Thirty-five long years have passed since Ferdinand Marcos was deposed as President of the Republic in the 1986 People Power uprising.
His regime was riddled by multiple incidences and accounts of human rights abuse, economic mismanagement, and a general sense of national decline brought about by his and his cronies’ tendency to work on increasing their own respective treasuries and fortunes instead of those belonging to the Filipino people.
The years before EDSA, as the popular uprising is more commonly known after the avenue in Manila where its main events unfolded, did not bode well nor remain happy ones for a vast majority of the Filipino people.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, as President Marcos began to suffer from the debilitating effects of lupus on his mental and physical condition, the economic state of the country did in fact suffer as well. 1980 to 1985 brought with it some of the worst growth rates and a decline in living standards not seen for some time.
Labor was being exported to other, more affluent countries, due to the rising scarcity of gainful employment resulting from the termination of the Laurel-Langley agreement on sugar tariffs and trading.
The Negrense sugar industry writhed in pain from a tumultuous collapse, with working families turning hungrier, poorer, and more desperate in their behaviors.
So too did the prevailing class of sugarcane plantation owners who suffered from the effects of low sugar prices combined in a deadly cocktail of misfortune with oligarchical cronyism, causing rapidly-mounting debts, socio-economic turmoil, and a sense of dissatisfaction.
From a diet of sweetness and euphoria, the people then feasted on anguish, suffering, and the seeds of a national breakdown.
Disorder grew rampant and festered in every corner of the Fourth Republic.
Marcos’ regime teetered on the brink, made only worse by the assassination of a prominent critic, former Senator Benigno S. Aquino Jr., who held a massive following among the populace.
When the international community came knocking, Marcos caved in and called for snap elections to take place in February of 1986, a year earlier than legally mandated.
In the run-up to the elections, the opposition planned to field Salvador “Doy” Laurel for the top post, only for him to later slide down to become the running mate of Corazon C. Aquino, the slain former Senator Aquino’s widow, due largely to the groundswell of support in the aftermath of her tragic widowing.
The pair made an agreement whereby Laurel would have been given the task to run the government and its daily affairs to help the economy recover, while Mrs. Aquino will stand as national figurehead.
A cohesive plan, it seemed, until subsequent events proved otherwise.
The pent-up discontent among the people soon showed and with great uproar.
The ill President was taken out of office in late February of 1986, shortly following the controversial snap election during which numerous irregularities caused the opposition headed by Mrs. Aquino to engage in a steady campaign of civil disobedience.
Ratcheting it up a notch was the coup headed by Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Philippine Constabulary Chief Fidel V. Ramos.
Marcos could not crush the movement as the the people came out in droves to show support for Ramos and Enrile, beckoned by the call of Jaime Cardinal Sin, and to call for the installation of Corazon Aquino as head of state.
Marcos was advised by his friend United States Senator Paul Laxalt to “cut, and cut cleanly”, and so he did, taking with him his wealth and his family to a Hawaiian exile.
As Mrs. Aquino was inaugurated President on the 25th of February at the Club Filipino in San Juan, a great feeling of relief and jubilation ran down the collective spine and rejoiced the hearts of the Filipino people.
They had removed by their own hand a person no longer fit to govern the Republic. They had saved it from imminent decline. Finally, they felt they had a chance at finding success for their destiny as a nation of nations.
A growing sense of national renewal ran thick through the atmosphere. Or so they thought, had Mrs. Aquino and her administration not let them down.
The ensuing political structure rendered that euphoria short-lived at best.
One of the new President’s first actions was to proclaim and install a revolutionary government, a total reordering of the State, with her taking the supreme powers of the head of government.
This was, of course, in stark contrast to her prior agreement with then-Prime Minister Laurel, who agreed with her a maintenance of the existing constitutional order perhaps subject to their amendments later on.
Of course, Laurel’s disappointment was palpable, as he later on made known to the President that he could no longer support her.
Mrs. Aquino then ordered the formation of a handpicked constitutional commission that, in the span of less than a year, drafted a wordy document which was written mainly as a reaction, I would say overreaction, to the regime preceding hers.
This document, while outwardly promising the blessings of democracy and prosperity to the Filipinos, maintained the prevailing status quo wherein the economy was sealed off to foreign investors while companies were looking to expand into Asia at that point.
The Presidency remained lorded over the organs of state and became unaccountable to these while Manila remained the center of politics and economic development.
This people were made to believe in the new Constitution’s purported benefits and safeguards against the past.
It basically captured her and her closest advisors’ world view and political substance, along with setting the tone for the rest of her administration.
It came as no surprise then, that the promises of EDSA were blown off like dust in the wind in the sequence of her presidency.
Aquino’s government enacted a land reform program that basically dug the sugar economy deeper into a ditch by subdividing land into parcels so tiny that the basic principles of a productive and healthy “economy of scale” were shockingly negated.
From a more local standpoint, my province of Negros Occidental bore the brunt of this epic failure of an agricultural policy, which was implemented without regard to realities and best practices.
The chaos of the Marcos years, ironically enough, did not stop there. The lack of revenues crippled the fighting prowess of the Armed Forces, resulting in the already-formidable communist insurgency to absorb substantial throngs of recruits and soar to some of its highest numbers.
Factions in her government, the military included, vied openly for power with multiple rebellions and coup attempts, undermining confidence in her Fifth Republic.
These occurred while her own cronies, including her own family members, sustained control of economic opportunities and the levers of finance, that made the economy recover at a sluggish pace.
In the apt words of Newsweek Magazine, popularity did not prove enough.
The commitment made at Epifanio De Los Santos Avenue more than three decades ago forlornly lies, ripped to shreds by a system, by institutions, that do not accurately reflect and make manifest the sovereign will of the Filipino people, but whose most visible effect was to profit only a privileged few.
This is the supreme tragedy of the state and its people, a narrative thirty-five years on, that retains the vicious cycle of government oppression, false hopes, and unequal opportunities.
The tragedy lies in the fact that while the people running the system changed, the system itself did not.
If we truly wish to look back on the 1986 People Power uprising in more nuanced and non-cynical light, we must look at where it went wrong. It went wrong where it was decided that power be kept in one geographic location, instead of diffusing it towards the different ends of the archipelago.
It went wrong where its economic levers remained in the hands of the elites, causing continued detriment to the overall living standards of the people.
And it went wrong where its legacy continues to promote people above ideas, popularity over policy, rigidity over evolution, and exclusion over inclusion.
In embracing and promoting the true spirit and fundamental essence of EDSA and to fully exorcise the ghosts of Martial Law before it, we must change not only ourselves, but also correct the laws and institutions that have always shaped the way we think, the way we feel as a people, and the way we collectively behave.
We still live in the shadows of that popular uprising; in the darkness and trauma while even our neighbors have launched themselves forward into the light.
They have, by their hands, implemented a framework whereby popular participation in government and in the economy, is encouraged and nurtured.
This was the meaning of those heady days thirty-five Februaries ago, when our destiny seemed ripe for the taking.
Will we now, actually and meaningfully, take it?