When former Philippine president Corazon Aquino died this month, Filipinos filled the streets in mourning and in celebration of the golden moment in 1986 when she led them in a peaceful uprising that some called a revolution.
The nation’s dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, fled as masses of people faced down his tanks, and democracy was restored after 20 years of repressive rule. Aquino, the opposition leader who became president, ushered in wide-ranging political reforms.
But the weeks since Aquino’s death at the age of 76 have been a period of self-examination and self-doubt among many Filipinos as they consider what has really changed.
“The legacy is the mess we are in,” said F. Sionil Jose, 84, the nation’s most prominent novelist, pointing to continuing poverty, inequality and political disarray as evidence that the nation failed to capitalize on its moment of possibility.
“We have a word for it: sayang — ‘what a waste,’” he said.
In schools, coffeehouses, rice fields, churches and offices around Manila and in the countryside, there seemed to be a shared sense that the people of the Philippines had failed themselves.
“We thought all we needed to do was remove the dictator and do nothing about it,” said Teresita Barcelo, president of the Philippine Nurses Association. “We thought the problem was just the dictator. I say the problem is us. We did not change.”
Sister Dory Reyes, 61, a former Roman Catholic nun and teacher in the farming town of Santa Maria, said: “The poverty is still there. The corruption is still there. Unemployment is still there. I don’t see improvement.”
The Philippines, with a population of 92 million, is one of the most vibrant nations in Asia, with a flamboyantly free press and a creative, assertive body of independent organizations and interest groups.
But it has not managed to tame its Communist and Muslim insurgencies or its restive military, which seems to be constantly plotting coups. The military has regularly been accused of human rights abuses and disappearances.
And the political arena sometimes seems more like a form of mass entertainment than a place of governance.
Since Aquino left office in 1992, there have been three presidential elections, two attempts at impeachment, two apparent attempts to stay in power through constitutional change, one popular uprising that ousted an elected president and another that failed.
“We keep coming up with new ways to describe the country,” said Sheila Coronel, director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University in New York, who for years was a leading journalist in the Philippines.
“Democracy in decay, a nonfunctioning democracy, a challenged democracy,” Coronel said, listing some of the epithets. “There was a time when the phrase ‘illiberal democracy’ was fashionable.”
Almost nothing in the Philippines escapes politics, and Aquino’s funeral procession on Aug. 5 has been widely seen as a protest against the unpopular incumbent president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, whose term is scheduled to end this May.
“When Cory’s term ended, she did not seek to extend her stay,” said Consolacion Paje, 53, a housewife, as she stood in the rain with tens of thousands of people to view the funeral cortege, referring to Aquino by her nickname. “That’s what makes her different from Gloria. Cory was honest. She had integrity.”