I’ve been really, really busy with that trial so I haven’t done a ton of writing here these past several days. But I look back on the news of this week and last, and I see a lot of hand-wringing about healthcare but not a lot of comprehension about what the hand-wringing is all about. Not much else — which tells me to look for something that isn’t there. What’s not there in the news is any significant memorialization of a recently-passed hero. No, not Michael Jackson or Walter Cronkite. I’m talking about Corazon Aquino.
Corazon Aquino died last week, and while the people of her nation turned out in huge numbers to memorialize her, pretty much the rest of the world could only be bothered to have their diplomats write some nice things about her in telegrams. It seems that nearly no heads of any state (except for East Timor’s) took the time to attend her funeral. I can’t even find evidence that the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines even went to the event.
We should be ashamed of ourselves, and Philippine citizens have a right to be irritated with us for this omission of honor. Political reform in the Philippines may seem like old news. The Philippines may seem like they are a long way away and not all that important to the U.S.A. But those impressions are profoundly incorrect.
Here’s why we should care about the Philippines. With nearly a hundred million people living within its borders, the Philippines are the world’s thirteenth-most populous nation (more people than Iran, Germany, the UK, or Vietnam) and the world’s tenth-largest state governed through generally free elections. The Philippines is an emerging industrial power whose economy is expanding at a healthy and apparently sustainable rate of 4.2% per year even while our economy is contracting. The nation’s location is strategic to both the safety of the Pacific and Indian Oceans and to access and support for military (particularly naval) activities in southeast Asia and the Straits of Malacca. There is a significant insurgency underway there with ties to al-Qaeda. Globally, the Philippines provide a significant portion of the labor pool of maritime and construction workers — these are the people who are moving our stuff around the world and building our buildings.
But more than that, the Philippines has a long and complex history as a concession, colony, dependency, and ultimately ally and trading partner of the United States. The two nations’ fates, interests, and even identities have become intertwined; to be sure, the U.S. is the wealtheir and more powerful of the two but that does not mean the Philippines can be disregarded. There are millions and millions of Filipino immigrants to the United States and countless people in the U.S. have close personal, family, or friendship ties to Philippine nationals. Our friendship and partnership with the Philippines is a significant diplomatic and economic issue.
So I think we’ve not given enough attention to the death of Corazon Aquino. Ms. Aquino was a pivotal figure in the recent history of this important ally of ours. Besides, anyone who, within a year of her husband’s assassination, emerges as the leader of a peaceful reform movement that throws out a corrupt military dictatorship and replaces it with a (mostly) honest Constitutional democracy with significant protection for individual liberties, maintains good relations with the United States while doing it, and whose popularity enables her government to survive coup attempts from both Communist rebels and right-wing military hard-liners, earned the title “Woman of the Year” and probably should have earned the Nobel Peace Prize (she lost by several votes to Elie Weisel). Along the way she survived multiple assassination attempts on herself and her family, and led her country through the recovery of Mount Pinatubo’s eruption.
This was a remarkable woman who accomplished remarkable things. The nearest political and historical analogy to the United States that I can think of is Abraham Lincoln — she did not found the independent Philippines, but she substantially re-created and reformed the government to make them a fair place for all of its citizens, in the midst of and at the cost of tremendous personal grief and despite multiple attempts to use violence and rebellion to overthrow her. Her “People Power” movement in 1986 presaged by three years the series of sometimes-peaceful and sometimes-not revolutions that liberated eastern Europe and reunified Germany in 1989.
It would be true to note that not everything she did earned approval from the U.S., especially more than twenty years later. But that’s in the nature of politics and international relations. So while she ruffled feathers with land reform and she made some efforts to reduce the U.S. military profile in her country, she nevertheless did more than anyone in three generations to propel her country into the modern economy, set up a legitimate government, and protect the rights of her nation’s citizens. Whatever flaws she may have had as a leader and whatever twenty-year-old policy disagreements we may have had with her government — and they were not hugely significant even back in the late 1980’s — hers was a life worth celebrating and holding up as an examplar for other politicians in emerging democracies.
She should have been celebrated the way we celebrate figures like Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel or Lech Walesa, and for the same reasons. Instead, I think most Americans confuse President Aquino with retifist Imelda Marcos. We should have at least sent Vice-President Biden to President Aquino’s funeral because while maybe the President himself has a lot on his place, Corazon Aquino was a hero to the modern world and she should have been recognized as one. The woman deserved more respect from us than she got.