MANILA (Reuters) - Corazon Aquino of the Philippines, who ousted one of the 20th Century’s most corrupt dictators to become a global icon of democracy, died on Saturday after a 16-month battle against colon cancer. She was 76.
Her family announced she died in the early hours of Saturday, shortly after a private mass was held in her hospital room. All five children were at her bedside.
“Our mother peacefully passed away at 3:18 a.m. p.m. EDT Friday of cardio-respiratory arrest,” her son, Senator Benigno Aquino Jr., told reporters.
“She would have wanted us to thank each and every one of you for all the prayers and your continuous love and support. It was her wish for all of us to pray for one another and for our country.”
Aquino, affectionately known as Cory, was president from 1986 to 1992. But she is best remembered, more than two decades after the fact, as the slim woman in yellow who led the “People Power” revolution that toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
U.S. President Barack Obama said: “Her courage, determination, and moral leadership are an inspiration to us all and exemplify the best in the Filipino nation.”
In events that gripped the world in 1986, up to 1 million people waving rosaries and flowers stopped Marcos’ tanks advancing toward Aquino-backed army rebels.
When a bewildered Marcos and his wife Imelda fled the nation, it set a stirring precedent for dissidents everywhere, from South Africa to South America to Pakistan.
Imelda Marcos, who returned to the Philippines after her husband died in exile, said: “Now that Cory is with the Lord, let us all unite and pray for her and for the Filipino people.”
As news of Aquino’s death spread, hundreds of people ignored the rain to visit her home and the shrine that commemorates that place where her revolution culminated, leaving flowers and candles. Many tied yellow ribbons to their cars and on trees.
Later in the day, hundreds more queued to pay their respects after her body was brought to a Catholic school for public viewing. She will be buried on Wednesday, after a private ceremony, beside her husband Benigno, assassinated in 1983.
Aquino was a reluctant leader at the start, entering politics only after Benigno was killed at Manila airport on his return from political exile in the United States.
Accusing Marcos of ordering the murder, Aquino led protest marches, but was hesitant when elections were called in 1986.
“What on earth do I know about being president?,” she said before taking up the challenge to run against Marcos. Both candidates claimed victory in the election, but Marcos fled into exile when the army turned against him.
Aquino’s presidency was less successful than the revolution, with a series of coup attempts by the military keeping the administration hamstrung. She was lauded for her courage, but rarely seemed able to get on top of ruling the country.
The specter of army intervention haunted her entire rule. Natural disasters, including Mount Pinatubo’s huge volcanic eruption in 1991, severely battered the economy.
A devout Catholic, Aquino often turned to her faith to steer her through difficult times.
“There was never any moment that I doubted God would help ... If it was time to die, so be it,” she said when rebel mortars pounded the presidential palace in 1987.
She oversaw the writing of a new constitution, which among other things limited a president to one six-year term. “I have not always won but ... I never shirked a fight,” she said in 1992 before handing power over to her successor, Fidel Ramos.
Born on January 25, 1933 into one of the country’s richest families, the Cojuangcos, Aquino grew up in a world of wealth and politics as the daughter of a three-time congressman.
Aquino seemed frail in later years, but was still game for a fight. She brought half a million people onto the street in the 1990s when her successor Ramos flirted with the idea of trying to extend his term in office.
She was involved in protests that ended the presidency of Joseph Estrada in 2001, and supported the campaign to remove current President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo after her one-time ally was accused of corruption and election fraud.
Arroyo, who is in the United States on a visit, announced a 10-day period of national mourning and said in a message: “Today the Philippines lost a national treasure. She helped lead our nation to a brighter day.”
Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan; editing by Robin Pomeroy