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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Enthusiasm for Aquino evident on Hawai'i visit

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

Corazon Aquino, who once occupied the hottest of political hot seats in Asia, was content yesterday to enjoy her status as elder stateswoman, basking in the affection of those who see her as a symbol of democratic ideals.

Al Lardizabal of Kalihi asked former Philippine President Corazon Aquino to autograph the "I Had Coffee With Cory" mug he received as a gift from Aquino in 1990 when he visited Manila for business.

Former Philippine President Corazon Aquino, left, had her picture taken with various members of the public after touring the Filipino Community Center in Waipahu yesterday. Aquino is in Hawai'i to receive the Asia Pacific Community Building award at an East-West Center gala tonight.

Photos by Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

And even if the former Philippine president's "People Power" revolution remains a work in progress 12 years after she left office, the crowd that greeted her at the Filipino Community Center clearly believed that she earned her place in history.

They followed her on a tour of the building, celebrating its second birthday, through the new technology center and commercial kitchen, out to the statue of Filipino patriot Jose Rizal.

"I think we need another statue, an Aquino statue," said board member Theresia McMurdo, a reference to the visitor's late husband, a popular senator who led the opposition to dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

The assassination of Benigno Aquino almost 21 years ago catapulted his widow into political prominence and set off the populist revolt that ended the Marcos regime.

Aquino wore scarlet, but several of her fans remembered her signature color. The center's president, Amy Agbayani, had filled vases with yellow flowers from her yard. Rosario Edinnor cradled baby Alec Macaisa, outfitted in a yellow romper ("Well, it's Cory!" Edinnor said).

Al Lardizabal was deputy state tax director in 1990 when he and other government officials traveled to Manila to visit Aquino. He had dusted off his yellow "I Had Coffee With Cory" mug and was exulting over the freshly inked Aquino autograph it now bore.

"It had pencils in it," he confessed. "But I cleaned it out ... and now it's really worth something!"

Lardizabal was one of a few hundred people who filled the center ballroom to hear Aquino praise the facility and then threaded their way close enough for a photo with "Cory."

They did their best to keep her from leaving altogether. Businessman and center board member Eddie Flores wore an expression combining vexation with amusement.

"That's it! She's gotta go!" Flores announced, and then added a quiet observation: "She needs a bodyguard ... I don't want people ripping her apart."

The former president is here to receive the Asia Pacific Community Building award at an East-West Center gala tonight (where, she promised, she will wear yellow). At the center earlier in the day Aquino had fielded media questions about the latest international crisis her country faces.

But she would not second-guess Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's decision to withdraw troops from the Iraq war ahead of schedule. The turnabout in national policy was announced yesterday, following anguish over Iraqi kidnappers and their threats to kill a Filipino hostage unless the pullout begins.

"I'm not in a position to say what President Arroyo should do," Aquino said. She said the Philippines is part of a far more complex, far more dangerous international political landscape than when she was president.

"I know what difficulties she must be facing now," she added, speaking to the media following a luncheon at the East-West Center. "I feel for her, and I feel for the hostage and his family."

Still, Aquino acknowledged that she had faced considerable pressure in the domestic arena, the worst of it being the need to fend off coup attempts. Those "man-made calamities" were far more daunting even than the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo.

"You just pray at the end of the day, and thank God that you finished that day," she said. "I just hoped that I continued to be credible, that the Filipino people would still believe in me."

Aquino acknowledged that Philippine elections remain problematic, owing in part to the lack of an automated system, but praised her successors for maintaining democratic institutions. The best way to curb corruption in government may be to pay officials comparably with the private sector, she said, but the country's economy can't support that yet.

In recent years Aquino has concentrated on working with nongovernment organizations, particularly those that combat the country's poverty. In her spare time she's taken up painting, and has donated one for the charity silent auction tonight. Several have gone to heads of state, including the wealthy Sultan of Brunei.

"I told the sultan that I know he has everything," she recalled, "and he said that, 'No, I don't have a Cory Aquino.' I thought that was kind."

The 71-year-old mother of five and grandmother of seven has reached a kinder and gentler stage in life, but the family still bears the indelible mark of memory.

Aquino is traveling with her eldest daughter, Maria Elena Cruz, who was 17 at the time Marcos declared martial law.

Cruz remembered visits to her father in prison, remembered when people were afraid to associate with the Aquinos.

And then the family learned he had been killed.

"We thought we'd go home and bury him, and who would care?" Cruz said. "We never expected that we wouldn't even be able to get in my mother's house, because of all the people there.

"That's when I realized the Filipinos were really worth dying for," she said.

Reach Vicki Viotti at vviotti@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8053.