsworn racism everywhere else.
I fought a more conventional war — but one perhaps with a wider relevance in the age of dictators just past, but which seems to be returning again with the caudillos.
It has crossed my mind that this award might have come when I was the leader of an embattled democracy, to impress its enemies that Philippine freedom had important friends abroad. But I am happy that this award comes when I am again an ordinary person. After all, it all began with an ordinary person, placed by Providence at the head of quite ordinary people like herself.
I am not a hero like Mandela. The best description for me might, after all, be that of my critics who said: She is just a plain housewife.
Indeed, as a housewife, I stood by my husband and never questioned his decision to stand alone in defense of a dead democracy against an arrogant dictatorship enjoying the support of the United States.
As a housewife, I never missed a chance to be with my husband when his jailers permitted it. Nor gave up looking for him one day when he was taken away, no one could tell me where.
As a housewife, I never chided him for the troubles he brought on my family and their businesses; nor, I must add, did my family complain. For they saw that his wife loved him very much and indeed, they loved him, too.
And when he challenged Imelda Marcos from his prison cell for the same seat in parliament, I took his place in the campaign. I, who hadn’t the experience on a political stage, nor entertained much hope that he would make it. Yet, how could I doubt his wisdom at the end, when, on the eve of a surely rigged election, the country’s capital city exploded in a deafening noise barrage in his name.
As a housewife, I held his hand as the life drained out of him in a self-imposed fast of 40 days, to protest a fine legal point about the civilian jurisdiction of a military court.
For seven and a half years, I sat outside the gate of his maximum security prison, with his food and his books — when they allowed it — and with forced smiles from our children and myself.
Thanks to the intervention of the US State Department under President Carter the death sentence passed on him by the military court was suspended and my husband went into exile in the United States. I joined him, of course. They were the three happiest years of our lives together.
But just when I was getting used to having him to myself … indeed, just when our youngest, who was a year-old when he was detained, was basking in the special affection he lavished on her to make up for the time he had lost … I lost him again. He returned to our country, against the advice of his friends and the warning of his worst enemy.
I followed a few days later, no longer as a housewife but as a widow to lay his body in the grave. A military escort had shot him in the back of the head, in the midst of more than 1,000 soldiers sent out to arrest him.
It was the greatest funeral since Gandhi. An estimated 2 million people lined the streets of the capital from the church to the graveyard. The coffin, on a flatbed truck, was followed by thousands of the most militant self-recruited supporters of his cause. All had answered his call when his mouth could no longer speak.
The government shut down public transportation to discourage people from going out, but the people came out. The government sent out buses when rain started to pour, to show its concern, but the people would not ride.
Everyone wore a strip of yellow fabric, instead of the customary black. They came from the yellow ribbons tied around trees and lamp posts for his return. Ninoy Aquino had made yellow the color of courage.
That night, the dictator lost the country’s capital and never got it back again. Demonstrations would continue, and grow in size and boldness, over the next three years, coming to a head in the Snap Election campaign.
By then there was another description of me. Perhaps because he grew uneasy calling me the widow he had made, President Marcos turned to calling me “just a woman” instead, whose place was in the bedroom.
Fine, I said; the next time I appeared before a mammoth crowd of supporters, I would do my nails first. But he, I countered, was just a coward and a lonely one at that. A coward for threatening to take me out with a single bullet; and a loser, because I promised him no more than a single ballot in return.
On the night of a bloody election, while he prepared his victory statement, I read mine on the air.
His rubber-stamp parliament immediately convened to declare him the winner. The people staged a mammoth rally to proclaim me instead. European Community ambassadors came to me to congratulate on her victory the officially defeated candidate. I mention this fact to show how crucial to the morale of a freedom movement is international support of its cause. A point we should bear in mind as the freedom struggle of Burma comes to a head.
There were other foreign friends of freedom at the rebirth of Philippine democracy. Congressman Stephen Solarz never wavered in his devotion to the democratic cause in the Philippines, even when it looked most forlorn. Senator Kerry stood guard by the women tabulators who had staged a walkout on the cheating being done at the computer center of the Commission on Elections. Secretary of State George Shultz convinced the US President that this time a policy that was morally right coincided with the geopolitics of realism. Sen. Richard Lugar convinced him that it was time to cut a dictatorship loose and take a chance with democracy in fighting communism. The support shown by others like them, too many to name here, needs to be mentioned now because of events in Burma. Such concern and concerted action by the friends of democracy do count in the final political equation.
President Reagan sent a special envoy to broker a truce and offer a compromise. I could have any position in the Marcos government or spend the rest of my days trying to topple it in vain. Basically, I wanted what I won in the presidential election or else, no matter how long it would take, I would not stop until the government fell. I called for a civil disobedience movement and the boycott of all businesses linked to the cronies of the dictator.
Within two weeks, the government fell, between a massive gathering of people power and the military mutiny it went out to protect.
As President, I faced three major tasks: rebuilding democracy, reviving the economy, and ending the communist insurgency — the longest running of its kind in the world.
Thirteen years of fighting Marcos had turned the communists into a formidable force enjoying the distant admiration of the nation. Nobody wanted the communists to win, but almost everybody wanted the Marcos government to lose.
According to US analysts, the communists had not suffered a defeat in years and fought the dictatorship to a stand still. But the communists made the mistake of boycotting the elections. I was fortunate; the communist insurgency problem all but dissolved itself with the return of democracy. The communists committed the strategic error of boycotting the Snap Election, which they regarded as a trap. As a result, when the curtain came down on the Marcos regime, they were nowhere to be seen on the political stage.
While democracy undermined communist threat, it lay open to military challenge. The right wing of the military was very much on center stage. Because its mutiny had triggered the collapse of the old government, it expected to have a significant share of the power in the new.
That was out of the question. My first task was to rebuild democracy. And a democracy consists of a separate legislature, an independent judiciary and one President. There was just no room for a junta. And you know how women feel about uninvited guests.
Perhaps the military were also envious that in the first year of my term, I ruled by decree. This was necessary to abolish the rubber-stamp parliament, sequester stolen wealth, annul the Marcos Constitution, pare down the powers of the President and sweep the judiciary clean. Each law I promulgated diminished my powers until, with the last decree, I stripped myself of the power to legislate. Could I have trusted the military to share so much power with me?
I hoped to govern, not from the top down, but from the bottom up, by consultation. I wanted people to have a real sense of what it is like to govern themselves, to live out, and not just live under, the democracy they had put back in place.
Sadly, this only created a sense of drift, and a formless fear that government was losing its grip. After defeating the first major coup attempt, I constituted the Presidency into a Committee of One, taking full charge of every detail of the government. It was a step forward in political stability, but a step back in political maturity. I would have to postpone the empowerment of the people for a later time.
I pushed ahead with major, and sometimes painful, economic measures to restructure the Philippine economy, settle its enormous and largely stolen foreign debt, and get it moving forward again. In the next five years, the country would be shaken by a massive earthquake and covered with ash by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo. Three major areas of the country were wiped off the economic map and the temperature of the planet dropped by a full degree. People who said that the peaceful people power revolution which restored democracy was a gift of God began to wonder about Him and His habits of giving.
Yet, after every setback, the economy rallied, and ground painstakingly won and swiftly lost, was taken again. On the verge of a second economic take-off in 1989, the military right wing launched its last and most destructive coup attempt. The event drained the last drop of confidence in our future from all but the hardiest spirits at home, and shattered the image of our stability abroad.
Yet we persevered, and achieved gains that, admittedly, fell short of the fast-growing needs of a too-quickly growing population. But they were real and substantial gains nonetheless: improved health care, more housing, more classrooms and free secondary education. We made the first serious effort to arrest environmental degradation, and pushed agrarian reform beyond the point of no return. But each step forward covered familiar ground. Who could help but despair that we might be running in circles? Many wondered if it was worth it to try again and again.
St. Paul says that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character; and character hope. All the good we do seems lost, but never really is. Some of it remains, perhaps a deeper view of life and what it entails. And we are left with a more practiced hand to rebuild again, who knows but maybe better the second time around. Above all, it leaves us with a spirit made stronger for greater challenges in the future, by that which failed to break us in the past.
It seemed that in one thing only were we growing from strength to strength: in the enlargement of our democratic space and the strengthening of our democracy. But, altogether, the country was well on its way.
I thought again of how it had started, what I had seen, and how much people power had achieved all by itself. I thought that, not just democracy but the economy itself might be rebuilt, and social institutions reformed, by calling again on the power that made the country free.
But empowering people means more than just giving them elections. It means enlarging their contact with government, and habituating them to the direction of their own affairs. People empowerment, by direct participation in government or by indirect involvement through NGOs, was the surest means of making government mirror the aspirations of the many rather than merely advance the interests of the few.
It is on the work of people empowerment that I now devote the greater portion of my time; particularly through the Institute for People Power and Development of the Benigno S. Aquino, Jr. Foundation. Its aim is to put in the hands of ordinary people the quite ordinary, but organized, means of effecting major changes in their lives.
This was the force that toppled dictatorships and tore down the Berlin Wall. Can it be made to build up?
In the past, the idea was to give the people just enough political power to make a mistake at the polls; in the future, the idea should be to empower them to decide meaningfully, and throw the full weight of their numbers behind their choice.
Authoritarian government is said to be the Asian formula for success. But we may yet prove that people power can achieve, perhaps more slowly, but more lasting and more widely beneficial effects. Democracy in the end, is the best system for ordinary people. It is the only one that exalts them and unites them in peace across all the countries of the world. One can believe in a dictatorship; a few in an oligarchy; but only to democracy can the many, in reason adhere.
I ended my term with less exhilaration but more circumspection than I began it.
I realized that I could have made things easier for myself if I had done the popular things, rather than the painful but better ones in the long run. After all, in the long run, I wouldn’t be around to be blamed.
I could have invited the military to share in the government, rather than keeping them out and fighting them off to the disarray of the economy. But I was called to restore a democracy, not divide up a country as spoils.
I could have put pressure on the courts when they favored the enemies of democracy, but I felt that the best protection for freedom must lie in strong and independent courts.
I sued a newspaper for libel but never used my office to advance my cause. I lost the case.
I could have rolled back prices with a single word, but I would have distorted the painful wisdom of free markets which keep, it is alleged, economies on the right track.
I couldn’t adopt the ideal solutions proposed by those who had the luxury of private life. Quite often, official actions were dictated by the pressing realities of the moment.
I could have rigged the 1992 elections for my successor. Instead, I directed the chiefs of the military to do the country proud by assuring a fair and free election, whatever the result. Better still, I could have run myself. The constitutional limitation of a single presidential term did not apply to me; I had taken office under the old Constitution. But that limitation was a cornerstone of the new Constitution I had caused to be drafted and for which I vigorously campaigned. How could I serve as the first example of its moral violation?
June 30, 1992 was therefore one of the proudest moments of my life. I was stepping down and handing the presidency to my duly elected successor. This was what my husband had died for; he had returned precisely to forestall an illegal political succession. This moment is democracy’s glory: the peaceful transfer of power without bloodshed, in strict accordance with law.
As I left the Palace for the last time, the sentry at the gate gave a final salute to his Commander-in-Chief. With the exception of my predecessor, no President had been so deeply involved with the military as I had been. But there was this distinction between us: I had treated the military with trust and respect, and left it with honor. When the story of the many coup attempts against the young Philippine democracy is told, the treason of a few will be seen against the backdrop of the majority who held firm. They repaid my compliment with loyalty.
When my presidency ended in 1992, I gave myself a few months to do what I told people I wanted to do–travel and enjoy my grandchildren.
I find that those who keep sight of common pleasures — family, friends, travel and companionship — are the most to be trusted with uncommon authority. The most perceptive of my officials knew I would not use the constitutional loophole to seek another term, when I expressed the wish to travel before I was too old to enjoy it.
Thus, one true leader looks forward to friendships he was denied as a prisoner then and as president now. And President Aristide stepped down at the end of a term that was mostly used up by a junta.
Such individuals know that the office does not make the man, but the other way around. That it is strengthened by the forbearance of the incumbent, and becomes more deeply respected when he willingly parts with it at the appointed time. No one can ever be so important, so indispensable, as to call for a change in the constitutional scheme of things for his own sake alone.
So it is with sadness that I view aspiring caudillos who believe that they will become great by holding on, beyond their terms, to power. As though power alone defines their sense of self-worth. Some of us could have done the same, with more justification. But we would be much lesser beings if we succeeded or even tried.
My parents, especially my mother, taught me the value of hard work and to persevere in whatever it is that I set out to do. And from my father, I learned what kindness, patience and humility are all about.
When I married Ninoy, my conscious world went beyond that of the family and the family business. I married a dedicated politician in the best sense of the word, a worker in politics. He, too, taught me to persevere in a good cause. I was lucky, for although he died before his persistence paid off, I lived to see it happen.
When I look back now on all those years — waiting outside the prison to see my husband, waiting in the house in Boston for the confirmation of his death, waiting for the dictator to blink in our face-off (because I certainly wouldn’t), facing down the military rebels — I realize how really hard it is to come by freedom and democracy. And that it is mainly by perseverance that one is won and the other is kept.
Some leaders, like Mr. Mandela, had to fight much longer for them. He had to suffer personally much more, too. Twenty seven years as a prisoner in pitch-black confinement or in the bright blinding wastes of the South African pit mines. But the sweet taste of winning back freedom and gaining democracy for his South Africa must have been multiplied a hundred fold for every minute spent in prison.
There are still a number of leaders who have not lost their will to fight, who still display the proud perseverance to win their country’s freedom. We cannot help but think of Burma and Aung Sang Suu Kyi.
Each national experience of winning freedom is unique. But I offer my country’s story for the hope it offers, in whatever measure, of the triumph of perseverance and hope. My deepest appreciation and heartfelt thanks to the Fulbright Association for this great honor, at this time in my life. It will send the message to my people and to other peoples less fortunate than they, in Burma and other places. The message is that the struggle never ends, the work is never finished, nor does the task devolve mainly on the great. It belongs rather to ordinary people, the improvement of whose lives is this Prize’s main concern.
Today is my wedding anniversary, which brings to mind the other half who may well be here and the words of a moving poem for J. William Fulbright:
“Then think that every time, alone in darkness, someone finds the courage to take a stand against the arrogance of power or lifts one hesitant hand against the tyranny of mad momentum, there is a monument. And there. And there. “
Two statues stand in different squares, one in Arkansas, the other in my country; the distance and the years between them gone. One is of a man who worked to make the human spirit nobler and the other of one who showed it could be done.
Thank you again for this great honor, and God bless you all.
Copyright 1996 by Corazon Aquino. All rights reserved.