Back when the late President Benigno Simeon “Noynoy” Cojuangco Aquino III was still a very low-profile congressman representing Tarlac province in 2002, I conducted an interview with him in the House of Representatives.
He asked me, why him — since he was “not a top political leader and not a national celebrity.” I told him that I thought he’d have an interesting future; he laughed out loud and said that he hoped it would be a “good future.”
Noynoy is a fifth-generation politician. From 1881 to 1883, his great-great-grandfather Braulio Aquino was gobernadorcillo or mayor of Concepcion, Tarlac. His great-grandfather Servillano became a general in Aguinaldo’s Philippine Revolution and a member of the Malolos Congress. His grandfather Benigno Aquino was legislator, Agriculture and Commerce Secretary, and Speaker of the Japanese-sponsored National Assembly; he later married his third cousin, Aurora Aquino. Noynoy’s father, Senator Ninoy Aquino, became the foremost opposition leader to martial law and was assassinated in 1983.
On his mother’s side, Noynoy descended from a long line of political leaders, sugar hacienderos and entrepreneurs, starting with his great-grandfather Melecio Cojuangco, an immigrant’s son who was Tarlac representative to the 1907 First Philippine Assembly.
Here are excerpts from our three-hour interview, in which we discussed Kris Aquino, women, politics, the sugar industry, business and history:
PHILIPPINE STAR: What is the latest tsismis on your younger sister Kris?
NOYNOY AQUINO: (Laughs) Akala ko pa naman it’s an honor to be interviewed by you because we would discuss economics, politics and history. Then we are talking about showbiz.
Whether you like it or not, that is the uppermost question in the minds of the people. At least, sumisikat ka lalo (you’re becoming more known).
(Laughs) You call that sumisikat? Naha-harass ako! Actually, the only good thing about this whole controversy is it shows that we are as afflicted with the same problems as the rest of the nation. If my father Ninoy Aquino were alive today, he would say that he is not Superman or Superboy. In effect, heroes are really just ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times who respond properly.
The things that he was able to do, because he was Ninoy Aquino, he did because he had a clear vision of what he wanted to do. He had the guts to stick to his principles, and in the end, the only thing we are called upon to do is what we are able to do in our spheres, because God will take care of the things that we cannot handle.
Ang Diyos, hindi niya bibigyan tayo ng pagsubok na hindi natin kaya (God will not give us trials that we cannot handle).
But isn’t your sister’s world of showbiz similar to the cynical world of politics?
True, but you can get in and out of showbiz anytime, not in politics.
How about the status of your own love life? What about your courting of a singer…?
I have also heard that tsismis (gossip), but we do not even talk to each other. The tsismis claims that I go to all her concerts, but unfortunately, I have not yet been to any of her concerts. We were never introduced. Nakakahiya naman sa tao, nape-pressure, pero never pa kami nagkikita. Walang katuturan talaga (it’s embarrassing to her, she’ll be pressured, but we’ve really never met, the gossip really has no basis).
Every time I don’t find the right person, my morale goes down, I think that maybe it’s not part of my fate to get married. Kung di lang ako Atenean, susuko na ako, but bawal kasi sa Atenista sumuko (laughs).
What about your romantic relationship daw with a sexy actress?
Wala rin yan. Lalaki ako (That’s nothing. I’m a guy), if women think that I’m a “catch,” I feel flattered that they think I’m somebody worth having. But right now, my focus is on choosing the right person as my future wife. Marriage... it will be peacetime in my tumultuous life.
Every time I don’t find the right person, my morale goes down, I think that maybe it’s not part of my fate to get married. Kung di lang ako Atenean, susuko na ako, but bawal kasi sa Atenista sumuko (laughs). (If I weren’t an Atenean, I would have already given up, but it’s not allowed for an Atenean to just give up.)
Pag ako nali-link (If I’m linked to others), thank you. But can I feed people and alleviate poverty with my love life? Can I give more food to the poor in our society?
My love life and my sister — sino ang makikinabang diyan (Who benefits from that)? My obsession is to provide food and jobs to people in Tarlac. The province is primarily an agricultural province; food security tops the priority.
What is your target age to marry?
(Laughs) I’ve done away with targets. When I was in college, I said I wanted to get married by 24, pag malas, aabot pa ako ng four more years bago ako maghahanap ng tama para sa akin. Malayo na iyon (if unlucky, I’ll reach four more years to look for the right person for me. That’s very far now) as far as age is concerned.
Before, my target age for marriage was 24, now bumaligtad na (it’s already reversed now) at 42 years old na ako today. Nowadays, I’m open to the idea that maybe it is not my fate to get married.
What will your mother say if she hears you saying this and giving up on marriage?
Siyempre (Of course) she’s hoping and asking why I’m not yet getting married. I cannot say that it’s not for lack of trying. I’m just trying to assess the situation. You know, in the 1987 coup I was ambushed. I lost three of my four security personnel. The fourth security lost an eye, two or three bullets went through his brain, but fortunately he survived.
We were against 92 or 94 people and V-150 armed personnel carriers. Pauwi sana kami ng Arlegui (We were on the way home to Arlegui) when this happened. In effect, this is my second life. I was kept alive by God because He wants me to do something. He has some more plans for me.
What do you think of President Ferdinand Marcos? I guess President Marcos, if you will put it in one sentence, was a gifted man who unfortunately used his talents to further his untrammeled ambitions. He used his talents for his ambitions gone wild, instead of serving his people.
You have a good sense of humor.
If you are not able to maintain a sense of humor, you’ll go crazy — at least by the second year if you are in public service.
For example, we were once discussing and debating amendments to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) law from 4 p.m. up to 1:30 p.m. the next day straight, that was the worst talaga. Muslims and non-Muslims among the representatives debated and we listened, but at the end of this whole thing, in the votation, all of them on both sides voted “No.”
I went to an elder legislator and asked why they all voted “No.” If you don’t have a sense of humor in Philippine politics, mabubuang ka (you’ll go crazy). Many people also come to us for help, binobola ka, pero di ka puwede magalit (bluffing or fooling you, but you cannot get angry), you just learn to laugh.
In politics, you must learn to say no without offending people. That is an art that one must master, to satisfy a person even when you have to say no to him.
How much of you is Ninoy and how much is Cory?
Both of them contributed to my values. Before martial law, my father was bombastic and my mother was the softie. My father was so caught up with the form, while my mother, some people complain, is too dry. How do you find a happy compromise without being pedagogic and patronizing? I think I’m both Cory and Ninoy.
What do you think of President Ferdinand Marcos?
Look at all the opportunities he had. I guess President Marcos, if you will put it in one sentence, was a gifted man who unfortunately used his talents to further his untrammeled ambitions. He used his talents for his ambitions gone wild, instead of serving his people.
What do you think of Marcos’s best friend and your mother’s first cousin, Danding Cojuangco?
(Laughs) No comment muna ako (in the meantime from me) on him, so as not to exacerbate the tensions within our clan. I’d like to think that we have the same visions, but that the methods and paths we have undertaken to attain those goals are different.
What do you think of Congresswoman Imee Marcos?
(Laughs) We’re both victims.
You’re both victims of history?
No, Imee and I are both the victims of her parents Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. I have sympathy for the Marcos children — imagine to be born into their family. The only difference lang is that I know we are all victims, and they do not.
What do you think of Imelda Romualdez Marcos?
(Laughs) Pinag-dadasal ko na lang si (I just pray for) Imelda. My late father said never to quarrel with those kinds of people. You know the Marcoses, at the initial stage of martial law, it was a golden opportunity in history.
President Marcos had the chance to do so much to help the country to reach its full potential. If Marcos did it, people wouldn’t care for us, and the Aquinos would have become footnotes in history. But look at the many victims, about 10,000 martial law victims. In my district alone, there are 200 victims. In Mindanao, 50,000 daw ang casualties. Marcos had that opportunity to make this nation great, and where are we now?
Any advice on how President Gloria Arroyo can be more effective?
President Gloria Arroyo is trying hard, perhaps too hard. She should try to delegate part of her work. She has so many responsibilities with the country’s complex problems demanding solutions. She’s trying to put out bushfires everywhere, and there are a lot of good people she should get to help her, not only people but also groups and organizations.
What do you think of ex-President Fidel Ramos?
The idea of my mother’s appointment of Ramos is that after EDSA 1986, we were looking for progressive leaders. We believed before na maski sinong maupo diyan (that whoever sits there), nothing new will happen to this country, so we wanted a leader who was not the usual. At that time, the ideal leader was FVR, but unfortunately he turned out to be a trapo pala (a traditional politician, after all). (Laughs)
What do you think of Erap, whom I saw was especially kind and supportive of you?
Erap up to the end was very good to me. Even up to today, after I had withdrawn support for him, I still consider Erap on a personal basis as a good friend. Unfortunately, on the public side, on his politics, I felt that his policies were leading our country towards a civil war arising from hunger.
In October 2000, when I bade him goodbye, I was giving him a warning as a friend that his position was already untenable, but he told me wala siyang kasalanan (he had done no wrong). Erap said he has dreams of me becoming a future great leader like my father daw. Right or wrong, as far as he was concerned daw, I will always be his friend.
He always accommodated my requests for help to my district in Tarlac, but Erap never required me to do anything for him politically. Hayop na kaibigan talaga si Erap (Erap is an extraordinary friend), he is a true friend. Even today, naaawa ako sa kanya (I pity him), but I believe the law has to be followed.
Any fearless forecasts for presidentiables in 2004?
It’s really too early to tell, but GMA of course has the advantage of the incumbent. Roco has potential, especially with the youth sector and part of the progressive sector. Senator Ping Lacson is a strong presidential contender, because of his image. Nene Pimental also is a dark horse. Drilon, maybe to a certain extent. Chief Justice Davide, too, is a possible candidate. Loren Legarda seems not yet ready to be president.
How would you like history to remember you?
I want people to say that I did my best — this is what all of us are called by God to do. I want people to say that what I am leaving behind is a lot better than how I had found it.
I was born and I grew up in a nation with mass poverty, there are children selling cigarettes on the streets instead of studying, there are so many people lining up outside the US Embassy to seek livelihoods overseas. I hope my life and public service career can help change all that.
The strategy is not a revolution. It’s like an elephant: no matter how big, the united efforts of many ants can cause an elephant to go down. If all the individual efforts of people in the country are summed up, these would mean revolutionary changes for the Philippines and hope for a better future.
Who is your inspiration in life, aside from your parents Cory and Ninoy?
Lola Guindang. The public knows her as Doña Aurora, she was my late grandmother.
As heir to the Aquino and Cojuangco families, and scion of Luzon’s biggest sugar plantation Hacienda Luisita, how wealthy are you?
No, I’m not wealthy, maybe my mother is. I still live with my family. I have no big expenses. The monthly salary of a congressman is P35,000 gross. I’m not the type to go out of the country. I just simply enjoy watching movies, kontento na ako (I’m already contented). In fact, my only vice is to eat in restaurants, and have a good meal.
Photo by Wig Tysmans