MANILA, Philippines - Political vendetta, it has been said by the critics of the first and second Aquino presidencies, is the deep, unacknowledged motivation of EDSA - and the main reason for our failure to reap, despite the promises of freedom and justice offered by the world-acclaimed people power revolution of 1986, the more tangible reward of a better life for those who once wielded that power.
But incumbent President Benigno Aquino III, who has virtually declared war on a key figure of the third branch of government by encouraging the impeachment of Chief Justice Renato Corona, had insisted from his first day in office that the quest for true justice and accountability, not vendetta, is to be a hallmark of his administration.
"I can forgive those who did me wrong, but I have no right to forgive those who abused our people," he had solemnly declared in his June 30, 2010 inaugural speech. "To those who talk about reconciliation, if they mean that they would like us to simply forget about the wrongs that they have committed in the past, we have to this to say: there can be no reconciliation without justice. When we allow crimes to go unpunished, we give consent to their occurring over and over again."
Twenty-six years ago, his mother, then newly installed president Corazon Aquino, had faced more or less the same dilemma. She was presiding over a nation at the crossroads, in transition from two decades of one-man rule, including 14 years of martial law, to a full democracy where even those who had long dreamt of freedom seemed to struggle with making it work.
She had faced a worse political maelstrom: pitting the loyalists of her predecessor Ferdinand Marcos, and the millions who had protested for years before Edsa 1986, and were expecting radical change.
In the process of consolidation, Mrs. Aquino walked the tightrope between bitterness and the promise of a working democracy - one that can put food on people's tables, create jobs, provide education and health services, among others. It was the ultimate dream, the unfinished business of her late husband, martyred senator Ninoy Aquino, who was felled by a single bullet to the head at the airport tarmac as he returned from exile in the US in August 21, 1983.
At the end of Day 4 of the EDSA Revolt, a new President Cory. PHOTO BY ROMY MARIANO
Dutiful son at mother's side
Fast forward to 2010: Noynoy Aquino, the only son of Ninoy and Cory, wins the presidency despite his deciding to run at the last minute. For years before his mother's death, Noynoy was the dutiful son always at her side at every adversity during and after her presidency. He was with her through seven coup attempts, including one that killed his escorts and left a bullet in his neck. Years later, his was the face and the voice that told the world she had succumbed to cancer in her post-presidency.
Little did he know that at her death in August 2009, she would leave him with another challenge, this time, running for the highest office after nine years of what pro-democracy forces had called the "lost years" under Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
This week, as EDSA's 26th anniversary is marked, President Noynoy Aquino is nearing two years in the presidency. At every interview, he harkens back to his father, as the main guiding post of his life; and to his mother's example as a selfless, nurturing leader.
The 'Christian socialist'
Corazon Aquino was described as having taken a "centrist" stance for most of her political life. Noynoy, then only 23 when his father was assassinated, declared that he considered himself a "Christian socialist" like Ninoy.
As Sen. Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino once put it, "Christian socialism means, to me, an equal opportunity for advancement and the full development of the human being."
When we interviewed him in late 1983, Noynoy explained that he preferred that the opposition coalition fight for restructuring the system into one where "democratic pluralism" obtains, where different ideologies would each play a vital role in the country’s development.
"For change to happen, the individual must reform," he said then.
At the Ateneo de Manila University where he completed his economics degree in 1981, Noynoy wasn't identified with militant activism, although the younger generations of protesters were prominent in anti-Marcos rallies that peaked with the public outrage triggered by Ninoy’s assassination.
Still, Lorenzo "Erin" Tañada III, then the vice president of the Ateneo University Student Council, recalled that he had seen Noynoy's "social consciousness" when he first met him in a protest rally in Sapang Palay after the assassination of Ninoy Aquino.
Noynoy, who had followed his family to exile in the US after his graduation in 1981, later opted to organize the "middle forces" among the youth. In his view, they were helping restore the people's dignity, something he thought his late father would have approved of.
"Because he was the son of the opposition leader, people gravitated around him . Mahusay siyang magsalita [He was very articulate]. He is a person with political will," said Tañada, now the deputy speaker of the House of Representatives and spokesman of Mr. Aquino's Liberal Party.
To those who tracked Noynoy Aquino's life, the presidency seemed Mr. Aquino's destiny. He is a fourth-generation politician. His great-grandfather Servillano "Mianong" Aquino, served as a delegate to the Malolos Congress while his grandfather Benigno Sr. served as speaker of the House from 1934 to 1944.
Like his father, who would have been the standard bearer of the party in the presidential elections if Mr. Marcos had not declared martial law in 1972, Noynoy Aquino had sworn loyalty to the Liberal Party since he first ventured into electoral politics when he ran as congressman in 1995, later assuming various positions such as party secretary general and vice president for Luzon. Now as Chief Executive, he continues to hold the titular post of party chair.
Opposition lawmaker Mitos Magsaysay found Mr. Aquino so engrossed only in the company of his LP "barkada" in the House when they were "seatmates" at the Batasang Pambansa. And that perhaps partly explains why he wasn't really rated as a politician, during his congressional stint.
Still, Magsaysay admitted she admired Mr. Aquino for "being simple" and "friendly" to his colleagues, both in the administration and the opposition.
"He drove his own car, he would join the drivers of other congressmen and the Batasan staff when they smoked outside the Batasan. And that's why I'm now wondering why [there is a] wedge [between him and] his people, now that he is President of the land," she said.
Magsaysay expressed the hope that if Mr. Aquino keeps circulating only among his friends before, he would not eventually become captive to a cordon sanitaire in Malacanang.
In the view of Tanada, the President has had a series of political transformations, yet one thing stands out: "It's clear to him what he wants to do and he will do it." This was shown, said Tañada, even after his mother was swept to power in a non-violent revolution that finally restored democracy in the country.
Unbending in decisions
Such a tendency to stick to his decisions - even against the best advice of experts - seems both good and bad for the presidency.
According to Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala, once the President "decides on things, he will never change."
"Para mabago mo ang isipan niya, talagang very convincing dapat ang iyong paliwanag sa kanya [If you want him to reconsider, you should have a very convincing argument to sway him]," said Alcala, considered as one of the President’s closest friends and political allies.
Alcala knew Mr. Aquino only after he first became a congressman representing Quezon in 2004, but the two got along very well. It was Mr. Aquino's last term as Tarlac lawmaker. "But as a friend, ay wala kang masasabi kundi isa siyang tutoong tao. Walang ibang agenda at ang maganda diyan, kung ikaw ay kaibigan, totoo kang kaibigan [I can’t say anything else but that he's a real person. He has no agenda, and if you’re his friend, you’re really treated as one]," he said.
Alcala said he has also seen that by being tough against corruption, Aquino obviously wanted to lead by example.
"Hindi na kailangang magsalita pa siya, dahil alam ko kung gaano katuwid, kung gaano kaganda 'yung intention niya para sa bayan kung talagang matututukan nga ang anti-corruption [He doesn’t even have to explain, because it is clear to me how righteous his intentions are for the country, if only the fight against corruption can be sustained]," he said.
As a Cabinet official, Alcala also realized that they need no longer ask for an order, but they just have to do it. “Nakakatuwa naman sapagkat ngayon, talagang karamihan sa ating mga empleyado - sa aking kagawaran na lang - ay talagang nakikiisa [It's heartening that now, majority of employees - for instance, just in my department alone - are truly united behind his program]," he said.
Still, Alcala said the President can get tough with his own people if he finds them unprofessional in their work, and fail to deliver.
These days, Alcala said the President hardly finds time time to meet with close friends. "He's really very serious in his work, and we just have to reckon with it."
Although they had worked together in Congress, Alcala admitted he was amazed at how Mr. Aquino can work so quickly and easily with figures, during their Cabinet meetings.
Even Magsaysay, a staunch fiscalizer of the Aquino administration, recalled Mr. Aquino as a fast-thinker. "Nasa A pa lang kami na sa Z na siya," she quipped.
If there is one human failing Alcala notes, it's the fact he remains an unrepentant smoker. Alcala stresses, though, that contrary to rumors peddled by his critics , Noynoy never really enjoyed hard alcoholic drinks [he's a wine drinker], nor was fond of entertainment joints.
A protective son
Retired Air Force Gen. Jose Angel "Bodet" Honrado, pressed back into public service by President Noynoy, knew him as a small boy when his family visited their father’s hometown of Concepcion in Tarlac.
Ninoy was Honrado's baptismal godfather, and his father, Jose Sr. was tapped by the elder Aquino when he first became mayor as police chief of their town, forcing him to leave the Philippine constabulary.,
But he later became close to Noynoy and found him to be "very protective" of his mother when the Aquino family hit the campaign trail in the 1986 snap elections where Corazon Aquino was the united opposition candidate against Mr. Marcos.
“Kaya ‘yung hindi n’ya magawa ako na ang sumasalo dahil nangampanya din siya [so when Noynoy was busy campaigning also for his mother, I did some of the securing],” said Bodet, who was a captain when he requested his superiors that he be assigned to the then opposition presidential candidate.
It was also Honrado, then already the commander of the Presidential escorts, who rescued Noynoy from his car when he survived an ambush during the failed coup on August 28, 1987.
"It was my job not only to protect the President but her family. But Noynoy wanted to be free from the guards because he’s not used to having a security detail," he said.
Despite what happened to Ninoy Aquino, who was gunned down by the military, and the coups that wracked Mrs. Aquino’s government, Honrado said he never detected any indifference or deep-seated anger of Noynoy when it came to the military.
"Perhaps he was cautious at the start, but he later became close to them," he said.
Noynoy was also fascinated with guns, and soon he had several mentors who had trained him in the firing range.
Honrado described firing as Noynoy’s “natural talent,” but added that the marksmanship was developed later through practice.
Surprised at presidential run
Honrado confides he never really thought then that Noynoy would one day follow in his mother’s footsteps. "That's because they never really wanted to cling to power, and Noynoy never abused the perks of being the President’s son," he said. "At masaya sila nang natapos ang term ng pangulo [And they all seemed so happy when Mrs. Aquino's term ended]."
Noynoy also managed his own finances and worked at the Hacienda Luisita. He was leading a normal life until he decided to join the congressional race, Honrado recalled. Still, Noynoy had to wait for his mother’s go signal, which she gave in 1995. That was also the time when Honrado had just returned from military schooling abroad. But while he had field assignments, then President Fidel Ramos signed an order, designating him as senior military assistant to Mrs. Aquino.
Before Mrs. Aquino died, Honrado thought all the while Noynoy was preparing for the vice presidency , only to learn later that he had decided to forgo any political plans and decided to take care of his ailing mother. That is why, Honrado recalled, it was his face as the dutiful son that made the announcement of his mother’s death in August 2009.
After Cory’s burial, Honrado got another surprise: Noynoy declared that he was open for a presidential run, and like his mother, he consulted a lot of trusted relatives and friends, and retreated to prayers.
Having retired from the service, Honrado resigned from his cushy private post as vice president of a bank, and joined the campaign , this time to be Noynoy’s chief security.
“With people like Erap Estrada, Manny Villar and Gilbert Teodoro, sabihin na nating may pag-asa siya, pero mahihirapan. Pero yung 5 million na lamang, mukhang ‘di nahirapan [one would have though he’d have a tough time winning what with the likes of Estrada, Villar and Teodoro running, but his 5-million margin indicates a clear victory],” he said.
Honrado, who is back in government as general manager of the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) puts the situation of the president now: “Well, they have seen Noynoy, the president as the bachelor a few years back. But they have not seen him as the Noynoy as he is now, or even when he was a senator. He was very thorough in his work. You cannot---would dare not--engage him in a conversation unless you are fully prepared.”
Mentally alert, with a strong political will, and clear about his goals in leading people to a better place: those are the key factors defenders say make him a President fully deserving of the title, and not just someone who strayed into the office by virtue of his pedigree or destiny.
His detractors, especially in this impeachment season, counter that his bull-headedness, however, is a bane, and paint him as one with "dictatorial tendencies" who invokes democracy on the one hand, while ignoring due process on the other.
Whoever the real Noynoy Aquino is, the presidency is his privilege and his burden for four more years, and it's one of those remarkable twists of history that this week, when everything we’ve taken to heart about the Constitution occupies the national psyche, one of the most prominent "sons of EDSA" is in power. People expect nothing less than that he make that power work for them, if this constant reliving of a once-glorious struggle is to make sense.