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Filipinos mourn "people power" icon

Corazon Aquino, ex-president of the Philippines, is dead at 76.

An honor guard stands near the coffin of late former Philippine President Corazon Aquino at De La Salle University in Manila, Aug. 1, 2009. Aquino, whose ouster of one of the 20th century's most corrupt dictators Ferdinand Marcos made her a global icon of democracy, died after a 16-month battle against colon cancer. She was 76. (Romeo Ranoco/Reuters)

MANILA — She was the closest the Philippines ever had to a living saint. And when she died on Saturday, from colon cancer at the age of 76, Filipinos grieved as though they had just lost one.

Inside a Catholic school in Manila where the remains of Corazon Aquino lay for public viewing, Filipinos from all walks of life lined up to get a glimpse of “Tita (Auntie) Cory,” undaunted by the heavy downpour that had drenched the capital all day. Nuns and priests with solemn faces walked past the shivering masses and the rows and rows of white, green and yellow flowers that covered the campus. On the railings going up to the school’s gym, yellow ribbons flapped forlornly in the rain.

“This is such a sad day for me and my family,” said Digna Labalan, a 50-year-old businesswoman who lined up on Saturday evening to view Aquino’s casket a few hundred meters away. In 1986, like hundreds of thousands of Filipinos, Labalan had gone to Edsa — the main highway in the capital where the “people power” that toppled Ferdinand Marcos took place — and participated in what has been called a “bloodless revolution” later emulated in many countries in the world.

But Labalan said she was “relieved and happy that Aquino had gone to heaven, no longer in pain.” Aquino suffered greatly from the cancer — she was on morphine when she died. Across the country, trees and fences had been festooned with yellow ribbons, the symbol of the housewife who challenged the dictator Marcos and went on to become the country’s first woman president.

An image of a yellow ribbon had replaced profile pictures on Twitter and Facebook. Churches all over were holding daily masses for the stricken former president.

A daughter of one of the country’s wealthiest families, Aquino was thrust into the political limelight after the assassination in 1983 of her husband, Benigno Aquino Jr., the arch enemy of the dictator. When Marcos rigged the election in 1986, Filipinos revolted, drove Marcos away to Guam (he later died in exile in Hawaii) and installed the housewife as their new president.

Although her six years in office were tumultuous — she survived at least six coup attempts — Aquino restored the democratic institutions that the dictatorship had systematically destroyed destroyed during two decades in power.

But many say Aquino could only do so much. For instance, her centerpiece program — agrarian reform — did little to alleviate poverty in the countryside or end the festering communist insurgency. Indeed, her family’s vast landholdings managed to escape this program, prompting cries from the left that Aquino never transcended her class interests. Worse, some of the most notorious atrocities against peasants and farmers occurred during her term, such as when her troops massacred more than a dozen farmers demonstrating near the presidential palace.