The Housewife Who Changed the World

09/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Corazon Aquino changed the world in ways that people of far greater power and military might have rarely been able to do.

She was a spiritually rich and devoted wife of Philippine politician Benigno Aquino. She was, by her own admission, a housewife and mother when her husband was imprisoned by President Ferdinand Marcos, and then exiled to the United States. Upon his return to Manila in August, 1983, he was assassinated by military men.

By November 3, 1985, Marcos was feeling pressure from both the United States and the opposition movement to reform. Cory Aquino had become a symbolic opposition figure, leading marches and rallies in her trademark yellow dress. On ABC's This Week with David Brinkley, Marcos shocked the world by calling for the now famous "snap election" to demonstrate his popular mandate.

As Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I held a series of hearings on governance in the Philippines and mechanics of elections held there. Dr. Allen Weinstein, who recently retired as the Archivist of the United States, assisted the Committee in this task. Marcos was a dictator but also an anti-communist U.S. ally. Two huge American bases in the Philippines were considered crucial to our military strategy in the Pacific.

President Reagan asked me and U.S. Rep. Jack Murtha (D., Pa.) to co-chair a U.S. Election Observer Group. It included several members of Congress, including Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), Cong. Jerry Lewis (R-CA) and Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), then a new member of the Senate and the Foreign Relations Committee, and now its Chairman.

We witnessed numerous abnormalities during the February 7, 1986 balloting, which was covered like a major American political event, with the then three network news anchors flying to Manila to report it. In the days after the election, we concluded that Marcos was refusing to release the final vote count because he knew he had lost. Independent vote counters showed us that Aquino had won. Cory's "People Power" movement then took to the streets and was supported by the military. Seventeen days later President Reagan persuaded Marcos to step down and fly to exile in Hawaii. This manifestation of the Reagan Doctrine -- to promote democracy and oppose authoritarian regimes of the right as well as communist totalitarianism -- became a critical turning point of American foreign policy.

Corazon C. Aquino, the simple housewife, replaced the long-time strongman as president. Despite several coup attempts, she was domestically successful in changing the constitution, restoring the institutions of government, re-establishing democratic processes, and finally transferring power -- by a free and fair election -- to a successor.

More importantly, Corazon Aquino's concept of peaceful revolution swept across Asia, Latin America and even to the Soviet Bloc where the Berlin Wall would fall in 1989. Her inspirational story would make her the patron of people power and democratic reforms. Also in 1986, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed legislation placing targeted sanctions on the apartheid government of South Africa. Congress overrode President Reagan's veto of this legislation. In due course, Nelson Mandela was freed from jail and later became President.

A few months after the Philippine elections, former Senator J. William Fulbright invited me to speak at the Fulbright Institute at the University of Arkansas on the 40th anniversary of the Fulbright Exchange program.

Inspired by what I had witnessed in the Philippines and what was happening elsewhere, I said, "Democracy is the strongest suit for American foreign policy. Democracies believe in human rights we hold dear. They do not threaten our security interests, and they are good trading partners.

"But democracy is not easy," I continued. "Too often in the past the United States naively called for democracy in developing countries that had no institutions to support it. Petty despots often won out. Democracy requires institutions that make it work -- universities, a free press, labor unions, business groups and careful election procedures. The United States should not dictate to other countries how they should govern themselves. That would be the arrogance of power. But we do have a stake in the protection and promotion of democracy in the world. When there are struggles for democracy, the United States must find thoughtful and effective ways to act. That is the purpose of American power."

The Corazon Aquino story was one the biggest of the 1980s. History will record that her "yellow revolution" inspired a remarkable era of political transformation by ballot rather than bullet. Her life reminds us that one remarkable person of modest demeanor can generate peaceful change across the Earth. And her story is a lesson that when Americans act according to our principles, we will be on the right side of history.

Dick Lugar is ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.