MANILA, Philippines – Filipinos mourned former President Corazon Aquino by displaying yellow ribbons and holding Masses as the nation prepared to bid farewell to the beloved democracy icon who swept away a dictator and fought off seven coup attempts.
Aquino, 76, died early Saturday after a yearlong battle with colon cancer, which had spread to other organs and left her bedridden since late June, her son, Sen. Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III, said.
Each of Aquino's five children went to their mother's bedside where they "were told to say everything we wanted to say" before she was given morphine, which made her unresponsive, her only son said.
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Aquino rose to power after the 1983 assassination of her husband, opposition leader Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino Jr. The uprising she led in 1986 ended the repressive 20-year regime of Ferdinand Marcos and inspired nonviolent protests across the globe, including those that ended communist rule in eastern Europe.
"She was headstrong and single-minded in one goal, and that was to remove all vestiges of an entrenched dictatorship," Raul C. Pangalangan, former dean of the College of Law at the University of the Philippines, said earlier this month. "We all owe her in a big way."
But Aquino struggled in office to meet high public expectations. Her land redistribution program fell short of ending economic domination by the landed elite, including her own family. Her leadership, especially in social and economic reform, was often indecisive, leaving many of her closest allies disillusioned by the end of her term.
Still, the bespectacled, smiling woman in her trademark yellow dress remained beloved in the Philippines, where she was affectionately referred to as "Tita (Auntie) Cory."
Aquino's supporters had been holding daily prayers for her in churches for the past month.
As the news of Aquino's death spread through a rainy and gloomy Manila, radio and TV stations broadcast documentaries and stories of her life, with music dating back to the "people power" revolt and a love song based on a poem written by her husband.
Catholic priests held requiem Masses, and ordinary people tied yellow ribbons on trees around their neighborhoods, on cars, lamp posts and house gates.
Others laid flowers and lit candles outside the Aquino family residence in Quezon city, while some gathered to pray at a shrine on Manila's EDSA highway, where hundreds of thousands of her supporters blocked Marcos' tanks in 1986.
"The nation lost its moral guiding light but she will forever remain as the inspiration of this impoverished nation," said Al Roy, one of Aquino's godsons.
The Aquino family opted for a private instead of a state funeral.
"She has for all intents and purposes been a private citizen after stepping down, and to a degree we also want to spend as much time as possible as a family with her," her son said.
Aquino's body will lie in state at the De La Salle Catholic school in Manila from Saturday evening to Monday morning. It will be moved to Manila Cathedral before she will be buried beside her husband at the Manila Memorial Park on Wednesday, he said.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who is on an official visit to the United States, remembered Aquino as a "national treasure" who helped lead "a revolution to restore democracy and the rule of law to our nation at a time of great peril.
The Philippines will observe 10 days of national mourning, she said. The Armed Forces of the Philippines said it would accord full military honors during the mourning period, including gun salutes and lowering flags to half-staff.
With teary eyes, former aides and friends recalled their moments with "Tita Cory" in radio and TV interviews. A former speechwriter, Rep. Teodoro Locsin Jr., broke down saying that her "purity, nobility never failed."
Former top Cabinet aide Franklin Drilon said "President Cory was the most sincere person I have known in my life. ... Part of me died this morning."
Deposed President Joseph Estrada, who was toppled in the country's second "people power" revolt — backed by Aquino — in 2001, said the Philippines had "lost the true mother of democracy."
Aquino's successor, Fidel Ramos, who was the military's vice chief of staff when he broke with Marcos and embraced Aquino, said the former leader "represented the best of the Filipino of the past and the future."
President Barack Obama was deeply saddened by Aquino's death, said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.
"Ms. Aquino played a crucial role in Philippines history, moving the country to democratic rule through her nonviolent 'people power' movement over 20 years ago," Gibbs said. "Her courage, determination, and moral leadership are an inspiration to us all and exemplify the best in the Filipino nation."
Aquino's unlikely rise began in 1983 after her husband was gunned down at Manila's international airport moments after soldiers escorted him from a plane on his arrival from exile in the United States to challenge Marcos, his longtime adversary.
The killing enraged many Filipinos and unleashed a broad-based opposition movement that thrust Aquino into the role of national leader.
"I don't know anything about the presidency," she declared in 1985, a year before she agreed to run against Marcos, uniting the fractious opposition, the business community, and later the armed forces to drive the dictator out.
Maria Corazon Cojuangco was born on Jan. 25, 1933, into a wealthy, politically powerful family in Paniqui, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) north of Manila.
She attended private school in Manila and earned a degree in French from the College of Mount St. Vincent in New York. In 1954 she married Ninoy Aquino, the fiercely ambitious scion of another political family. He rose from provincial governor to senator and finally opposition leader.
Marcos, elected president in 1965, declared martial law in 1972 to avoid term limits. He abolished the Congress and jailed Aquino's husband and thousands of opponents, journalists and activists without charges. Aquino became her husband's political stand-in, confidant, message carrier and spokeswoman.
A military tribunal sentenced her husband to death for alleged links to communist rebels but, under pressure from U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Marcos allowed him to leave in May 1980 for heart surgery in the U.S., where the family stayed for the next three years.
Her husband decided to return to regroup the opposition but was shot as he descended the stairs from the plane.
The government blamed a suspected communist rebel, but subsequent investigations pointed to a soldier who was escorting him from the plane on Aug. 21, 1983.
Aquino heard of the assassination in a phone call from a Japanese journalist. She recalled gathering the children and, as a deeply religious woman, praying for strength.
"During Ninoy's incarceration and before my presidency, I used to ask why it had always to be us to make the sacrifice," she said in a 2007 interview with The Philippine Star newspaper. "And then, when Ninoy died, I would say, 'Why does it have to be me now?' It seemed like we were always the sacrificial lamb."
She returned to the Philippines and on Aug. 31, 1983, led the largest funeral procession Manila had seen. Crowd estimates ranged as high as 2 million.
With public opposition mounting against Marcos, he stunned the nation in November 1985 by calling a snap election in a bid to shore up his mandate. The opposition, including then Manila Archbishop Cardinal Jaime L. Sin, urged Aquino to run on Feb. 7, 1986.
With Marcos claiming victory and journalists, foreign observers and church leaders crying fraud, a group of military officers mutinied against Marcos on Feb. 22 and holed up with a small force in a military camp in Manila.
Over the following three days, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos responded to a call by Archbishop Sin to support the mutineers at the camp on EDSA highway.
On the third day, against the advice of her security detail, Aquino appeared at the rally. From a makeshift platform, she declared: "For the first time in the history of the world, a civilian population has been called to defend the military."
The military chiefs pledged their loyalty to Aquino and charged that Marcos had won the election by fraud.
On Feb. 25, Aquino was sworn in as the Philippines' first female leader and Marcos flew to exile in Hawaii, where he died three years later.
Over time, the euphoria fizzled as the public became impatient and Aquino more defensive as she struggled to navigate treacherous political waters and build alliances to push her agenda.
"People used to compare me to the ideal president, but he doesn't exist and never existed. He has never lived," she said in the 2007 Philippine Star interview.
Aquino signed an agrarian reform bill that virtually exempted large plantations like her family's sugar estate from being distributed to landless farmers.
When farmers protested outside the Malacanang Presidential Palace on Jan. 22, 1987, troops opened fire, killing 13 and wounding 100.
The bloodshed scuttled talks with communist rebels, who had galvanized opposition to Marcos but weren't satisfied with Aquino either.
As recently as 2004, at least seven workers were killed in clashes with police and soldiers at the family's plantation, Hacienda Luisita, over its refusal to distribute its land.
Aquino also attempted to negotiate with Muslim separatists in the southern Philippines, but made little progress.
Behind the public image of the frail, vulnerable widow, Aquino was an iron-willed woman who dismissed criticism as the carping of jealous rivals. She knew she had to act tough to earn respect in the Philippines' macho culture.
"When I am just with a few close friends, I tell them, 'OK, you don't like me? Look at the alternatives,' and that shuts them up," she told America's NBC television in a 1987 interview.
Her term was punctuated by repeated coup attempts — most staged by the same clique of officers who had risen up against Marcos and felt they had been denied their fair share of power. The most serious attempt came in December 1989 when only a flyover by U.S. jets prevented mutinous troops from toppling her.
Leery of damaging relations with the United States, Aquino tried in vain to block a historic Senate vote to force the U.S. out of its two major bases in the Philippines.
In the end, the U.S. Air Force pulled out of Clark Air Base in 1991 after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo forced its evacuation and left it heavily damaged. The last American vessel left Subic Bay Naval Base in November 1992.
After stepping down in 1992, Aquino remained active in social and political causes.
Until diagnosed with colon cancer in March 2008, she joined rallies calling for the resignation of Arroyo over allegations of vote-rigging and corruption.
She kept her distance from another famous widow, flamboyant former first lady Imelda Marcos, who was allowed to return to the Philippines in 1991.
Marcos has called Aquino a usurper and dictator, though she later led prayers for Aquino in July 2009 when the latter was hospitalized. The two never made peace.