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Ninoy: Hero or political opportunist and US pawn?

AFTER three decades, we can look at Benigno (“Ninoy”) Aquino, Jr., the Yellow Cult’s central figure it worships as a hero and martyr, with unjaundiced eyes.

Peruse the following facts and decide for yourself if he indeed is a hero for whom we devote a holiday, as we do for only two other historical figures, Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio.

Or whether he was the quintessence of a wily opportunistic Filipino politician, made a pawn by the US, who made the bet of his life, but lost.

In May 1980, Aquino had a life-threatening heart attack. He refused to be put under the knife at the Philippine Heart Center, built by the Marcos regime in 1975.

Even as the hospital had developed into Asia’s best specialized center for cardiac surgery, Aquino claimed that since it was a government hospital, Marcos would easily be able to kill him, under the guise of a botched operation. While that was a slap not on Marcos but on the Filipino surgeons at the Center, it was a clever move on the part of Aquino for him to escape the country. You couldn’t blame him: he had spent seven years in prison, convicted by a military tribunal of several crimes, including subversion, and sentenced to be executed by musketry.

The Marcos regime of course feared that if Aquino died of a heart attack in prison, it would be blamed. Dented would be the semblance of stability it had built after the 1978 interim Batasan Pambansa elections, in which the opposition leader ran and lost.

Marcos though extracted from Aquino, in a message relayed personally by his wife, Imelda, two conditions: 1) that he return to the country when he was fully recovered; and 2) that he refrain from speaking against Marcos during his stay in the US. Aquino himself said he told Imelda he accepted these terms.

Pact with the devil
I can just imagine Aquino in his government hospital bed smiling wryly after Imelda left. A month after his operation in the US, Aquino told a Dallas reporter: “A pact with the devil is no pact at all.”

Aquino managed to stay in the US after being given the status of “Visiting Fellow” at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University in Cambridge, and then in the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). A Harvard official explained that such Fellows “pursued their own research and are expected to present their research findings to the other fellows and interested faculty”. Aquino never did these things during his stay at Harvard and MIT.

Aquino was certainly not an academic and in those times hardly had the kind of stature for Harvard to bend its strict academic rules just to be a refuge for an opposition figure from some Third World country.

I learned though that it was President Carter himself who asked then Harvard President Derek Bok to get some excuse for Aquino to stay in the US as a fellow of the university. Carter actually had been trying to get Aquino to be exiled to the US much earlier, in 1978, so that the Harvard Law School invited him as a visiting scholar.

The US’ eagerness to get Aquino exiled to the US could be partly explained by Carter’s very well-known human rights advocacy. But the more likely reason is that as has been its practice, the US routinely befriends opposition figures that have the potential of succeeding an incumbent one.

In the Philippine case, though, there was another more compelling reason: The US military bases in Clark and Subic, the terms for which were scheduled for review in 1983. Marcos had been demanding more concessions from the US for the use of the bases, asking for higher payments that he wanted to call “rent.”

Message to Marcos
Having Aquino in the US sent the message to Marcos that if he insisted on such high demands, it might just as well help overthrow his regime, in the guise of championing democratic rule, and install the opposition leader whom they were indoctrinating at Harvard. Harvard had been known at the time to be a locus of the Central Intelligence Agency’s activities, with several of its professors fired in the 1980s after being exposed to have accepted CIA money for their projects.

Aquino, in short, became a US pawn in its geopolitical strategies and, smart as he was, he knew this.

Aquino apparently was in continuous contact with US officials, most probably even intelligence officials while he was at Cambridge. Proof of this is a “Top Secret” National Intelligence Daily dated June 27, 1983 issued by the CIA head, which reported; “Moderate opposition leader Benigno Aquino told senior US officials on Thursday he plans to leave the US and return to Manila in August.” At the time, nobody else knew of Aquino’s plans to return home.

Rather than becoming a scholar, Aquino used his fellowship at Harvard and then at the MIT as a cozy refuge. While his fans claimed that he was writing two books at Harvard, no drafts for these were ever found, not even an outline. Reflecting his non-academic vein, Aquino left no written work at all, except a purported speech he was to deliver on his return to Manila. (I doubt if it is genuine: It surfaced only in 2014 on Ninoy Aquino day, released by Malacañang under his son Noynoy, without any explanation how it was discovered — after three decades.)

A renowned political scientist, the late Howard Wiarda, who shared an office with Aquino at Harvard, wrote in his book Adventures in Research (Volume III: Global Traveler): “(Aquino) wanted to talk constantly, while I was at Harvard to write a book, and in our year together I never saw him read or write anything.” Indeed in the three years he was in Harvard and MIT, he wrote nothing, not even an essay, a journal or an article for US newspapers denouncing Marcos. It is astonishing that Aquino, who was supposedly a scholar at Harvard and MIT for three years didn’t write anything, not even a journal, an essay, or an article in a newspaper denouncing Marcos.

No matter, Aquino galvanized the opposition against Marcos there, the Yellow Cult has been claiming.

I haven’t seen any evidence nor testimony to support that claim. It was the Movement for a Free Philippines headed by another former senator in exile, Raul Manglapus, that was more active and went around the US rousing the Filipino community there to denounce the dictatorship. Aquino rarely left Cambridge.

No anti-Marcos diatribe
A fawning article on him a month after his assassination published in the newsletter The Harvard Crimson quoted well-known academic Lucian Pye: “He understood the meaning of a university: “He did not use [his academic position]to denounce the [Marcos] government.” Another famous academic at Harvard said, “He was not one to offer a sharp, anti-Marcos diatribe.”

Aquino appears to have been militant only during the year after his heart surgery. The video of Aquino’s philippic against Marcos – which was widely distributed after his killing as proof that it was the dictator who wanted him silenced –was in February 15, 1981 before a Filipino community. In his June 1981 interview with evangelist Pat Roberson, Aquino talked more about his getting closer to God as a result of his incarceration, and said practically no bad word about Marcos.

Another video was sometime in 1981 in Dallas, where rather than ranting against Marcos, he explained his ideas for getting Saudi Arabia to build a gas pipeline in Mindanao. “If I will be able to sell this (idea) to Mr. Marcos, the Philippines will be able to find an end to our insurgency in the South.”

I haven’t found any video or report of Aquino making fiery speeches against Marcos after 1981. Had the anti-Marcos fire in his belly gone cold as he and his family enjoyed their stay that lasted three years in a fine house in Newton, Massachusetts, an upper-class district near Boston?

In fact, the report by the CIA mentioned above implied Aquino’s slide to irrelevancy: “Aquino’s political position has been hurt by his long exile. He probably believes (now) he has to return home if he is to play a role in the post-Marcos era.”


CIA’s first report on the Aquino assasination, contained in the Director’s Top Secret National Intellgence Daily issued August 26, 1983.


Major factors
Other than that reason, there were two major factors that prodded Aquino to leave his tranquil life in Newton in 1983.

First, the Philippines’ economic crisis unfolded that any observer would see as a very serious threat to Marcos’ survival, and Aquino knew this. The Latin American debt crisis broke when Mexico defaulted on its foreign loans in August 1982, and would hit the country to trigger its worst economic crisis ever. It would have been impossible for Aquino, with his wide network, not have been informed about this.

Second, Aquino thought, and was convinced of the certainty that Marcos was dying. He had to rush home to wrench the leadership from others who were active in trying to topple Marcos, especially Salvador Laurel.

This is disclosed in an audio tape of his conversation with Steve Psinakis a few days before his return to the country. I narrated this conversation in my column December 4, 2016 (“Ninoy Aquino: Hero or miscalculating ‘throne’ gamer?”)

In that conversation, Aquino said: “Marcos is a man now: Terminal…now that he (Marcos) is about to meet his Maker, I am almost confident that I can talk to him and sell him something.”

Aquino told Psinakis his information came from Cardinal Jaime Sin. I suspect it came from his American intelligence friends, which is why he was so confident of his information.

Risked life
But still he risked his life, as he was told by Imelda herself that there were serious threats to his life, the Yellow Cult would claim. Yes, but that’s been Aquino’s well-known trait: He takes huge risks.

He managed to fill the China Airline plane he flew on with correspondents, practically from every continent (with not a single Filipino) thinking they could be his human shields, and the intelligent Marcos wouldn’t risk his foremost critic to be killed in front of the world. In a TV interview in his hotel before the flight, he showed his bullet-proof vest that sent the message to whoever was planning to kill him that he had such protection.

Except for his brother-in-law, ABC newsman Ken Kashiwahara, the foreign correspondents were as meek as sheep, and didn’t question the unarmed military men who fetched Aquino to escort him to the tarmac, nor tried to be with him as he was brought down. His killer after all was alerted that he was wearing a bullet-proof vest, so he was shot in the head.

Aquino terribly miscalculated, reminding me of that now famous quote from the hit TV series: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”

Did his death trigger Marcos’ fall? It helped, no doubt. But after his funeral parade in August 1983 that was attended by a million people, the protest crowds dwindled. Marcos became so confident he fell for the US ruse to call for snap presidential elections. Then and now, perceptions that the people were robbed of their sacred votes makes them so angry, enough to be the basis for a coup attempt. And when that failed, human shields were deployed to protect the bungling plotters, which metamorphosed into what was mythicized as “People Power”.