MANILA — Retaining her image as a friendly, folksy housewife while taking on the burdens of a chief of state looks like tough work for Philippines' President Corazon Aquino.
According to a close associate, Aquino likes to be called Mrs. President, and people who work with her or know her socially say how warm and appreciative she is, how unassuming. It is said that she makes excellent pate and pasta, likes to play mah-jongg and that she says the rosary daily. In the guest house where she occupies an upstairs office, her daughters roam freely. A receptionist sat at her desk with a baby on her lap.
But most housewives run homes, not countries. And Aquino is even less accessible than one would expect. Much talked about in Manila is the cordon sanitaire, an elusive network of aides who shield the president from outside contacts.
For three weeks, a team from The Times' Food department that included a Tagalog-speaking native of Manila, home economist Minnie Bernardino, tried to obtain a brief interview with Aquino. The topic we had wanted to discuss with the president was one of interest to her personally and of vital concern to her country--food.
Other governmental representatives were, not surprisingly, much more readily available. Asked about the importance of food in rebuilding the economy of the Philippines, Jose S. Concepcion Jr., the new minister of trade and industry, said: "Since 70% of our people are dependent on agriculture, which is basically food, it becomes a very crucial area." Concepcion appeared at a Food and Plants Market Week held at the International Trade Center in Manila.
At the same event, Niflora Gatchalian, a quality control specialist, reported that five of the top 10 exports of the Philippines are food items. These are bananas, pineapple, sugar, coconut oil and desiccated coconut. However, while basic resources are rich, agricultural production is hampered by poor transportation, poor handling of crops after harvest, inefficient processing, inadequate packaging and failure to meet quality standards of foreign nations, she said.
In the provinces outside Manila, we saw how crops are brought out by horseback, then loaded onto jeepneys for transport over roads that are often rough and narrow, a primitive mode of distribution.
At the International Rice Research Institute at Los Banos in Laguna Province, we saw machinery designed to aid Third World farmers, including a pump operated by foot power.
We attended a lavish party where the elite, including members of the Aquino family and the new government, dined liberally and chose from a well-stocked bar. At the other extreme, squatters in the district of Manila called Tondo said that they ate on an average of every other day.
The Night Rider II, a restaurant near Manila International Airport, advertised for a food attendant whose pay would be 30 pesos, which is roughly $1.60 a day. Manila restaurateurs complained about the exorbitant duties imposed on luxury goods by the Marcos regime. The high costs made it difficult for them to obtain the quality ingredients needed to appeal to tourists, they said. Even in the best restaurants, the beef was tough.
In 1985, tourist arrivals in the Philippines dropped by 5.34% from 1984, according to figures released by the Ministry of Tourism. The new minister of that department, Jose Antonio Gonzalez, said that his annual budget will be $1.5 million. "That's peanuts," he observed, and insufficient to mount an advertising campaign in the United States to attract more tourists.
We worked through many channels attempting to see Aquino, including contacts as close as a sister of her assassinated husband, Benigno S. Aquino Jr. We were unsuccessful. We had our calling cards rejected by a receptionist. We spoke with secretaries of secretaries.
A sympathic nun volunteered that the rank and file of the religious, so prominent in the revolution, have not been received by the president. She told how nuns attempting to deliver a letter had to hand it to an Aquino daughter spotted on the guest house grounds. Women entrusted with a letter to Joker Arroyo, the president's executive secretary, were turned away at the door. And a colonel who described himself as "a pillar of the revolution" was heard letting loose a stream of invective when not allowed to present a document that, he said, involved the security of the state.
Unlike other petitioners, The Times' representatives were finally admitted to the guest house by one of Aquino's trusted aides for the purpose of interviewing her caterers. Inside, we found a mix of communicative people and haughty secretaries. After our first interview, we were ushered out like bothersome paparazzi by one of the latter. We were told the president could not be photographed in her dining room or while eating. As compensation, we were handed small black and white mug shots of Aquino.