Monday, February 23, 2015
Remembering People Power
When the end came in February of 1986, the only words uttered by a dejected Ferdinand Marcos were “I am so very, very disappointed. It was an unusually languid response for a man who once dominated an entire country. For some twenty years, Marcos had swaggered through the Philippines like a mighty conqueror: dangerous opponents were cashiered or co-opted; every possible symbol and institution of power and repository of wealth was laid at his feet. It was not an exaggeration to say that just about nothing was beyond Marcos's presidential reach.
Armed with a charismatic vitality, an extraordinary acumen, and a despot's ruthlessness, Marcos cajoled and coerced in all directions, gaining in the process the fear and respect of his enemies and the fidelity of his partisans. With his cynics subdued, his sycophants inextricably transfixed, and his power base consolidated, Marcos built a political and economic empire. But it was an empire conceived in ravenous ambition and chronic falsehoods; it could not stand forever on such hollow and unchaste pretenses. Hence, when the phenomenon of “People Power" was evoked, with its ideals of good over evil and reformation over revenge, the Marcos dominion was found to be ripe for overthrow.
Force was one of Marcos's trademarks. His willingness to use it whenever prudence and necessity warranted it seemed to validate Mao's dictum that power grew out of the barrel of a gun. With devoted henchman Fabian Ver and a host of merciless others at his side, Marcos exercised force in its various forms and effectively suppressed voices of dissent for the tenure of his regime.
Yet, when the situation called for unleashing the blunt instruments of repression in February 1986 to put down a rebellion by disillusioned soldiers and citizens, Marcos could not find the resolve to pull the trigger. Risking the loss of support from his patrons in Washington and of leaving behind a bloody legacy for the whole world to see, Marcos reluctantly called down his remaining legions of loyal stormtroopers, perhaps not realizing in the midst of his panic that this atypical failure to move decisively would spell the demise of his rule.
As his universe began to fragment around him, Marcos tried desperately to cling to power, somehow convinced that Filipinos could still be persuaded to renew their faith in him. With each passing day however, the debilitating nature of Marcos’s policies were increasingly estranging him from the Filipino people. The bottom line for Marcos was that he had squandered the nation's confidence and capital after all that time in office, making a shambles of the popular mandate that had formerly been bestowed on him. Dissatisfaction had finally come even to those guilty of acquiescing to him for so long: wide swaths of the military and of the middle class were looking forward to the potentialities of a Philippines without Marcos at the helm.
A tragic figure as the curtain was raised on the final act of his regime, Marcos would flee into exile without much of a fight, never to return to the Philippines alive. His wife Imelda and some of their closest cronies also left in disgrace with the trounced dictator. The sun would rise on Imelda's fortunes again in a few years, along with several of her husband's most opulent courtiers; but for Ferdinand, a political comeback was nothing more than wishful thinking on his part. He would die in a secluded Hawaiian paradise, deluded and in denial, his body surrealistically bound for a cryogenic receptacle in his home province of Ilocos Norte.
The People Power experience provoked the miracle of miracles of watching an absolute dictator fall. It was a monument to the dethroning of a modern sovereign who had gone far astray from his people and from any sense of morality or compassion. The outgrowth of those few heady days in February 1986 was the setting of the Philippines on a refreshingly new course: the nation, once again united under the banner of freedom and democracy, could now be pointed towards the collective goal of improving all aspects of Filipino life. People Power, coming in the wake of an exposed military conspiracy for the seizure of government, became a lesson for all Filipinos, a lesson in both conscience and consciousness.
The uprising also represented a new dawn for the common Filipino. With their future all but mortgaged and their existence turned into a reservoir of despair and degradation, the common Filipino folk were shown by the new leaders of the country the tapestry of social and economic reform. People Power helped revive the hearts and minds of the masses for it granted them a hearing for their long-ignored needs and concerns. The masses now discerned a positive meaning in the countless wrongs and deprivations that had been inflicted on them under the Marcos administration. The success of People Power promised to reward their suffering with their rebirth as a proud, liberated, and prosperous people. This was an easy sell on Philippine streets and in the barangays where the residents never stopped praying for a fresh start. As novelist Ninotchka Rosca reflectively wrote about the Philippines, “Everything in this country happens in the morning...Because it is a country of beginnings."
People Power opened other perspectives for Filipinos: it dedicated them anew to their traditional values, religious convictions, and venerable love of country. For other Filipinos, People Power turned into an opportunity to return a measure of respectability to the Philippines; these Filipinos yearned to become the architects of a thriving, pristine socio-economic order, an order where strife, venality, and glaring disparities would no longer be the dispositions of the day. One window looked to the salvation of the past; the other looked to the prospects for the future.
Ultimately, the starry-eyed spectacle of People Power accentuated Filipinos' national identity. This transformational event was an inspirational gesture of autonomy; it proved that Filipinos' themes were finally their own, that they could take the fate of their country into their own hands and not be so easily subject to outsider influence or manipulation. Indeed, there was little that any outsider could do but watch the locals play out the drama that was of their own creation. The late, great national artist Nick Joaquin wrote, as People Power unraveled itself before his very eyes, “For once we were not only in on the making of history, but we ourselves were making the history."
In the extended aftermath of People Power 20 years after the fact, many of its dreams and expectations have not come to fruition. In the euphoria of the moment, the movement's protagonists may have lifted a famished people's hopes too high and too hastily without regard to reason or to the realities on the ground. For some, what happened in February 1986 has turned into a terrible disappointment: Filipinos were led up another blind alley to nowhere. For the more optimistic, they prefer to remember the first People Power as a once in a lifetime example that Filipinos should never stop striving for: an example of fraternity, goodness, resolution, and courageousness.