Mrs. Aquino came -- and conquered
PHILIPPINE President Corazon Aquino's recent state visit to the United States was successful on a variety of levels. Congress, obviously moved by President Aquino's powerful and evocative congressional address, temporarily discarded its budget-cutting mood and voted to increase assistance to the Philippines by $200 million. Equally important, Mrs. Aquino seems to have established a good working relationship with the White House, a result that could not have been imagined when she assumed office last February. Previously, the Reagan administration had staunchly supported the Marcos regime, with President Reagan particularly effusive in his praise of Aquino's predecessor. The lingering suspicions of many Filipinos toward the Reagan administration were such that in the weeks before Aquino's departure for the US, Manila was rife with rumors of a possible American-sponsored coup.
For many Americans, the importance of the US link for Filipino leaders is often misunderstood, or, at best, reduced to excessively narrow terms, that is, the amount of American economic aid for the Philippines. While such assistance is important, there is a symbolic aspect of Aquino's US success that touches the roots of Filipino culture, the core of which remains paternalistic and familial, and, in international affairs, oriented toward the US, its colonial mentor.
Despite 40 years of independence from America and the inroads of a growing sense of nationalism, much of the Filipino attitude remains colonial, and with it there is a belief that success in Manila depends, to a degree, on approval in Washington. Within this context, the American imprimatur that Aquino now clearly possesses still carries enormous political weight in the Philippines, and it has made her far more powerful in Philippine politics than she was before her trip.
One person who did not necessarily benefit from President Aquino's foreign success was Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile, a tenacious and formidable holdover from the Marcos era. Mr. Enrile has harshly criticized Aquino government policies, particularly the attempt to seek a negotiated end to the Marxist-led rebellion. Before the Aquino state visit, most of the rumors of a US-sponsored coup focused on Enrile, his undisguised ambitions for the presidency, and his potential ability to muster military support against the Aquino government. Still, it must be noted that Mrs. Aquino has bowed to Enrile somewhat by announcing that she will set a deadline for communist rebels to accept peace -- or stepped up warfare from the government.
In addition, another development will help strengthen her leadership by eliminating a source of political vulnerability -- the transitional nature of her government. A final draft of the new constitution will be submitted to the public for ratification in January. If approved, key provisions will grant President Aquino a six-year term, until 1992, without requiring her to stand for election, and will provide for legislative elections next May.
For the US, the stability of the Aquino government will eventually further American interests. Despite President Aquino's well-justified initial suspicion of the Reagan administration, her foreign policy has gradually assumed a marked pro-American stance.
That support was ample and forthcoming, and, in exchange, virtually guaranteed future US-Philippine cooperation on a critical issue: a new agreement continuing US military bases in the Philippines beyond 1991, the expiration date of the current pact. It is now almost assured that an accommodation will be reached.
Moreover, the new constitution, to the relief of US defense planners, does not bar a continuing American military presence. To be sure, a new treaty on the bases will be subject to more stringent Philippine criteria, including approval by the Senate, and, possibly, invocation of a referendum on the agreement. Nevertheless, the pro-American goodwill generated by the warm US reception of Aquino has had one significant result; the political groundwork is in place for US bases to remain beyond 1991, the openness of Aquino's options aside.
Peter Bacho is a lawyer and teaches Philippine history at the University of Washington.