Cory and the People

Tributes continue to pour for Cory Aquino as Catholic rituals going into her burial today were played out. Thousands were in the streets Monday when her body was moved to the Manila Cathedral, and in Ayala Avenue, confetti rained just like the old times. Yesterday, Ferdinand Marcos’ children paid their last respects to her at the cathedral.

The outpouring of grief and the praises heaped on Cory by the Filipino people and by leaders both here and abroad proved that she is truly one of the biggies in this country’s history. Her role in the events leading to the Edsa people power uprising of 1986 is marked and her defense of a re-acquired democracy as president is noteworthy.

Many words have been used to describe her. “Bearer of democracy, peacemaker, compassionate leader” says one headline. “Saint of people power,” said a Time article. “The Philippines’ most important president of the postwar period,” said the Social Weather Station. Of course, hundreds more of these are being churned in the past days.

Amidst all the rhetoric, a good reminder is about objectivity in assessing Cory’s place in the country’s history. The former president, among whose virtues was humility, would surely have winced at the exaggerations in the praises heaped on her. Much of the misimpression can be rooted in the failure to note the dynamics of the leader and the led.

The reason why Cory towers over the country’s current leaders, or why we are hard put today in producing giants like her, is because of the peculiar milieu that shaped her heroism. Without tyrants like Marcos, there would never have been a Ninoy or Cory Aquino, or even lesser-known but still heroic leaders that surfaced in that particular time.

Meanwhile, the leadership of leaders only becomes more pronounced when a people’s movement rises and props them up. The good Rev. Mark Brouwer said it well: “A man is only a leader when a follower stands beside him.” The Marcos dictatorship was toppled and democracy restored not by Cory or the leaders but by the people.

People’s struggles produce their own leaders. Even without Cory, the anti-Marcos rainbow coalition could have rallied around another leader, most probably with the same result. But the leaders called upon must be up to the test, which was the virtue of Cory. She did not shrink from the challenge and in turn strengthened the people’s resolve.

Of all the phrases used by people in paying homage to her, I think “icon of democracy” is the more apt. By “icon” I don’t mean one that is subject of worship but as a symbol or representative of a people’s struggle and aspiration. Cory rode the crest of the people power revolt and became its face—one that was the most recognizable.

In this sense, it would be impossible to separate Cory, the leader, from the Filipino people who stood up against the Marcos tyranny, or the led. The tributes heaped on Cory are therefore, rightly, praises for the heroism of the Filipino people, too, a heroism that presented itself in one of the darkest years of the country’s history.

(I wrote this for my August 5, 2009 “Candid Thoughts” column in Sun.Star Cebu)

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