One could only imagine what would’ve happened if Aquino — or Ninoy as Filipinos fondly call him — had decided to just stay in the US and fight the Marcos dictatorship from afar. But that was not his style.
Dubbed by former Senate President Jovito Salonga as “the greatest president we never had,” Aquino did not let his exile stop him from empowering the country, and, as it turned out, also from becoming the family man his long absence prevented him to become.
It all started with his health condition.
In March 1980, Aquino, who was incarcerated and on hunger strike to protest his military trial under the martial law, developed chest pain that, upon a brief test at the Philippine Heart Center, turned out to be caused by blocked heart arteries. He had to undergo an emergency triple bypass, otherwise, his attending physician warned, he “may die in six days to six months.”
Wary of his situation, Aquino refused offers to have his surgery in local hospitals or to have his doctors see him, as he feared what he might say under anesthesia. Through an offer made by the Deputy Minister of Defense, he wrote a letter to Marcos requesting a flight to America, though bound with two constraints: one, that he would come back, and two, that he would not speak out against the Marcos administration while abroad.
The announcement of Aquino’s leave came through a surprise visit by then-First Lady Imelda Marcos, who asked him if he would you like to go to America. His response was an enthusiastic yes. Within the day, he and his family were on a plane to the US.
After his operation in the US, Aquino cabled Marcos, telling him that he was amenable to returning to his cell as a convalescent man. A week later, an announcement came that Marcos has indefinitely extended his stay in America.
Life in the US
During his exile in the US, Aquino accepted fellowships from Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for International Affairs. The three years he spent with his family were blissful, according to various accounts, but according to one of his daughters, Ballsy Aquino-Cruz, “We knew it was just a transition period, we knew it would not be forever.”
Ballsy described their life in Massachusetts as frugal, with their mother, the late President Cory Aquino, making ends meet through careful budgeting. She said the only regular income-earner in the family was her sister Pinky, who worked for IBM. Their relatives and some admirers of their father would also send them money.
In US, Aquino relearned how to become a father. Before his seven-year incarceration, his children only had their mother as an active figure in their lives. He bonded with his youngest daughter, Kris, who was only two years old when he was taken away. He mellowed out from being a fierce politician into a “more suave and cosmopolitan man, almost diplomat-like.”
The change would surprise his friends, who would stay at his home at his insistence. Guests would come and go, and even in a cast, Aquino would personally fetch them from the airport. It was a thrill for the former senator, to be free to interact with others and have intellectual pursuits after his detention in Fort Bonifacio.
Although this period of tranquility did good for his health, Aquino knew that there were still people who clamored for his return. The letters sent to him, along with what his guests would tell him, prompted him to remember his dream of restoring democracy to the Philippines.
During his fellowships, he would lecture in various institutions against the Marcos dictatorship. His influence rose, to the point where Marcos started accusing him of being the mastermind behind a spate of bombings that rocked Metro Manila.
Aquino stated, during his legendary speech at the Wilshire Ebell Theater in Los Angeles, that he would return to the Philippines, regardless of personal risk, to commemorate the courage which others have shown in the fight for freedom.
“This courage has energized the batteries of my life,” he concluded his speech, “and I shall bring it to whatever fate will lead me.” This gave way to a series of events that led to August 21, 1983.
Ninoy’s life, including his incarceration and exile, will be discussed in the documentary “Ako Si Ninoy,” which features a rare, sit-down interview with all five Aquino children: President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, Ballsy, Pinky, Viel, and Kris.
The documentary will feature more of their life in exile, with selected essays and poetry in-between their segments. — Rie Takumi/KBK, GMA News