Sunday, August 2, 2009



From St. Joan to Lame Duck
Published: August 1, 2009
Originally published on November 6, 1989.

Three years ago, when Philippine President Corazon Aquino arrived here on her first official visit, she was welcomed as if she were the reincarnation of Joan of Arc. A modest, devout housewife, she had recently toppled the venal and despotic Ferdinand Marcos in a melodramatic morality play, and the capital gave her a tumultuous ovation.

Former Secretary of State George Shultz, a ''Cory'' doll pinned to his lapel, beamed with rare emotion at a banquet in her honor. She conquered Congress with a moving speech that ''Tip'' O'Neill, then speaker of the House, called the ''finest'' he had heard in his 34-year career.

Mrs. Aquino will be back tomorrow in quest of aid, trade and investments, and her personal charm still inspires sympathy. But she cannot hope to rekindle the euphoria of her previous reception. For while she has made progress, she has barely scratched the surface of the profound and pervasive social, economic and political problems that face the Philippines.

Without additional help, those problems are bound to become increasingly critical. But Mrs. Aquino is likely to meet resistance in Congress, the White House and the business community unless she displays more dynamism. She is a premature lame duck, however, having vowed to retire at the end of her term in 1992. So all the plans to renovate the Philippines, which have repeatedly been postponed, will be undoubtedly shelved again in the scramble to succeed her.

The Philippines was a Western colony for nearly all its history, and that experience partly explains its plight.

Except for spreading Catholicism, the Spanish did little to unify the islands during 300 years of rule. Thus the archipelago is still a sprawl of disparate languages, cultures and loyalties, whose people lack a strong sense of national identity. The Spanish also stimulated the development of a plantation economy that pauperized the mass of the peasantry and enriched a handful of landowners.

The United States, after conquering the country at the turn of the century, imported schoolteachers and doctors, and trained the Filipinos for eventual self-government. But its colonial administration, instead of introducing economic and social reforms, perpetuated the authority of the upper classes, whose heirs clung to their power and privileges for decades after the Philippines became independent in 1946.

Following his imposition of martial law in 1972, President Marcos crushed many of the old families by robbing them of their holdings. But he replaced them with even greedier relatives and cronies, who propelled the Philippines into bankruptcy. In addition to looting billions himself, he piled up a debt to foreign financial institutions of $28 billion. So Mrs. Aquino, besides inheriting an antiquated feudal system, found an empty treasury after ousting him in February 1986.

Her priority was to restore democracy, which she did by conducting elections under a new constitution. She survived five coup attempts by disgruntled army officers, and the Communist rebels have suffered setbacks - mainly because of their own blunders. Infusions of foreign capital, mostly from Japan and Taiwan, have contributed to economic growth.

These achievements notwithstanding, Filipinos have been losing confidence in Mrs. Aquino's leadership. Her approval rating, according to a recent survey, has dropped from 86 percent in 1986 to 58 percent today.

Revisiting the Philippines, as I frequently do, recalls the late 1960's, a period of drift and disorder that at first led most Filipinos to support the authoritarian Marcos regime. Even Mrs. Aquino said the other day that many ''would like to see the forcefulness of a dictator'' if he did not usurp their freedom.

Many observers feel that she should have started out by using her immense popularity to decree urgent measures, such as land reform. But she chose to defer to the legislature, arguing she was being democratic. Thus she entrusted change to the surrogates of the returned oligarchy, which naturally opposed change. As a result, the land reform ultimately enacted was emasculated for the benefit of the landowners.

Though her own honesty is above reproach, Mrs. Aquino has recoiled from cracking down on the corruption that riddles her Government, perhaps out of fear of alienating people in high places. She has flinched at streamlining the bureaucracy, where the red tape is such that millions of dollars in aid have remained unspent. Nor has the economic growth trickled down into the city slums and rural areas. A World Bank study reported last year that half the country languishes in ''absolute poverty,'' its income inadequate to ''satisfy basic needs.''

Evidently prompted by religious zeal, moreover, Mrs. Aquino has dodged the single biggest threat to the future - a soaring birthrate projected to double the population by the year 2010. To keep pace would require a 40 percent increase in food production, thousands of schools and clinics, and millions of jobs - an impossible order.

Her stunning victory over Marcos earned Mrs. Aquino the image of a miracle worker, thereby raising expectations that she could not have conceivably fulfilled. So, in a sense, she has been a victim of her initial success. But if her record is mixed, she has at least guided the transition from unscrupulous autocracy to dubious democracy - for which she deserves to retain her somewhat tarnished halo.

Stanley Karnow is the author, most recently, of ''In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines.''