A self-proclaimed "plain housewife", Aquino is the widow of Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr., a leading figure in the political opposition against the autocratic rule of President Ferdinand Marcos. After her husband was assassinated upon his return from exile in the United States on August 21, 1983, Aquino, who had no prior political experience, became a focal point and unifying force of the opposition against Marcos. She was drafted to run against Marcos in the 1986 snap presidential elections. After Marcos was proclaimed the winner despite widespread reports of electoral fraud, Aquino was installed as President by the peaceful 1986 People Power Revolution.
She is the fourth among six (6) siblings: Pedro, Josephine Reyes, Teresita Lopa (+), Jose Jr., and Maria Paz Teopaco. She was sent to St. Scholastica's College and finished grade school as class valedictorian in 1943. In 1946, she studied high school for one year in Assumption Convent Manila, later she was sent overseas to study in Ravenhill Academy in Philadelphia where Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco once studied, the Notre Dame Convent School in New York, and the College of Mount Saint Vincent, also in New York. Aquino worked as a volunteer in the 1948 United States presidential campaign of Republican Thomas Dewey against President Harry Truman. She studied liberal arts and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree major in French Language and minor in Mathematics in 1953. She had intended to become a math teacher and language interpreter.
A member of the Liberal Party, Aquino's husband rose to be governor of Tarlac, and was elected to the Philippine Senate in 1967. During her husband's political career, Aquino remained a housewife who helped raise the children and played hostess to her spouse's political allies who would frequent their Quezon City home.She would decline to join her husband on stage during campaign rallies, preferring instead to stand at the back of the audience in order to listen to him. Nonetheless, she was consulted upon on political matters by her husband, who valued her judgments enormously.
Benigno Aquino soon emerged as a leading critic of the government of President Ferdinand Marcos of the Nacionalista Party, and there was wide speculation that he would run in the 1973 presidential elections, Marcos then being term limited. However, Marcos declared martial law on September 21, 1972, and later abolished the 1935 Constitution, allowing him to remain in office. Aquino's husband was among those arrested at the onset of martial law, later being sentenced to death. During his incarceration, Aquino drew strength from prayer, attending daily mass and saying three rosaries a day. As a measure of sacrifice, she enjoined her children from attending parties, and herself stopped from going to the beauty salon or buying new clothes, until a priest advised her and her children to instead live as normal lives as possible.
In 1978, despite her initial opposition, Aquino's imprisoned husband decided to run the 1978 Batasang Pambansa elections. Aquino campaigned in behalf of her imprisoned husband and for the first time in her life, delivered a political speech, though she willingly relinquished having to speak in public when it emerged that her six-year old daughter Kris was more than willing to speak on stage.
In 1980, upon the intervention of United States President Jimmy Carter, Marcos allowed Senator Aquino and his family leave for exile in the United States. The family settled in Boston, and Aquino would later call the next three years as the happiest days of her married life. He returned without his family to the Philippines on August 21, 1983, only to be assassinated at the tarmac of the Manila International Airport, which was later renamed in his honor. Aquino returned to the Philippines a few days later and led her husband's funeral rites, where around two million people were estimated to have participated.
Aquino participated in many of the mass actions that were staged in the two years following the assassination of her husband. On the last week of November 1985, Marcos unexpectedly announced a snap presidential election to be held in February 1986. Initially, Senator Salvador Laurel of Batangas, the son of a former president, was seen as the favorite presidential candidate of the opposition, under the United Nationalists Democratic Organizations. However, business tycoon Don Joaquin "Chino" Roces was not convinced that Laurel could defeat Marcos in the polls. Roces initiated the Cory Aquino for President Movement to gather one million signatures in one week for Cory to run as president.
Aquino was reluctant at first to run for presidency, despite pleas that she was the one candidate who could unite the opposition against Marcos. She eventually was convinced following a ten-hour meditation session at a Catholic convent. Laurel did not immediately accede to calls for him to give way to Aquino, and offered her the vice-presidential slot under his UNIDO party. Aquino instead offered to give up her affiliation with her husband's political party, the Lakas ng Bayan (LABAN), which had just merged with Partido Demokratiko Pilipino, and run under the UNIDO banner with Laurel sliding down to the vice-presidential slot. Laurel gave way to Aquino to run as President and ran as her running-mate under UNIDO as the main political umbrella of the opposition.
In the succeeding political campaign, Marcos charged that Aquino was being supported by communists and agreed to share power with them, to which she responded that she would not appoint one to her cabinet. Marcos also accused Aquino of playing "political football" with the United States with respect to the continued United States military presence in the Philippines at Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base. Marcos also derided Aquino as "just a woman" whose place was in the bedroom.
The elections held on February 7, 1986 were marred by the intimidation and mass disenfranchisement of voters. Election day itself and the days immediately after were marred by violence, including the murder of one of Aquino's top allies, Antique governor Evelio Javier. While the official tally of the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) consistently showed Marcos in the lead, the unofficial tally of the National Movement for Free Elections indicated that Aquino was leading. Despite the job walkout of 30 COMELEC computer technicians alleging election-rigging in favor of Marcos, the Batasang Pambansa, controlled by Marcos allies, ratified the official count and proclaimed Marcos the winner on February 15, 1986. The country's Catholic bishops and the United States Senate condemned the election, and Aquino called for a general strike and a boycott of business enterprises controlled by Marcos allies. She also rejected a power-sharing agreement proposed by the American diplomat Philip Habib, who had been sent as an emissary by U.S. President Ronald Reagan to help defuse the tension.
On February 22, 1986, the People Power Revolution was triggered after two key Marcos allies, Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Armed Forces Vice-Chief of Staff Fidel Ramos called on Marcos to resign and holed up in two military camps in Quezon City. Aquino, who was in Cebu City when the revolt broke out, returned to Manila and insisted on joining the swelling crowd that had gathered outside the camps as a human barricade to protect the defectors. On the morning February 25, 1986, at the Club Filipino in San Juan, Aquino took the presidential oath of office administered by Supreme Court Associate Justice Claudio Teehankee. Marcos himself was sworn into office at Malacañang Palace on that same day, but fled into exile later that night.
The six-year administration of President Aquino saw the enactment of a new Philippine Constitution and several significant legal reforms, including a new agrarian reform law. While her allies maintained a majority in both houses of Congress, she faced considerable opposition from communist insurgency and right-wing soldiers who instituted several coup attempts against her government. Her government also dealt with several major natural disasters that struck the Philippines, as well as a severe power crisis that hampered the Philippine economy. It was also during her administration that the presence of United States military bases in the Philippines came to an end.
One month after assuming the presidency, Aquino issued Proclamation No. 3, which proclaimed her government as a revolutionary government. She suspended the 1973 Constitution installed during martial law, and promulgated a provisional “Freedom Constitution” pending the enactment of a new Constitution. She likewise closed the Batasang Pambansa and reorganized the membership of the Supreme Court. In May 1986, the reorganized Supreme Court declared the Aquino government as “not merely a de facto government but in fact and law a de jure government”, whose legitimacy had been affirmed by the community of nations.
Aquino appointed 48 members of a Constitutional Commission tasked with drafting a new Constitution. The commission, which was chaired by retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Cecilia Muñoz-Palma completed its final draft in October 1986 The 1987 Constitution was approved in a national plebiscite in February 1987. Both the “Freedom Constitution” and the 1987 Constitution authorized President Aquino to exercise legislative power until such time a new Congress was organized. She continued to exercise such powers until the new Congress organized under the 1987 Constitution convened in July 1987. Within that period, Aquino promulgated two legal codes that set forth significant legal reforms -- the Family Code of 1987, which reformed the civil law on family relations, and the Administrative Code of 1987, which reorganized the structure of the executive branch of government.
In 1991, Aquino signed into law the Local Government Code, which further devolved national government powers to local government units. The new Code enhanced the power of local government units to enact local taxation measures, and assured them of a share of the national internal revenue.
On July 22, 1987, Aquino issued Presidential Proclamation 131 and Executive Order 229, which outlined the President’s land reform program, and expanded land reform to sugar lands. Her agrarian reform policy was enacted into law by the 8th Congress of the Philippines, which in 1988 passed Republic Act No. 6657, also known as “The Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law”. The law authorized the redistribution of agricultural lands to tenant-farmers from landowners, who were paid in exchange by the government just compensation and allowed to retain not more than five hectares of land. Corporate landowners were also allowed under the law to “voluntarily divest a proportion of their capital stock, equity or participation in favor of their workers or other qualified beneficiaries”, in lieu of turning over their land to the government for redistribution. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law in 1989, characterizing the agrarian reform policy as “a revolutionary kind of expropriation.”
Controversies eventually centered on the landholdings of Aquino, who inherited from her parents the 6,453 hectare large Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac which was owned through the Tarlac Development Company. Opting for the stock distribution option under the agrarian reform law, Tarlac Development Company established Hacienda Luisita, Incorporated (HLI) in order to effect the distribution of stocks to the farmer-tenants of the hacienda. Ownership of the agricultural portions of the hacienda were transferred to the new corporation, which in turn distributed its shares of stocks to the farmers. The arrangement withstood until 2006, when the Department of Agrarian Reform revoked the stock distribution scheme implemented in Hacienda Luisita, and ordered instead the redistribution of a large portion of the property to the tenant-farmers. The Department had stepped into the controversy when in 2004, violence erupted over the retrenchment of workers in the Hacienda, eventually leaving seven people dead.
From 1986 to 1989, Aquino was confronted with a series of attempts at military interventions by some members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, aimed at the overthrow of the Aquino government. Most of these attempts were instigated by the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM), a group of middle-ranking officers closely linked with Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile. Soldiers loyal to former President Marcos were likewise involved in some of these attempts. The first five of the attempts were either quashed before they were put in operation, or repelled with minimal or no violence. The sixth attempt, staged on August 28, 1987, left 53 people dead and over 200 wounded, including Aquino's son, Noynoy. The seventh and final attempt, which occurred throughout the first week of January, 1989, ended with 99 dead (including 50 civilians) and 570 wounded.
The coup attempts would collectively impair the Aquino government, even though it survived, as it indicated political instability, an unruly military, and diminished the confidence of foreign investors in the Philippine economy. The 1989 coup alone resulted in combined financial losses of between 800 million to 1 billion pesos.
The November 1986 and August 1987 coup plots would also lead to significant reorganizations within the Aquino government. Given the apparent involvement of Defense Secretary Enrile in the November 1986 plot, a fact which was reaffirmed by the Davide Commission Report, Aquino fired him on November 22, 1986, and likewise announced an overall Cabinet revamp, "to give the government a chance to start all over again. The revamp would lead to the dismissal of Labor Secretary Augusto Sanchez, a perceived leftist, which was believed to be a compromise measure in light of a key rebel demand to cleanse the Cabinet of left-leaning members. Following the August 1987 coup attempt, the Aquino government was seen to have veered to the right, dismissing perceived left-leaning officials such as Executive Secretary Joker Arroyo and tacitly authorizing the establishment of armed quasi-military groups to combat the communist insurgency. It was also believed that General Fidel Ramos, who remained loyal to Aquino, emerged as the second most powerful person in government following his successful quelling of the coup. Across-the-board wage increases for soldiers were also granted.
Aquino herself would sue Philippine Star columnist Louie Beltran for libel after he wrote that the President had hid under her bed during the August 1987 coup as the siege of Malacañang began.
In the 1992 Philippine elections, though eligible to run for a second term, Aquino backed her then Defense Secretary Fidel V. Ramos (after initially naming Ramon Mitra, Jr., her former Agriculture Secretary and then Speaker of the House of Representatives, as her candidate), Marcos' armed forces vice-chief of staff whose defection to the Aquino party proved crucial to the popular revolution. This decision was unpopular among many of her core supporters, including the Roman Catholic Church (Ramos is a Protestant). Ramos narrowly won with just 23.58 percent of the vote, and succeeded Aquino as president on June 30, 1992.
Following the end of her term, Aquino retired to private life. When she rode away from the inauguration of her successor, she chose to go in a simple white Toyota Crown she had purchased (rather than the government-issue Mercedes), to make the point that she was once again an ordinary citizen.
Aquino has continued to speak out on political issues. In the 1998 presidential elections, she supported the candidacy of Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim, who placed fifth. In January 2001, Aquino played an active role in the second EDSA Revolution which ousted President Joseph Estrada and installed Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to the presidency. In 2005, Aquino condemned President Macapagal-Arroyo for allegedly rigging the 2004 presidential elections. She has since been a visible participant in mass demonstrations against the Arroyo government and has called for the President's resignation.
In her post-presidency, Aquino has received several awards and citations. In 1994, Aquino was cited as one of 100 Women Who Shaped World History in a reference book written by Gail Meyer Rolka and published by Bluewood Books in San Francisco, California. In 1996, she received the J. William Fulbright Prize for International Understanding from the Fulbright Association, joining past recipients such as Jimmy Carter and Nelson Mandela. In August 1999, Aquino was chosen by Time Magazine as one of the 20 Most Influential Asians of the 20th Century. The same magazine cited her in November 2006 as one of 65 great Asian Heroes, along with Mahatma Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Lee Kuan Yew, and King Bhumibol Adulyadej. In January 2008, the Europe-based A Different View selected Aquino as one of the 15 Champions of World Democracy, alongside Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Lech Walesa, and Vaclav Havel.
In 2002, Aquino became the first woman named to the Board of Governors of the Board of the Asian Institute of Management, a leading graduate business school and think tank in the Asia Pacific region. She served on the Board until 2006.
Aquino leads the PinoyME Foundation, a non-profit organization that assists microfinance institutions through the provision of loans. She also oversees social welfare and scholarship assistance projects through the Benigno S. Aquino Foundation, and good governance advocacy through the EDSA People Power Commission, and the People Power People Movement.
Aquino is skilled in painting. She is fond of giving her own paintings, as gifts, to her close friends and acquaintances, including world leaders, diplomats, and corporate executives.
On March 24, 2008, the Aquino family announced that the former President had been diagnosed with colon cancer. Aquino underwent chemotherapy, and in public remarks made on May 13, 2008, she announced that blood tests indicate she is responding positively to the medical treatment.
Aquino was a main character in Boy Noriega's 1987 stage comedy Bongbong at Kris, about an imagined romantic coupling between the youngest son of Ferdinand Marcos and the youngest daughter of the Aquinos.
It was announced in 2008 that a musical play about Aquino entitled “Cory, the Musical" will be staged on November 29, 30 and December 1 at the Meralco Theater. It is to be produced by the Buhay Isang Awit Foundation, with principal sponsors Smart, PLDT and San Miguel Corp. It is written and directed by Nestor U. Torre, and features a libretto of 19 original songs composed by Senator Aquilino Pimentel's wife, Lourdes ("Bing"). Miss Saigon performer Isay Alvarez will play Aquino, with Sherwyn Sozon as Ninoy Aquino, Robert Sena as Ferdinand Marcos and Pinky Marquez as Imelda Marcos.