Corazon C. Aquino
President of the Philippines (1986–92)
In September 1986, when Corazon Aquino gave a speech before the United States Congress, she had been President of the Philippines for just over half of a tumultuous year and was struggling to rebuild democratic processes abolished by the authoritarian regime of her predecessor, Ferdinand Marcos. Aquino’s path to power was not straightforward. In the 1970s, her husband, Benigno Aquino Jr., had been one of Marcos’s chief political rivals. During Marcos’s tenure, he was imprisoned, then exiled to the United States, and finally, in 1983, upon his return to the Philippines, assassinated.
When Marcos called a snap election in 1985, Aquino, now a widow, was pressed by a ‘one-million signature campaign’ to run for the presidency. Marcos’s government declared that he had won, but widespread fraud was suspected. Leaders of an aborted military coup called for people’s support to prevent their capture. People gathered on the streets and for four days in February 1986, demonstrated against the dictator. Marcos fled the country (he remained in exile in the United States until the end of his life) and Aquino took office by popular demand, becoming the Philippines’s first female president.
One of her first acts was drafting a new constitution which enshrined democratic principles. In her speech before Congress, Aquino describes her country’s commitment to the ideals of democracy, recalling voters undaunted by armed guards at the polls. Soft-spoken and with an even temper, Aquino styled herself as ‘just a housewife’: a reluctant leader thrust into politics by her husband’s death and a sense of duty. However, by the time of her 1986 speech, she had grown into a powerful symbol, for many, of a democratic future in the Philippines. During her time in office, she struggled to unite a fractured country and revive a struggling economy. She stepped down in 1992. Her memory was revived, however, when her son, Noynoy Aquino, was elected president in 2010, a year after her death. She was mourned by thousands in Manila, the country’s capital, as the ‘Mother of Philippine Democracy’.
Speech During the Joint Session of the US Congress 1986
Last year, in an excess of arrogance, the dictatorship called for its doom in a snap election. The people obliged. With over a million signatures, they drafted me to challenge the dictatorship. And I obliged them. The rest is the history that dramatically unfolded on your television screen and across the front pages of your newspapers.
You saw a nation, armed with courage and integrity, stand fast by democracy against threats and corruption. You saw women poll watchers break out in tears as armed goons crashed the polling places to steal the ballots but, just the same, they tied themselves to the ballot boxes. You saw a people so committed to the ways of democracy that they were prepared to give their lives for its pale imitation. At the end of the day, before another wave of fraud could distort the results, I announced the people’s victory.
… When a subservient parliament announced my opponent’s victory, the people turned out in the streets and proclaimed me President. And true to their word, when a handful of military leaders declared themselves against the dictatorship, the people rallied to their protection. Surely, the people take care of their own. It is on that faith and the obligation it entails, that I assumed the presidency.
As I came to power peacefully, so shall I keep it. That is my contract with my people and my commitment to God.
… We have swept away absolute power by a limited revolution that respected the life and freedom of every Filipino…. So within about a year from a peaceful but national upheaval that overturned a dictatorship, we shall have returned to full constitutional government. Given the polarization and breakdown we inherited, this is no small achievement.