On February 25, 1986, at 10.45am, Corazon “Cory” Cojuangco Aquino, the widow of slain opposition leader Benigno Aquino, became the first female President of the Philippines. It was the culmination of the phenomenal People Power uprising at EDSA that brought the curtain down on the twenty-year dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. In the next few hours, days, and months, Cory would feel a great sense of utang na loób. This feeling informed many of the decisions she would make. The question is, toward whom did she feel an utang na loób and with what results?
Utang na loób, popularly defined as a debt of gratitude or an obligation of reciprocity, has been ascribed a number of interpretations. Social scientist Virgilio Enriquez, who pioneered the Filipino psychology movement Sikolohiyang Pilipino in the 1970s, considered the concept in relation to a range of Filipino “core values” that preserved and strengthened harmonious personal relationships and determined one’s personhood, or pagkatao. Historian Reynaldo Ileto thought that utang na loób could also stoke conflict and gave the example of how early 20th century messianic Tagalog peasant leaders incited their followers to revolt against US conquest, by reminding them of the debt they owed to their mother country, Inang Bayan. These two approaches to ideas of indebtedness, the first conciliatory, the second potentially revolutionary, are not wholly at odds with one another. It is likely that both found their way into Cory’s decision-making.
In Angela Stuart Santiago’s superbly compiled Chronology of a Revolution, we learn that on February 23, Day 2 of EDSA, Salvador “Doy” Laurel, Cory’s Vice-President, met with the leading coup plotters, Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Lieutenant General Fidel V. Ramos, who had both been, until that moment, active agents of state terror under Marcos. The three came up with a plan to establish a military-civilian junta. Cory rejected this proposal. Nonetheless, two days later, after she was sworn in, Cory’s first Executive order was to appoint Enrile and Ramos to key military positions. Defending her choices, Cory said: “There was no one in the opposition who would have been as accepted and respected by the military. Also, I wanted to show my gratitude. It would have been ungrateful of me if I had put in somebody else.”
That evening, as Marcos departed for exile, Enrile, in a telling sentimental gesture, said goodbye to his old boss with a warm embrace.
The new government that was being assembled in those euphoric early days drew on a remarkable pool of talented and idealistic political and legal men with a healthy respect for human rights. In addition to the members of her inner circle– such luminaries as Jose Diokno, Lorenzo Tañada, Jovito Salonga, Joker Arroyo, and Rene Saguisag, Cory appointed those who had continued the struggle while in exile and who had been close to her husband in the US –Raul S. Manglapus, Bonifacio Gillego, Heherson T. Alvarez and others could now return home and take their place at the head table. Cory showed her gratitude to them all.
There was some infusion of new blood: Joey Lina, for instance, became the youngest member of the Senate. Leticia Ramos Shahani came home after years of overseas study and foreign assignments, and joined her brother Fidel Ramos, whom Cory had promoted to General and military chief of staff.
But, the national level elections that were held in May 1987 soon revealed a few stark facts: of the 200-member House of Representatives, 130 belonged to traditional political families. Another 39 were related to those same dominant families. The majority of the 24 elected senators also came from prominent pre-1972 political families (Benedict Anderson, ‘Cacique Democracy in the Philippines’, 1987).
Cory’s relatives did spectacularly well. Her brother, Jose “Peping” Conjuangco, was a trusted advisor and became one of the most powerful politicians in the country. A brother-in-law was a senator. A cousin, an uncle-in-law and sister-in-law were elected to Congress, and a maternal uncle was majority floor leader of the House of Representatives.
The new middle class forces in society who had clamored for recognition were decisively shut out, along with the rabble that had made up People Power.
It was predicted that this restoration of elite democracy would hinder progress. As early as 1987, the late great historian and political scientist Benedict Anderson could foresee how Cory’s coalition, made up of the oligarchy, the urban middle class and liberal intelligentsia, and the Church, was always going to be uneasy. A decisive power grab by the oligarchy dashed the hopes of any real economic and social change. He was not alone in his pessimism. Coming from a different angle, the American journalist James Fallows noticed a lot of bad behavioral traits, including a lack of civic pride, among Filipinos, and put the blame squarely on a culture that “pulls many Filipinos toward their most self-destructing and self-defeating worst.”
Foreign commentators with a gloomy outlook might come across as cynical and unfairly prejudiced. Yet to a certain extent, both analyses rang true–elitism and culture fused in Cory and her sense of utang na loób, and traditional politicians maintained their old habits of doing business.
Thirty years on, we continue to live with the rapacious dynastic political culture that was allowed to return. To quote American baseball legend Yogi Berra: “It’s like déjà-vu all over again.”