Personal memories of Cory on her 91st birthday

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz - The Philippine Star

Maria Corazon “Cory” Cojuangco was born on Jan. 25, 1933,  the sixth of eight children of Jose Cojuangco and Demetria Sumulong. She attended grade school at St. Scholastica’s College and went to the United States for her high school and college education. At the College of Mount Saint Vincent in New York, she graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in French and a minor in mathematics. Returning to the Philippines, she took up law classes at Far Eastern University but discontinued her studies when she married Ninoy Aquino.

Cory was put in the national spotlight when her husband was assassinated in 1983 as she was seen as the only force that would unify the opposition. She ran against Ferdinand Marcos during the 1986 snap elections. After numerous protests and rallies against the violence and alleged fraud in the elections, the defection of military officers from Marcos and mobilization of religious, political and civic groups who went to EDSA and the success of the 1986 nonviolent People Power Revolution in February 1986, Cory was sworn in as the 11th president and the first woman president of the Philippines.

One of my proudest memories is that I was one of the few lucky ones who started working for president Cory on day one of her presidency. That was the day after Marcos fled the country and Corazon Aquino became the new head of the Philippine government.

The night Marcos fled the Philippines, several of us were in a house in Wack Wack with Cory. When the news came that the dictator had fled and the martial law regime had ended, a thanksgiving mass was held. Afterward, she announced some Cabinet appointments, including Joker Arroyo as executive secretary.

Some time that evening, Joker called and told me to report to him the following day. We started working without any title or official appointment. Malacañang was still being “debombed” and was shut down for security reasons. For the first few months, the office of the president was in the Cojuangco building in Makati. During those early days, the technical staff serving the president was composed of two people – Joker and me.

But it was an easy transition because during the campaign days, I had already met the people – like Margie Juico, Maria Montelibano, Teddy Boy Locsin, Rene Saguisag – who would compose her personal and media staff.

The restoration of democracy had been a long struggle. Combating the forces that were trying to topple the democratic institutions being rebuilt proved equally daunting. There were coup attempts like the “God Save the Queen” plot, which led to the dismissal of Juan Ponce Enrile as minister of defense. There were others, like the one led by Gringo Honasan, during which the near-fatal shooting of the president’s son, Noynoy, happened. During that coup attempt, many staff members and I had to live and sleep in Malacañang for a week.

There were also many high points. There were the rallies where people gathered to support her presidency in spite of threats from coup plotters. There were the accolades from the world, and the speech to the United States Congress where senior American political leaders pinned Cory cloth dolls on their coats when they attended the joint session to listen to her.

There was the convening of the Philippine constitutional assembly and the first democratic elections, after which she voluntarily gave her legislative powers to the new Congress.

As head of the Presidential Management Staff, I was with her as she literally toured the country meeting with different groups – from cultural minorities to business leaders to ordinary citizens. I was with her visiting areas devastated by natural calamities, from the Baguio earthquake to floods.

I witnessed her resolving policy debates and political conflicts. But my favorite stories are those times she focused on directly helping the poor. She saw the poor as individuals with different needs and not just as economic indicators or poverty rates.

She instructed me to set up a structure whereby a certain percentage of revenues of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR) would be channeled directly to projects for the poor. That was why we created the President’s Social Fund.

Her instructions were that all the funds would be for projects that had a direct impact on the lives of the poor. We had to specify the final beneficiaries. The funding would also be coursed through NGOs and all the undertakings would be what we now call microprojects. These included classrooms, potable water systems, footbridges and livelihood projects.

Cory Aquino was a Lady – always courteous and polite. I never saw her humiliate or embarrass anyone or raise her voice in anger in public. One time, when two Cabinet officials were having a vigorous policy debate in front of the whole Cabinet, she simply told them they were giving her a headache and the debate immediately ended.

But for those who worked for her, we knew when a decision was final and that she was getting upset. With me it was when her tone, in saying my name, changed to a simple, curt “Elfren.” Then there were also times when her lips would tighten and we knew she was becoming upset and it was time to move on.

That was just one of the many times when we knew the Lady was also the Boss.

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