Mar 182013
 

clip_image002Fidel V. Ramos

Riding into the sunset, or into a second sunrise?

By Chit Estella

To talk about Fidel Valdez Ramos would be to talk about a man whom friends and enemies alike would not confidently claim to fully know. Most persons have been careful to describe him, cautiously delineating the period during which they worked with the man and allowing a wide berth for changes that might have taken place.

There is preponderant evidence that he was perhaps the most difficult taskmaster, the most assiduous plodder, and the most fastidious functionary ever to sit in Malacañang. With his very keen sense of media and public relations, he used buzzwords, symbols, slogans, gimmicks and anecdotes to advantage. He made sure all the achievements of his administration were proclaimed and repeated endlessly, until these were accepted as almost real, almost fact.

His first four years in office were a period of growth and plenty, infused with vigor by his bold initiatives at privatization and deregulation of key industries. Negotiated peace descended upon the land, a windfall from truce accords signed with nearly all rebel forces except the communities.

But alongside such trumpeted achievements, there resonated reports of case after case of graft-riddled deals, while his allies in Congress raided in band the budget to get bigger and bigger chunk of pork barrel year after year. In the twilight of his presidency, crime and kidnap gangs attacked with unsurpassed daring, and a regional currency crisis shook the tenuous foundations of the national economy.

In most of his successes, Ramos shines as the singular bright star. But in most of his failures, his shadow loomed. He made many appalling appointments and brought to his Cabinet persons with little or no distinction, save for their loyalty for him, and who seemed invariably bound to a pact to never shine brighter than the boss did.

In many cases, he did nothing like stop them even in the face of serious bungling, or irregular deeds, that left him tainted, too. It seemed like he would show them the door, but only after their stay in office has become grossly untenable and indefensible. Thus, in the totality of his successes and failures, Ramos–a paradox of a leader who espoused innovative economic policies but also embraced the ancient ways of patronage politics–was clearly responsible. In the same way that credit cannot be denied him for the good that he has done, so too must blame be accorded to him for the ill that has come upon the country during his presidency.

As he vows out of office, the sharpest images Ramos leaves behind are tragic. He is the Constabulary and Armed Forces chief of staff who failed to rein in crime and kidnap gangs, the non-traditional politician who governed by old-style politics, the masterful propaganda man whose supposed crowning achievement–economic growth–has been overrun by market reality.

To power and privilege born

In every sense of the word, Ramos had come a long way from the West Point graduate that he was in 1950. Two years later, as a second-lieutenant infantry platoon leader, he served in the Philippine Expeditionary Force in Korea.

The year before, he had obtained a master’s degree in Civil Engineering at the University of Illinois as a government scholar. It was only one of three masteral degrees he had. The two others were in security administration, from the National Defense College in Manila, and in business administration, from the Ateneo de Manila University.

Ramos was, clearly, a man headed for somewhere. His strong drive to succeed can perhaps be explained by the fact that a fine example had been set by his father, Narciso Ramos. A lawyer, journalist and congressman who served five terms, Narciso capped his government career as foreign affairs secretary. He was the Philippine representative at the birth of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1967.

Ramos’ mother, Angela Valdez, had been described in her son’s official biodata as an “educator, woman suffragette and daughter of the respected Valdez clan of Batac, Ilocos Norte.”

But despite what appeared to be a comfortable family life, Fidel set out to carve his own niche, both as a soldier and as public official. From 1966 to 1968, he was chief of staff of the Philippine Civic Action Group (Philcag) which was sent to Vietnam. He earned the appellation “father” of the Philippine Army Special Action Forces, an elite paratroop unit engaged in community development while waging an anti-insurgency war. It later earned the moniker “Sariling Army ni Fidel.”

Ramos was appointed deputy chief of staff for home defense of the Armed Forces and then chief of the highly controversial –many say notorious–Philippine Constabulary where he was the longest-serving head. Three years after his appointment as PC chief, he was assigned director-general of the Integrated National Police, an organization linked with the PC.

Then came EDSA. The uprising boosted Ramos’ standing as he, together with then Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, broke away from the highly unpopular Ferdinand Marcos.

President Corazon Aquino finally gave Ramos the position that many officers thought he had long deserved but was never given to Marcos: the position of Armed Forces chief of staff. Having reached the top of the military hierarchy, Ramos would have done well to go to pasture and enjoy life as a retired general. But far greater things lay ahead for him.

In the Aquino Cabinet, he became secretary of national defense after Rafael Ileto vacated the post. As defense secretary and concurrent chief of the National Disaster Coordinating Council, Ramos adopted what was called “systematic response mechanism.” He was also involved in the National Peace and Order Council as vice chair. And in an innovation started by the Aquino Administration, Cabinet members were appointed to take charge of specific regions in the country by way of monitoring and helping along their efforts toward economic progress. Region 9 in Southwestern Mindanao was assigned to Ramos.

Soon, he came to be known as among the more hard-working, reliable members of the Aquino Cabinet. He was regarded as “Steady Eddie.” It therefore came as no surprise that as the 1992 presidential elections loomed, Ramos’ name was among those tossed about in the search for Mrs. Aquino’s successor.

To be sure, there were others who coveted the presidency and, like Ramos, saw the importance of an Aquino endorsement. Some of them were friends of the president who stuck it out with her and her family in the dark days when Ramos was yet at the enemy camp. But to the bitter realization of her allies such as then Speaker Ramon Mitra Jr., Mrs. Aquino endorsed Ramos.

It did not matter that Ramos lost in the convention called by the party under which he had hoped to run, the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino. Saying that cheating tainted the selection process, Ramos went on to create his own party, the Partido Lakas Tao.

At first, Lakas Tao elicited no more than jokes from political observers; eventually, however, it formed alliances with other groups like the Christian Democrats and an organization called the United Muslim Democrats of the Philippines. With Mrs. Aquino’s support came the implicit guarantee of that most powerful of political machineries–the government–to back up Ramos’ candidacy. That, more than a political party, was all that Ramos really needed to win.

Beginnings: The military officer

What made the man?

It was the 1950s. Elpidio Quirino was president of the Republic. On a visit to the United States, he was to be escorted by the cadets of the American Federal Academy. Among the cadets were two young Filipinos whose paths would cross several times and then finally part.

Danilo Vizmanos was a cadet at Kings Point, a merchant marine academy. He met and struck a friendship with another cadet, Fidel Ramos, who was studying at West Point. “We were both Amboys,” Vizmanos laughingly remembered.

They again met in 1962 at the University of the Philippines where both were studying for a master’s degree in business administration. The two men would talk before class. It was during those conversations that Ramos told Vizmanos about his intention to quit the military. Twice or thrice, Ramos said, “I don’t see any future for me here.”

True enough, Ramos’ career was virtually frozen. That was the reason why he was making use of his time studying.

By this time, the president of the republic was Diosdado Macapagal, the “poor boy from Lubao,” town in Pampanga. “Only the Kapampangans were advancing,” Vizmanos recalled, and Ramos, an Ilocano who was then a captain in the infantry, was saying he was fed up and disillusioned. To which his friend said, “Give it a little more time.”

Fed up and disillusioned as he was, Ramos hanged on. And it proved to be a good decision, for not long after, Ferdinand Marcos, an Ilocano and a second cousin of Ramos, was elected president. With his election came the positive twist in Ramos’ fortune.

At the height of the Vietnam War, Ramos went to that country as operations officer, “the brains” of the Philcag. According to Vizmanos, who was inspector general at the time, “Ramos never doubted that the United States and South Vietnam would win.”

“He was really convinced that Philcag was helping the US attain victory by winning hearts and minds,” Vizmanos said.

Indeed, the roads constructed by the Philcag–a supposed non-combatant, humanitarian group–were later used by American tanks in offensives against the North Vietnamese. The infrastructure project turned out to be part of the preparations for the biggest US war operation ever to be undertaken in Tainin, Vietnam–Operation Junction City. The operation, conducted in 1967 or months before the Tet Offensive, was under US Gen. William Westmoreland, then in charge of the American forces in Vietnam.

A very small world

The paths of Vizmanos and Ramos again crossed paths in 1971 at the NationalDefenseCollege of the Philippines. There, Vizmanos was defending his thesis before a panel led by Ramos, then already a general.

Vizmanos’ thesis had three major recommendations: the government’s recognition of China, the admission of China to the United Nations and the abrogation of all military agreements between the US and the Philippines. It would not be long before these ideas would become not just respectable but even pragmatic and necessary. But it was 1971. No diplomatic ties existed between the Philippines and what was referred to at that time as “Red China.” China was still a pariah in the international community of nations, and the Philippines was the scratchiest defender of all things American in this part of the world. Moreover, Ramos’ father, Narciso, had served as envoy to Taiwan, even settling there and taking a Taiwanese for his second wife after he became a widower.

Ramos asked Vizmanos to make some changes in his thesis by “giving more emphasis to Taiwan.” Vizmanos refused. As a result, he did not graduate in the commencement rites of the NDC where Ferdinand Marcos was guest speaker.

From then on, the parting of ways took more than a literal meaning. With the declaration of martial law the following year, Vizmanos, a Navy captain, retired. Ramos stayed on and rose further in his military career.

Navy Capt. Rex Robles, one of the RAM (Reform the Armed Forces Movement) boys who took part in the EDSA uprising, said it was really the “functionary” in Ramos that made the latter behave the way he did during the Vizmanos thesis incident. “When he (Ramos) was a functionary, he was very strict, especially with regard to communist,” Robles said.

Amused, he recalled, “Captain Vizmanos was a victim there. All he did was write about China and if you read his work now, it sounds very tame. But at that time, the panel that reviewed his work took him seriously. Acting on the recommendation of the panel, Ramos in effect put an end to his (Vizmanos’) career. Not really Ramos, but the panel. And Vizmanos was one of the best minds I have met in the Navy at that time. I like his style; he reduces things to the basics and then he makes his judgment. Malinis siya mag-isip. Sayang. (He is a sharp thinker. It was a pity.)”

Not that Robles has ever been a critic of Ramos. In fact, the much-bypassed officer who received his first star only in late 1997 spoke of his commander in chief in the most glowing terms. Remembering Ramos in his younger years in the military, Robles said, “If there was such a thing as idolizing someone, I idolized him.”

“He was a professional soldier. He was clean. When he spoke, he spoke clearly. He was always even-handed. He was a hard worker,” he said.

Surprisingly, Vizmanos’ assessment was the same as that of Robles’. “As a young officer, Ramos was idealistic, a military professional. He was very humble and he lived simply.” That was, he added, until Marcos came around. “He changed when he became associated with Marcos. Marcos had a big influence on him.”

Another military officer saw the Marcos factor rather differently. Marcos, he was, did try to exert a big influence on Ramos but the latter tried to hold on to what he believed in. It was really the rivalry with Fabian Ver that would change Ramos. The reputed professional soldier was then observed to be trying to score “pogi” points, distancing himself from officers whose actions were rebuked by the military leadership but which he was well aware of.

A plodder: The staff worker

Those who have worked with Ramos know very well that an invitation to a game of golf was not exactly a time for unwinding. It was work just the same. As a Cabinet secretary said, “No, I wouldn’t want to be invited to play golf with him. It’s work.”

It seemed that playtime was also work time for the President. The plodder in him had been there for a long time.

Describing how it was like to work with Ramos in the military, Robles said, “He worked slowly but deliberately and very productively. He was relentless.” The man could work until 12 midnight, still dictating letters while his staff had become spent by then.

The next day would find his staff members bleary- eyed, but Ramos would show up for an appointment none the worse for wear.

When it came to his professional skills, no one could argue about where Ramos’ strength lay. Even Vizmanos conceded, “He was very good in staff work–planning, analyzing, doing intelligence work and operations.” On these matters, he says, Ramos was “ number one, incomparable” and probably “among the best in the world.”

“In the military, only a few can draft an operations plan. Ramos was one of them,” he said, recalling that even in the University of the Philippines where Ramos took up, but did not finish, a management course, “he was good in presenting and analyzing plans.”

“Commanders liked him a lot because of his talent in planning. Compared to Ramos, (Fabian) Ver was a nincompoop in military affairs,” Vizmanos said. And precisely because of these talents, the former Navy officer said, “I have no doubt he (Ramos) was the architect and planner of martial law.”

Among the so-called “Rolex 12,” the group that was privy to the plan to declare martial law, Vizmanos said it was Ramos who was the most competent in military planning. And when military rule was imposed, it was Ramos’ Philippine Constabulary that had the network and resources to implement the proclamation order, having as it did units all over the country.

The PC handled martial law affairs, with the military merely providing support.

Maj. Gen. Ramon Montaño, Ramos’ presidential adviser on police affairs, remembered the first time that Ramos came to the PC from the Army. When Ramos first met with PC officers, “he knew nothing about the PC,” Montaño said. On the second meeting, however, Ramos “knew better than anyone else.”

The ability to catch up and absorb as much information as he can is a quality that subordinates have observed in Ramos. Robles, for example, said, “He is the only president I know who can sit down with us and say, ‘How far away is this place? What kind of boat are we going to use? What kind of engine does it have? Do you have enough fuel? Do they have a tank in that place where we are going? What is your fuel consumption?’ He can analyze a problem to death.”

Montaño thought that at first, Ramos did not like him. Still, he kept Montaño in the PC.

His memory of Ramos as PC chief was one of a superior who “kept a list of unsolved crimes and asked officers about these.”

“Kung hindi ka makasagot, patay ka (If you couldn’t answer, you’re dead),” he said.

The 11th-hour decision-maker

One of the criticisms that would be raised against Ramos was his being a latecomer in the wave of opposition against Marcos. Even Mrs. Aquino had to come up with a fancy parallelism to defend her choice of presidential candidate. She likened him to the last worker who had come to the Lord’s vineyard. And while Ramos came in at the 11th hour, she said, his contribution to the cause was among the most crucial.

Where he really stood in the subsequent coup attempts against the Aquino administration was something that baffled his former comrades-in-arms at EDSA. One of them would recall that in the meetings that preceded the August 1987 coup attempt against Mrs. Aquino, Ramos had been sending one of his aides (“the same man who represented him during the 1986 plot against Marcos”). And yet when the day of reckoning drew nearer, Ramos hedged. He asked the rebels to “postpone” their plan.

The putsch failed. Although it was one of seven attempts to be staged by military rebels against Mrs. Aquino, it would be the most well-remembered for its codename–”God Save the Queen.” According to a former rebel officer, it was Ramos who thought up the name.

For Montaño, however, it has always been clear on whose side Ramos was. Even during the EDSA uprising, when Marcos had already left and people were rejoicing outside the gates of the military camps and Malacañang, the putschists toyed with the idea of a junta.

Ramos and Juan Ponce Enrile met for four hours. RAM wanted a junta, but Ramos did not agree to it. He supposedly said, “Nakakahiya sa mga tao dahil we got their support by saying Cory was cheated.”

The tension that was left unresolved by EDSA would naturally resurface during the Aquino presidency. The problem besetting military officers loyal to Mrs. Aquino at that time, Montaño said, was that “we couldn’t sell the government to our own soldiers.”

The military rebels’ propaganda line–that leftists dominated the Aquino government–clicked with the troops. Their perception was not helped when the persons known to be closest to Mrs. Aquino became “strident” in their criticisms of the rebel officers.

Ramos, who used to be welcomed in military camps as a hero, would just be met by blank stares. “ He was pictured as Cory’s tuta (puppet) who followed her because of his own ambitions,” Montaño said.

In reality, he said, Ramos “was walking on a tightrope.” He was meeting with the commanders one at a time. This was necessary because as Enrile’s chief security aide Gregorio Honasan and the RAM boys were rattling their sabers, the service commanders were silent. “That was ominous,” Montaño said.

In the camps, he said, the units were filled with RAM members who “whispered” to Montaño the latest developments. He, in turn, “whispered” these pieces of information to Ramos.

The military rebels reportedly hoped that, just like in EDSA, Ramos would join them at the last minute. He didn’t.

Why the EDSA mutiny could no longer be repeated is something for which Montaño, speaking as a soldier, had an explanation: “Deep within us, we knew we shouldn’t have done it (taken part in the EDSA mutiny). We agonized and we got caught up in events.”

As for Ramos, a former military rebel said he behaved rather predictably: to the last possible minute, Ramos remained unpredictable, a far cry from Marcos whose decisions become clear to anyone who followed him closely. But Ramos was always an enigma. No one could quite second-guess him.

Years after EDSA when Ramos finally decided to toss his hat in the election ring and pursue the presidency despite his defeat in the Laban convention, even those who regarded him as an ambitious man were caught off-guard. “We did not see his tenacity, the depth of his tenacity,” one of them said.

To be sure, Ramos had people around him who presented him with his options after the convention. According to Rose Marie “Baby” Arenas, an ardent campaigner romantically linked to Ramos: “Letty [Ramos-Shahani] wanted him to run for vice president instead. But I told him, win or lose, don’t aim for second best. I was willing to sell everything I had. But he said, huwag naman. So I said, please bolt.”

Ramos’ political camp was in disarray. “I called up (Jose Almonte, he had vertigo,” Arenas recalled. With Antonio Carpio, who later became presidential legal counsel, Ramos’ supporters gathered at their Makati headquarters to consider their next move.

Ramos did bolt Laban and formed his own party, the Lakas Tao. Months later, he would be taking his oath as president of the republic.

The new Chief

Once in Malacañang; one of Ramos’ first acts was to go to the different newspaper offices.

“Ramos can humble himself to get what he wants, to gain acceptance. He has a very strong stomach,: a former Cabinet member said.

Although it was a move that already showed the importance he gave to media, more indications of this would follow. While his predecessor was usually content to be given the news summaries every morning, Ramos would start his day at 4 a.m. reading the newspaper offices. There were stories and columns he felt strongly about; on their margins, he would write his comments and directives, and give these to the officials concerned.

And when a news story–especially if this happened to appear in a foreign publication–carried positive remarks about his administration, he would quote these in his speeches and press conferences.

It became a mark in a Ramos press conference that the President would hold up a clipping of a news story and, depending on whether he agreed it with or not, would either quote it to bolster his stand or take issue with it.

If he was an avid follower of what media wrote or said about him, Ramos was equally tuned in to public opinion polls. Under his presidency, Malacañang has been known to commission surveys and release these whenever the results favored the administration.

It was a clear indication of the President’s regard for public opinion–a trait that would later repeatedly pull the country away from the brink of catastrophe.

When the new President chose his staff , he chose familiar faces from the Aquino cabinet. Five and a half years later, many of those faces would have disappeared.

Journalists who covered Ramos have observed that talent did not appear to be the primary consideration for getting and staying in the Cabinet. Unlike his cousin, Marcos, Ramos did not show himself to be a good “headhunter.” his natural hunting ground was the military where he grew up professionally and where he formed some of his life-long friendships. Under his administration, the biggest number of former military officers was appointed to various positions in the bureaucracy.

A former Cabinet member who started out idolizing Ramos would have bitter words after the parting. That official said of Ramos’ style of choosing subordinates: “The primary motivation is vanity. The one criterion is: Will it serve his interest? It’s not: Is this the right thing to do? This is the least concern of his.”

But even when Ramos seemed to hit the right notes and get the right men, the former Cabinet official said it was still all because of his need to sustain a good image. Some relationships were uncomfortable, such as with one decent Cabinet member who, despite a well-done job, eventually opted to leave government and rejoin the private sector. No harsh words were exchanged in this instance, just an expression of choice on the part of the good official.

A boss who does not hide his impatience with slow and underperforming subordinates, Ramos, it was said, would periodically bawl out erring subordinates. A female Cabinet member did not escape this treatment.

He was even harsher with military subordinates. While he was still with the military, an officer remembered seeing Ramos writing on a piece of paper, his staff members standing behind him. Half-muttering, Ramos said, “Tingnan mo ito. Panoorin mo ako. Ako na lang ang gagawa dahil ang lahat ng ito mga inutil. Hintayin mo muna ito dahil walang makakatulong sa akin dito, lahat iyan…” [Look at this. Watch me. I’m the one who has to do everything because everyone else is useless. No one here can help me…]

Journalists and officials alike have come to observe that while you could take a man out of the military, you could never take the military out of a man. In Malacañang, Ramos “expected people to say something only when he asked for their opinion.”

And while he did seek out opinions and gather information, in the end, it was he–and he alone–who decided. Arenas confirmed this much. “Ninety-nine percent it’s his own [opinion he follows]. The people around him are just decorations,” she said.

Knowingly, she also said, “He will not get into a situation he cannot handle. He will not be cornered into anything.”

The man at the helm also hardly has time for small talk. Unlike his immediate predecessor who delighted in hearing gossip, Ramos was known to hate “chismis.” And unlike Marcos who had the guile to pit his subordinates against one other, Ramos became upset when his own people could not work together.

The personal preference for quiet, pleasant people might explain why Ramos liked his military buddy, Renato de Villa.

“De Villa is low profile, hindi madaldal (he is not talkative),” a Cabinet official who knew both men said.

Not surprisingly, Ramos himself was a secretive man. The romantic rumors about him came out only recently, Vizmanos noted.

Goodbyes

Loyalty was important to Ramos, but it was not the bottom line. When public opinion leaned too heavily against a certain official and his continued presence became a liability, Ramos would act like a normal politician. He would eventually find a way of getting that official to resign.

For varying reasons, 28 Ramos Cabinet members have left their posts. A handful did so for non-controversial reasons such as the personal desire to return to the private sector, to seek elective office, or to assume another position in government. Many, however, gave up their positions for other reasons.

Data monitored by THE MANILA TIMES listed the following officials who left the Ramos Cabinet following certain controversies:

Executive Secretary Peter Garrucho, resigned Aug. 10, 1992, following the controversy over his issuance of an executive order exempting mining firms–in which his friends had some interests–from the value-added tax or VAT.
Press Secretary Rodolfo T. Reyes, resigned May 10, 1993, for health reasons although differences with presidential spokesperson Annabelle Abaya were well known.
Finance Secretary Ramon del Rosario, resigned June 2, 1993, following the rejection of his nomination by the Commission on Appointments.
Presidential spokesperson Annabelle Abaya, resigned July 14, 1993, because of reported differences with certain Cabinet members.
Education Secretary Armand Fabella, resigned July 4, 1994, following a decision of Congress to establish the Commission on Higher Education (CHEd) separate from the education department.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Roberto Romulo, resigned April 30, 1995, for the perceived mishandling of the Flor Contemplacion case.
Press Secretary Jesus Sison, resigned June 20, 1995, citing health reasons but following a number of lapses, the last of which was a press release that was disputed by the President.
Labor Secretary Nieves Confessor, resigned June 30, 1995, for perceived mishandling of the Flor Contemplacion case.
Environment Secretary Angel Alcala, resigned June 30, 1995, for perceived anomalies in his mismanagement of the DENR; he was transferred to the CHEd.
Tourism Secretary Vicente J. Carlos, resigned on July 3, 1995, for the perceived mishandling of the Miss Universe pageant and the Leyte Landing rites.
Interior and Local Government Secretary Rafael Alunan III, resigned Dec. 22, 1995, following a Senate resolution seeking his ouster.
Presidential Management Staff Director Leonora de Jesus, resigned in April 1996, reportedly on the wishes of Ramos himself.
Health Secretary Hilarion Ramiro Jr., dismissed March 22, 1996, amid allegations of corruption in the award of contracts to purchase medical supplies, and after an opposition senator and her aide showed him on tape offering a bribe to stop a Senate inquiry into anomalies in the health department.
Tourism Secretary Eduardo Pilapil, resigned March 28, 1996, after the Commission on Appointments bypassed him for the nth time.
Presidential legal counsel Antonio Carpio, resigned Jan. 31, 1996, amid rumored differences with some Cabinet members.
Transportation and Communication Secretary Amado S. Lagdameo, resigned April 16, 1997, in the wake of criticisms that he failed to stop the PEA-Amari deal.
Executive Secretary Ruben Torres, resigned January 1998, after his failure to land a slot in the Lakas senatorial ticket.

Forever friends

Still, Ramos is known to take care of his friends whenever he can. After the 1992 elections, senatorial candidates of Lakas who lost in the race were advised to form a group that would keep them together. The losing candidates—Ruben Torres, Jose Yulo, Silvestre Bello III and Leonardo Quisumbing—then formed a law office which eventually became a group to reckon with. In time, Ramos plucked from this circle those people who would eventually compose his Cabinet.

Provided that a Cabinet member left quietly, without rattling the cage of the administration, that member was likely to be given an alternative job or remembered when an interesting opportunity arose. This has been the experience of former Labor Secretary Nieves Confesor, who landed a directorship at the Philippine National Oil Co. and became presidential adviser on overseas workers. Confesor is also being helped by the government in her quest for the top post at the International Labor Organization.

Foreign Secretary Roberto Romulo may have lost his job in the in the outcry that followed the execution of domestic helper Flor Contemplacion. But he remained in the good graces of the government which remembered him well enough to give him an important role in the business group of the Asia Pacific Cooperation Forum.

The same was true for Press Secretary Rod Reyes who, despite his falling-out with some Malacañang officials during his stint, was well-regarded enough by Marcos to be asked to take on the role of chair of APEC’s news bureau when the summit was held in Manila in November 1996.

Few were those exits marked by hard feelings, Renato de Villa, said to be the closest to Ramos among the Cabinet members, was one of these. Their friendship, tested in the fire of a military rebellion and in several subsequent coups, floundered in that trickiest battleground of all—politics.

Perhaps politics tends to further harden even the hardest souls. An official who used to work with Ramos would remember that the Chief Executive was not above venting his criticisms in private toward those he perceived to be against him. The only ones for whom Ramos reportedly did not have a bad word to say were, ironically, former First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos and Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile. Former President Corazon Aquino was not in their league. In a moment of frustration, Ramos reportedly said about his patron: “Akala mo presidente pa siya.” [You’d think she was still the president.]

Among some of those who have worked with him, there is the unflattering observation that one gets to have the upper hand with Ramos only when one has the goods against him. They have variably described these as “threats” and “blackmail.”

Real Teflon man

Every administration had it. For all the goodwill that marked the beginning, much of it would be eroded with each test. The going gets rough and no one knows how the end will be.

The Ramos presidency was no exception. Midway into his term, the billion-peso PEA-Amari scandal exploded. And every year, revelations about the inordinate amount of public funds allotted in aid of re-election were made.

But for all the huge financial scandals that happened during his term, Ramos proved himself to be the ultimate Teflon man. The charges never stuck to him, or ever reached him. While Lakas and its secretary-general, Jose de Venecia Jr., was linked to the PEA-Amari deal, the charges stopped short of the President’s doorstep.

Even the pork barrel controversies never seemed to touch him. Time and again, opposition legislators had pointed out to the fact that the biggest pork barrel was really with Malacañang. But whenever the issue of the pork barrel arose, it was Congress—not the executive branch—that came under siege.

The untainted President had a family that basked in his popularity and good image. In certain ways, it was well-deserved.

Despite criticisms leveled against Mrs. Amelita Ramos, she may yet end up as the least interfering and most low-key of all the First Ladies this country has ever had. She’s into two things—sports and environment.

As expected, her presence in projects in these areas easily got government support and attention. Rules were sometimes bent (such as the privilege that buyers of the Piso para sa Pasig car plates supposedly enjoyed, i.e. no car-less day), but—beside the excesses of the Marcos years—such things looked like harmless perks.

A relative was allegedly involved in a land case, but there was no indication, that Mrs. Ramos tried to protect that relative.

Their daughters tried to shine in their own fields—some of them with a little help from the celebrity status they enjoyed out of being children of the President. Cristy Jalasco has become the most famous, and perhaps most controversial, of them all, as is her husband. In the battle for the Philippine Sports Commission leadership, the First Lady made no bones about where her support lay. But it was just about the worst that Mrs. Ramos seems to have done. When she ran into conflict with sports journalists, Cristy lashed back at her critics, saying next time, if they ever want to be PSC boss, they should first have their fathers elected president of the republic.

Younger daughter Jo was initially the most famous of the Ramos siblings. Like the other presidential daughter who preceded the Ramos family (Kris Aquino), Jo at first held the nation in thrall. The public was curious about the young lady who was into show business and married an actor. Perhaps Jo did not have the determined will of Kris to become a star; perhaps she was not as interested. But public interest in Jo had waned as the Ramos years progressed—this despite the occasional rumors that dogged this showbiz marriage.

Everything considered, Mrs. Ramos could be said to be the First Lady who has done the least harm to this country. With a weak appetite for publicity and an obvious disinterest in media, the First Lady has kept her distance. When she did talk to media, she was frank. In many ways, she was forthright than her husband was. While her husband offered the other cheek whenever Jaime Cardinal Sin criticized Ramos, Mrs. Ramos would lash back at the powerful prelate. She avoided the cuteness that often accompanied stories on politicians’ wives.

Did Mrs. Ramos exert any influence on the President? A former Cabinet member said that when members of his family wanted something, Ramos would reply with an exasperated, “Sige, ibigay mo na nga.” The President disliked being pestered.

The President’s younger sister, Senator Shalani, might have had easier access to Ramos’ ear, but their blood relationship did not seem to have added any weight to the senator’s influence. Proof is that despite Shalani’s frequent public pronouncements Speaker De Venecia Jr., Ramos ended up endorsing the presidential bid of his sister’s prime pet peeve.

The tightrope walker

A Catholic Church that has always been zealous of its power over its flock became even more so after the EDSA people power uprising. It was in that uprising where the Church was able to prove its leadership and power to change the course of the country if it chose to do so. It was not surprising for Ramos to immediately realize that a president must stay on the good side of the Church. Sin has indicated as much. In an interview with The Times, he revealed that President Ramos occasionally had dinner at the Archbishop’s Palace in Mandaluyong. Listening to music and engaging in conversation would follow the dinners. It was in one of these dinners that Sin said he was convinced Ramos was stepping down.

But this was way before the Charter-change movement gathered enough momentum to catch public attention. Ramos’ turnaround would surprise Sin and contribute to the deterioration of the President’s ties with the Church (as well as former President Corazon Aquino). In this showdown, it would be Ramos who would back down and eat humble pie. He would also initiate the mending of fences with the two powerful figures.

But Ramos would not give in all the time. While he listened to particularly severe and constant criticism, there was one issue from which he could not be swayed: his foreign travels.

Robles justifies this, saying that it is a natural release for a man who, after being accustomed to field duty, now finds himself confined to an office.

As of January 1998, Ramos has visited 44 countries in 33 foreign trips. All trips were dubbed as business missions; expenses for these were described as “investments” that would bring manifold earnings for the country. It may very well be a justification that the president himself firmly believes in.

To quell the criticism that his foreign trips amounted to nothing more than junkets, Ramos pointed to the fact that he has not been remiss in his duties at home. He noted having gone on at least 600 provincial trips. Such trips, in contrast to his foreign travels, had been spared from criticism. Presidential visits to the provinces have traditionally been looked at with approval as they signified the performance of official duty rather than just getting away from the humdrum of local living.

The scoreboard

When all is said and done, the Ramos presidency will be reckoned with for what it has achieved—and failed to achieve.

What were the beliefs that steered Ramos, the plodder who became president?

“Wala (nothing),” replied Vizmanos. He could not remember Ramos having any vision even for the military. “He was very efficient with tasks, that was why the commanders liked him,” he said, recalling the president as a young officer.

But Ramos, he said, was not the type to challenge an existing order. He dealt with the present, and did his best with it. “He is more of an Aguinaldo; definitely not a Mabini or Bonifacio.”

Robles saw Ramos as “a strong manager” rather than a leader who sends blood rushing through the loins.

Unlike his cousin who could ignite an audience with his well-turned phrases and booming baritone, Ramos had a gravelly voice and dull speaking style that was more successful in inducing sleep among his listeners.

The most bitter criticism would come from a former Cabinet member who said, “He (Ramos) thinks he can coat himself with statements of patriotism and figures.”

In 1992, his first address to the nation as its twelfth president carried no memorable phrase, but rather a list of things to do. These objectives were later crystallized in his subsequent speeches that spelled out his vision in various fields.

As Ramos himself would recall, what he wanted above all was “a better life for everyone, a life where basic needs are met and wants [are made] conveniently affordable.”

“I envisioned that the Philippines could become a potential economic tiger, a nation that would have advanced on the socio-economic front to catch up with our brothers by the end of the century,” he said. And his catch phrase reflected the difficulties that lay ahead as well as the sacrifices that needed to be made: “Kaya natin ito.” [We can do this.]

To achieve his objectives, the Ramos presidency undertook a reform program that included the liberalization of regulations on foreign trade, foreign investment and foreign exchange; the privatization of government assets; the deregulation of the telecommunications and banking sectors; and the restructuring of the central bank. He also announced a national jobs program aimed at creating jobs at the rate of 1.1 million a year. By 1998, he said, unemployment would have been reduced from 9.3 percent to 6.3 and underemployment, from 19.3 percent to 13.8 percent.

By the time he delivered his penultimate State of the Nation Address in 1997, Ramos would point to the growth in gross national product (GNP) that rose from 0 in 1991 to 6.8 percent in 1996. He would cite the incidence of poverty that went down from 39.9 percent in 1991 to 35.7 percent three years later in his term. Foreign investment reached $18.6 billion, or a 20 percent increase over what it was in 1995.

By the end of 1997, Ramos could proudly point to an average inflation rate of just 5.1 percent, a significant improvement over the previous year’s 8.4 percent. But all was not well. In fact, things would quickly and inexplicably turn for the worse. Peso-dollar fluctuations that never went beyond “a narrow band of 13 centavos or one-half of one percent” in the past three years would gyrate wildly and plummet to depths unreached in the currency’s history.

As Southeast Asian currencies took one dive after another, the peso would hit P46/$1 in January 1998. It was a steep fall from its level of P25.512/$1 in 1992. Although the peso somewhat recovered, it was a slow climb, with no promise of the currency ever returning to the level it once enjoyed before the regional crisis began.

How something so good could turn out so bad is an ironic, unexpected turn of events for a president for whom planning and dogged execution of tasks had always been of supreme importance.

His shining achievement–that of having pulled the economy out of the doldrums and into tangible growth–suddenly loomed as his biggest failure. When the Ramos administration ends, many Filipinos are likely to remember it as the time when their purchasing power was cut most severely.

In other fields, Ramos’ achievements were likewise spotty.

  • In foreign relations, Ramos has gone pretty much in the same direction as his predecessors. The idea of economic diplomacy figured prominently in the thrust of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

In the country’s claims over some islands in the Spratlys, the Ramos government has largely played a shrewd hand. While insisting on Philippine sovereignty over the Kalayaan islands, the government has also avoided getting anything more than a stern rebuke from China.

The same shrewdness has been displayed with regard to the one-China policy. The Ramos government adopted a cat-and-mouse style of dealing with the problem. The Philippine officials met with Taiwanese officials while Chinese officials were not looking; if a meeting was found out, the government promptly denied it ever took place. It was an awkward–and untruthful–way of conducting diplomacy, but it seemed to have achieved two things: keeping warm and economically beneficial ties with Taiwan while retaining the necessary diplomatic relations with powerful China.

On the controversial issue of foreign military force in the country, the Ramos administration, did. It believed in keeping itself in the good graces of the United States, relying on the thought that prudence lies in being an ally of a strong nation.

Learning its lessons, however, the Ramos government has realized that negotiations on such a controversial subject as military forces must be kept far and away from the prying eyes of media. It was a noisy media that eventually led to the defeat of the proposed military bases treaty in the Senate. This was why information on the proposed Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) remained scant–until media was able to obtain a copy of the draft document. The accord has since been renamed Status of Visiting Forces Agreement, and its signing rushed, while the media were not looking.

  • • During the presidential campaign, Ramos summed up his policy regarding tax evaders and grafters with his promise: “Early in a Ramos administration, a big fish will be brought to justice.” late into his presidency, the bigfish has remained elusive.

• The restoration of “urban security and countryside stability” was the natural expectation from a man whose career was built around the military and the Philippine Constabulary. Initially, the Ramos presidency scored two big hits: the conclusion of peace agreements with military rebels and with the Moro National Liberation Front. The pact with the mutinous soldiers led to a more stable Armed Forces.

Still, armed conflicts persisted in the countryside especially in Mindanao, largely because of the unsolved conflict with the other Muslim groups and the weak implementation of the rebel returnee program.

Attacks from the leftist New People’s Army would become more frequent in the last months of the Ramos presidency, gaining propaganda points for the communist rebels.

While countryside conditions remained dangerous, urban security was tenuous. Daring bank robberies were pulled off and kidnappings rose to an all-time high. The irony was that the problem eluded solution because of the suspicion that members of the police and the military themselves mounted the abductions.

Riding into the sunset

It was during the Lakas consultation on presidential aspirants where Ramos declared his wish to become senior adviser of the next president. This was after the Charter-change “movement” retreated in the face of adverse public opinion.

That role of senior adviser, of course, depended on whether the administration candidate would come out victorious in the May polls. As Lakas struggled to choose its standard-bearer. In the end, they left it to Ramos to decide who the presidential candidate would be.

But in a sign that Ramos himself was all too aware of the repercussions of his decision on the party, he did the unexpected. Rather than choose his friend, De Villa, a latecomer to Lakas, the President chose the street-smart De Venecia.

As the country rolled toward the May elections, indications remained that it would be an uphill battle to get the electorate to write De Venecia’s name on the ballot. De Venecia, the ultimate traditional politician, has yet to dramatically improve his popularity rating.

Near the end of Ramos’ term, with all the trappings of an election in place, the country remains uncertain of what the post-May scenario will be like. Rather than put an end to fears of a non-election–or a non-proclamation as political pundits have recently put it–Ramos’ choice has resurrected rumors of an uninterrupted presidency.

As a former Cabinet official said, Ramos cannot cope with idleness. Throughout his career, whether in the military or in civilian government, he has always been the man in charge. In the knowing words of his friend, Juan Ponce Enrile: “Do not underestimate him. You never know what’s on his mind.”

Ramos continues to baffle even those who think they know him. They ask themselves: Is the general riding into the sunset? Or is he riding into another battle?

From Showdown ’98: The Search for the Centennial President, 1998

 

 

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