Thursday, October 9, 1986

KBOO 9 October 1986

As the slight figure entered the hall the band struck up the ‘Dream the impossible dream’ tune from ‘the Man of La Mancha’. It was a moving moment as a retiring housewife who had taken night classes returned to her alma mater, Boston University, to receive an honorary doctorate as President Aquino of the Philippines.

Many of the audience were sporting yellow buttons in solidarity with the spirit of the movement which had restored democracy to her country. Moving down the aisle of the lecture theater with the robed professors and escorted by Cardinal Law she greeted friends, even stopped for a word with a former classmate.

‘She was radiant,’ one of the audience told me, ‘quite a small lady, a quiet presence, yet when she came to speak she was quietly forceful and effective. As I observed her at close quarters I was struck by her extraordinary inner peace, strength and joy.’

Boston had been for two years the home in exile for her late husband, Senator Benigno Aquino, who was a Fellow at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs, and Boston University’s Center for Democracy had played a significant role in supporting the new dispensation in the Philippines.

Responding to the award of an honorary Doctor of Laws, Mrs. Aquino said, ‘At a time when the prospects for change in our land still looked forlorn and distant, your city and its great institutions of learning provided us with understanding and support and enabled us to keep the flame of hope alive, the hope that we could go back home in freedom. Standing again in your company almost seven months after that hope was fulfilled, we are encouraged to believe that our present labor to rebuild a devastated nation will just as quickly find fulfillment.’

After nearly a century, she said, relations between the United States and the Philippines had become the subject of many clichés. There was one, however, that seemed to her to have survived time and abuse and lived on in the experience of the two peoples. It was the one that said that Americans and Filipinos drank from the common fount of democracy. ‘This is so,’ she said, ‘because there will always be people like Martin Luther King and Ninoy Aquino, who belong to their dreams. Our peoples will always respond to leaders who can agree with what Dr. King said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’ or be inspired by what her own husband said of his oppressed people, ‘The Filipino is worth dying for.’

It was indeed from Boston that her husband went back to Manila where he was murdered on the tarmac outside his plane. And in her Harvard University address the President quoted from the arrival statement which he had prepared and never had the chance to give: ‘I have returned of my own free will to join the ranks of those struggling to restore our rights and freedoms through nonviolence. According to Gandhi the willing sacrifice of the innocent is the most powerful answer to insolent tyranny that has yet been conceived by God and man. I return from exile and to an uncertain future with only determination and faith to offer, faith in our people and faith in God.’

It is that faith in God that inspires, too, his wife. The ‘Boston Sunday Globe’ began its report of Mrs. Aquino’s Harvard speech: Describing her ascent to the Philippine Presidency as a miracle brought about by the power of her people and their faith in God, Corazon C. Aquino detailed yesterday the philosophy of nonviolence with which she is leading her troubled country.

Her husband’s funeral was the turning point as two million people threw aside passivity and fear and marched in his funeral procession. ‘Until then,’ she said, ‘nonviolence was the unpopular alternative. After that day of mourning it was the face of the Philippine revolution.’

That revolution was not a flash of divine intervention but nevertheless it was a miracle, she said. ‘How, if not by a miracle, did the people find the courage that had eluded them throughout fourteen years of abuse and shame?’ she asked. It was nonviolent. ‘If revenge is the purpose, then a blunted instrument is necessary,’ she said. ‘That was not our purpose. We wanted a change for the better and a swift healing of the wounds of the past.’ A war conducted through nonviolence, she concluded, could not succeed merely through efficient organization. In her country it started with their faith and their church. ‘People power is prayer power. That is the cause that lifted it up and gave individuals and the mass the courage to do what we did,’ n e she said.

Assessing her one-day visit to the United States, which included being entertained in the White House and addressing the Congress, (‘A magic moment’, according to Senator Lugard) the London ‘Economist’ magazine called it ‘extraordinarily successful.’ She expects to get loans form the IMF and the World Bank as well as $200 million of American aid, though not the Marshall Plan dimension of help she would have liked.

The Philippines has an ailing economy and huge debt payments, Communist insurgents and Muslim separatists, and a divided cabinet, many of the problems Marcos attempted to tackle before being overtaken by corruption, but, as the London ‘Times’ writes, ‘Mrs. Aquino offers idealism and individual self-respect as an alternative.’ She will need all the people power and political savvy she can get. She will need, too, wise support from the United States. As one of Mrs. Aquino’s entourage told me, ‘We would like to see America not only as a country of great wealth but a country where people know how to care for people of smaller nations.’

At the time of the revolution earlier this year Boston columnist Ellen Goodman said that Mrs. Aquino would not ‘end up as a figurehead in a yellow dress brought out for state occasions.’ How right she was. And her husband would rejoice. Perhaps she thought of him with the last strains of ‘The impossible dream’: ‘And the world will be better for this that one man scorned and covered with scars still strove with his last ounce of courage to reach the unreachable stars.’