FVR on his legacy, poverty and crony politics

HINDSIGHT - F Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - June 22, 2014 - 12:00am


By W. Scott Thompson

Anvil Publishing


(First part)

The back page blurb of this magnificent book quotes me as saying, “A virtuoso performance. Scott Thompson’s biography of the soldier statesman Fidel V. Ramos illustrates the fascinating and complex geography of Filipino politics and its relation with the American hegemon. It’s first-rate scholarship and equally first-rate writing.”

I need to say more now, not so much in praise of the book and its fastidious author but in praise of the man who the author correctly elevates as “trustee of the nation.”

General Fidel V. Ramos (FVR) could very well — like any ex-president — just play golf now and, on occasion, dine with old friends and associates, look after his library and dictate his memoirs. But he is as busy as ever, imparting to Filipinos through continuous writing and public lectures on what needs to be done.

FVR lives with our history which he himself helped shape. Narciso Ramos, his father, was an illustrious statesman who was perhaps our first Foreign Service Officer; endowed with vision, he was one of the major architects of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). FVR started out as a soldier, accumulated frontline experiences in the Huk campaign in the Fifties, the Korean War, the Vietnam War — and a fistful of medals as well. He also grew up and walked with leaders like the late Ferdinand Marcos — whose guerrilla sanctuary was in the Caraballo range during the Japanese Occupation.

EDSA I was a shining moment for FVR when he decided to side with Juan Ponce Enrile and brought with him the support of the large chunk of the Armed Forces. Filipinos fondly recall a jubilant Ramos jumping with joy at the conclusion of EDSA I. Many do not realize that he agonized over such a decision. Ferdinand Marcos was an early idol, and more than this — a cousin.

At the end of her disastrous six-year term, President Cory Aquino anointed FVR as her successor. He won in the election in 1992 and ended the brownouts that characterized the gross inefficiencies of the Cory government. He immediately revitalized not just the bureaucracy but the private sector and convinced Filipinos and foreign investors that we were well on the way to become Asia’s new “tiger.”

I was aware of the challenges he faced and how he triumphed over them. I told him he made a big mistake — at the end of his term. He should have declared a coup, knowing only too well that six years is too long a term for a dullard president and too short for an achiever. The experience of Asian leaders illustrates that for a laid-back nation to rise and be prosperous takes at least a generation — 25 years!

FVR’s main obstacle was/is our Constitution which is regarded as sacrosanct; to change it requires the consent of the Filipino people. I have always argued that we should think out of the box. The reality is most Filipinos are concerned most with their security, food prices, care for the sick, and education for the children — all of which can be readily provided by a credible government or a benevolent dictator. The freedoms associated with democracy and elections are a luxury for the middle and upper classes that constitute but a tiny minority in the Philippines. Since FVR had shown himself to be a good president, he could have easily staged a coup at the end of his term. He explains why he did not in this interview.

For all his solid virtues and achievements, like all presidents, FVR had his share of criticisms, among them the deal involving the Manila Bay reclamation project, and the leftist charge that he was much too comfortable with the American-dominated International Monetary Fund (IMF). None of the charges could be traced to his office.

Unfortunately, FVR was succeeded by the Erap disaster, and after Erap’s ouster in EDSA II came the 10-year decrepit rule by Gloria Arroyo.

It must be remembered that in a predominantly Catholic country, FVR was the first Protestant president who did not bring to Malacañang either royal pomp or a grasping dynasty.

At 86 (born March 18, 1928), FVR is still physically fit, his mind alert and alive. Though he no longer performs the rigorous exercises of his younger days, he still travels extensively to speak before foreign and domestic audiences. He personifies the most formidable back channel diplomacy that he espouses in our relationship with other nations, particularly China. He is very open in sharing his thoughts on issues that impact on our national interest and well being; and given his experience in government and in the military, he should be listened to.

FVR has an easy sense of humor that often belies the profundity of his thinking. There is nothing decorous about his demeanor and, in this sense, he reminds me so much of another great Ilokano, Ramon Magsaysay. Like him, FVR is the greatest president we ever had. In hindsight, his achievements now look even more grand, more visionary and useful to the people.

The other week, FVR visited Solidaridad. I like to think that it was my wife’s pinakbet that truly lured him.

* * *

FVR (Fidel V. Ramos): First of all I’m going to give you this book by Mita Sison Duque, the wife of the oldest Duque, the late Dr. Salvador. He used to head the University of Pangasinan, in Dagupan. Mita is the daughter of Justice Porfirio Sison. In 1992 she wrote this book without interviewing me. But she interviewed my elementary school classmates in Lingayen and others. She’s reprinting it this year. Mita publishes the Capitol Post, the first weekly newspaper to come out in Lingayen, I grew up in Lingayen. In Asingan I was there when I was a kid. During his political campaigns, my father occasionally moved all of us to Asingan, then in the fifth district of Pangasinan.

FSJ (F. Sionil Jose): Do you still go to Asingan?

Two or three times a year. After I became President, I built a so-called ancestral home, very modest so that we will have a stopover place… Ranjit Shahani, my nephew, stays there. Maliit lang.

Almost every month I pass by Asingan.

From Rosales?

I take friends, teachers, foreigners, students to Rosales first, then Tayug, Asingan, then Binalonan.

When we already finished the bridge?

Yes. That was your bridge.

During my time as president, representing the sixth district of Pangasinan was Congressman Ranjit Shahani; he had a Republic Act passed naming that the Narciso Ramos bridge.

But I want to see the dam.

San Roque? As you know the source of the Agno River is the Cordilleras, vicinity Bontoc, Mountain Province.

Kain muna tayo. There’s enough food for your men.

I always eat with them. That is the way to gain the loyalty of your subordinates, always feed your soldiers first. Pakbet is the best dish. The bagnet is called Pakpak in Ilocos Norte. I was tempted when you mentioned it.

But your roots are really Norte.

No, more from Pangasinan, that’s where I grew up.

Your parents.

My mother is from Batac, Ilokos Norte. Her father is from Batac, too. Her mother is the sister of the father of Ferdinand Marcos. So my mother is the aunt of Ferdinand, and Ferdinand and I are second cousins. Ferdinand’s mother is from Sarrat, their second hometown. They have more family monuments in Sarrat.

Did you know Joe Llanes?

I knew him as a happy-go-lucky guy, a man of the world, much older than me.

Joe told me… the father of Ferdinand was a Japanese collaborator, Don Mariano.

Don Mariano died in La Union.

Caba. He was killed by the guerrillas and burned there. I also researched on Ricarte. He really was a collaborator. But he didn’t take advantage of his connections with the Japanese the way others did.

Another book I’m giving you is by my mother’s youngest brother, Congressman Simeon Valdez, Bataan veteran who retired as a colonel back in 1971. He succeeded Marcos in the second district of Ilocos. They were both very popular, kasi war hero sila and both Bataan veterans. Uncle Sim was commissioned in Regular Force from the famous UP Vanguards… like Salvador Villa, Carmelo Barbero, Freddie Ruis Castro, Conrado Rigor, Alberto Fenix and Salvador Abcede. He studied high school in Lingayen, the youngest among eight. My mother took him into our home to ease the burden on their old man for educating him.

I want to ask you about West Point.

Of course, there are plenty of war stories and heroics from West Point. Four heads of state graduated from USMA (United States Military Academy) — Ulysses Grant, Dwight Eisenhower, a guy from Costa Rica, Jose Maria Figueres, and yours truly. There’s actually a fifth one but he was a dictator of Nicaragua — Anastacio Somoza. He was assassinated while visiting Paraguay, I think, in the early Sixties.

What are your firmest memories of Asingan?

My best recollection of Asingan was as a teenager during the war because that’s where we evacuated. There, I grew up with my three uncles — younger brothers of my father who were at that time in their early 20s, about 10 years older than I but I adopted their ways — you know, sleep late in the morning, doing only little because their parents were shopkeepers. They did not own that much land, which they consolidated and put up a pwesto in the market selling dry goods. My father’s father, Placido, being a Katipunero under Daniel Maramba, had some political influence as a young man. He won as town mayor about the 1920s when my father was studying in Manila. My uncles were also guerrillas, and I used to play basketball with them in the town plaza during the Japanese Occupation. That’s where I learned to drink. At the same time, we roamed around all over the district. The guerrillas took me along. My father was their lead man and his base was in Natividad at the confluence of the adjacent barangays of Tayug, San Nicolas and Natividad. Marcos was nearby running a guerrilla intelligence outfit; he evacuated with our family in Barrio San Narciso Natividad in 1944 when he was wanted by the kempeitai. My uncles, a little younger than Marcos, were guerrillas too, and I got to know most of the towns in the district quite well. However, we didn’t reach Rosales because we had to walk. There was another outfit towards Baguio led by Americans who were in touch with the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA) of MacArthur. They got in touch with other guerrillas through Morse code. I got to know a lot of our relatives including younger cousins, and up to now I’m very close to all of them.

First you went to the Philippine Military Academy (PMA), before West Point? Or direct to West Point?

There was no PMA then. I went to USMA in 1946, PMA was re-established in 1947. Some candidates for West Point took the exams with me in 1945, like Florencio Magsino (now retired Brig. General) who was number two in those competitive exams. I was number one, but since there was only one slot, he did not make it in 1946 so he tried again the next, and he made it. When I entered the United States Military Academy I experienced many cultural shocks. All my clothes were hand-me-downs from the US Army surplus or the YWCA. I traveled to the US in the summer of 1946 by what is called “space available.” Available at that time were only C47s. It took me two weeks to get to California because we had to island-hop. The C47 can only fly for a short range. It was from Manila to Guam, to Kwajallen, Kwajallen to Johnston, Johnston to Midway, Midway to Honolulu then Honolulu we got onboard a C54 for California. This was after the signing of the peace agreement in Japan. Many of my co-passengers were returning veterans, including some American nurses. The C47 maximum altitude is about 8,000 feet. It is not pressurized and it is very cold up there so they distributed blankets to the passengers but there were not enough so I was placed between two nurses, even when going to sleep; I was only 18 years old, very innocent; I was probably the first overseas Filipino worker going in that direction to the US. From Travis Air Force Base just south of San Francisco, I took a series of plane rides to the East Coast. In the land of milk and honey, I saw hardship, too, in the stories of returning veterans. They came from farming families, were either recruited or they volunteered and ended up in the Pacific. They suffered from some discomforts in the Philippines — the mosquitoes, the heat — they were not used to our climate. But because the US won the war, their morale was high.

Did you have any unpleasant experiences in West Point?

Just one. Luckily for me, my father — an undefeated congressman for the Fifth District of Pangasinan — now the Sixth — was the rival of Eugenio Perez for the House Speakership with Manuel Roxas, the newly elected president. In 1946, Narciso Ramos was a dark horse candidate for the Speakership of the House. My father told me afterwards that to resolve this rivalry for one high position between two close friends, he was offered the position of Minister Counselor in the Philippine Embassy in Washington, and thereby he became the first career Foreign Service Officer in our new Republic. Did I encounter any bad experiences? I was bound for Washington first before going to USMA because I had to report to our military attaché, at that time, Colonel Manuel Salientes of Umingan, Pangasinan and a 1937 graduate of USMA. In West Point I was treated like any cadet, or plebe if you are a newcomer. When you become an upper classman, you could have the same privileges as your American classmates. The only real discrimination I encountered was in 1948. We were training in Fort Benning, Georgia in the Deep South. We were in cadet uniform, I was boarding the bus to go to Atlanta, two hours away on a weekend break and the conductor suddenly ordered me to sit in the back of the bus.

Ah, he thought you were black…

No, no, I was not white, but he didn’t know what I was. I said, “I’m sorry, but I’m not Negro.” Some classmates who were on the same bus defended me. They said he’s from the Philippines; he’s a cadet and must be treated with respect.

In the Academy?

In the Academy we had to go through all the rigors, including physical conditioning exercises and disciplinary drills known as “hazing.” The difference between US and Philippine hazing is, in the US, they had already discarded since World War II physical touching. At the PMA they even box the plebes if nobody’s watching. At USMA if you want to impose physical conditioning on the plebes under you, you have to do at least the same exercise as you impose on a plebe. If you say “Give me 40 push-ups,”
you have to do 40 push-ups, too. It is not like this in the PMA. I recall some of my associates from the Class of ‘51-‘52 whose fathers became generals. Every time their fathers were mentioned in the newspapers for having captured a Huk or something, the plebes were asked to eat the clippings. They called this the “VIP breakfast.” Victor Abat, (the son of General Fortunato Abat from La Union, PMA Class ‘51) died in combat in Leyte, in an NPA ambush. When Victor was a cadet, every time his father’s name was mentioned in the newspapers, he was told to eat the clipping. The honor system in both academies as applied today is very strict. In the US there is due process. I read about Cudia, a PMA salutatorian who was dismissed without due process according to the Department of Justice Public Assistance Attorney. Apparently, he was not really allowed to air his side.

Let’s talk about the Army.

Three weeks after I graduated from West Point, the Korean war broke out. Half of my American classmates including those that joined the US Air Force volunteered to be assigned there in the war zone.

You were there as a lieutenant, right?

I was there as Philippine Army, second lieutenant in the second batch, the 20th Battalion Combat Team (BCT).

Ojeda was first batch.

Yes, the 10th BCT. In the case of my USMA, class of 1950, some classmates were newly married, they were on their honeymoon, on June 25, 1950, but they volunteered for combat just the same. The Cold War between the free world and the USSR broke out into a hot war and went on for many years on the Korean Peninsula. The education orientation of American military training was in the direction of conventional warfare. In the Philippines it was counter-insurgency, or fighting the Huks. As Secretary of National Defense, late President Ramon Magsaysay used all-out force on the right (the AFP) and all-out friendship on the left, land reform, social justice etc. The Americans learned guerrilla equations and civic action from us. What they had learned in West Point was all about fighting with all-out force.

Your biography by W. Scott Thompson is magnificent. The writing is elegant and the scholarship is impeccable. Scott’s background on the region is formidable. I met him way back when he was dean of the Fletcher School of Diplomacy.

People are buying it. The hardcover is US$60. Scott Thompson owns that book — not me.

It should be in a cheap paperback edition.

I’m giving you another book, this one my biography as of 1997 by Dr. Isabelo Crisostomo, former president of PCC, now PUP. Completely unsolicited, he did not even interview me.

Has the President ever approached you for advice or assistance?

He always gets an advance copy of my Sunday Bulletin articles. It is addressed to him and four other guys in Malacañang to make sure that he’s told about it: the Executive Secretary, Lacierda, Cabinet Secretary Almendras, and Coloma or Carandang, plus the Senate President, five other senators who chair five committees. In the House, the Speaker and the five committee chairmen get similar copies. Now, going back to your question (about P-Noy). There is a law called LEDAC — Legislative Executive Development Advisory Council — passed during my time in late 1992 but vetoed during Cory’s time. I saw its merit and I told Joe De Venecia, then Speaker in late 1992, that it is a multi-sectoral mechanism to gain consensus of even your rivals in the House and also in the Senate and in the political society as a whole. We should reenact that LEDAC law so that we can get support for our programs.

Cory vetoed it?

Yes. But why, I don’t know. But I know some hearsay which I’ll tell you anyway. The alleged reason she vetoed it was because she did not like power sharing. Why should you listen to your opposition in the House, to the rebel leaders who staged coup attempts against you, the MNLF, etc. etc.? I found out later in the Senate she only had to talk to one person, Butz Aquino, to get anything from there. In the House only one, Peping Cojuangco, Deputy Speaker.

Yabang ano.

Wala akong sinabi, ikaw nagsabi…

I already said that when she said, “I don’t welcome unsolicited advice.”

But the LEDAC, once it was enacted, I really went for it and we used it for five and a half years to unite the body politic.

Okay, another question.

Teka muna, one time P-Noy asked my advice. Only once, although I continue giving him unsolicited advice including my books. During the presentation to the National Security Council by Secretary Del Rosario of Foreign Affairs of the official Philippine solution to the Spratly problem, Scarborough, Panatag — all of a sudden I got a notice from Malacañang the day previous: “Please attend the meeting in Malacañang at 10 o’clock tomorrow.” I was not even told the agenda, but I’m a member of the National Security Council executive committee where former presidents are ex-officio members. After the summary by the President, the Cabinet members started talking. Erap and I — we fought for our time to be heard, I said there’s a very good solution but it does not end there. This is just the official policy. We must use so many other back channels, not just two or three, because there are many opportunities for us to target, then work with the Chinese people, People Power tiempo like during Marcos. The Chinese officials can’t fight it. Their common people up to now have the same problems as we have. Poverty — their minimum wage is lower than ours — inundation, bad air, housing, forced migration from the farms — because Beijing wants to use the farms as a right of way. You go to the city and they put you in a high rise, you lose your farm, you have to figure out other means of livelihood. These are their problems — I know because I have been going there for many years. Macro-control, like China’s population policy, is a good example. One child only, unless you are a Ph.D. You can have a second if you apply for it and pay the privilege tax. Of course, the Chinese people don’t like this… but they’re connected to the Internet and social media and they’re learning about population and family planning development in other countries. They are very patriotic and obedient and therefore united with regards to the new Party line in the South China Sea. But they are starting to learn more about the world, and now, there are separatist movements which are violent… Xinjiang and Kunming — I’ve been there. The latter is in Yunnan province which is adjacent to Burma, partly Vietnam and Laos. Guangzhou or Canton, capital of Guangdong, which is their biggest, most prosperous province in another hotbed.

The Cantonese are rebels.

Yes! The Kuomintang Military Academy is there…

The remnants.

Sun Yat Sen, he is Cantonese. Si Chiang Kai Shek is not but he studied there. There is unhappiness in China — maybe still limited. They have to reform or transform their overheated economy. They cannot grow it just through exports anymore. Many of their corporations are inefficient state-owned enterprises with huge subsidies. They are not competitive. President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang have to focus on domestic consumption just like here, so that in China will be less poverty, more jobs and greater purchasing power. This is what I mean — we must engage then on many fronts. Who will back channel for us? Your (FSJ’s) historical and literary counterparts in China, the Filipino-Chinese here in the Philippines. If I’m mestizo Chinese I will play both sides. Take the Taiwanese and Mainlanders. Take our experience with the Taiwanese. After the Chinese civil war in 1949… at least 30,000 of those KMT mainlanders fled to the Philippines instead of going direct to Formosa. We gave them sanctuary, we didn’t drive anybody out. A number of these people became rich here, rich enough to invest in Taiwan — that’s where they started their big fortunes, here and in Formosa.

Poverty is on the increase. Thousands of Filipinos eat only once a day.

As an anti-poverty program for the long term, we passed an enabling act called “The Social Reform and Poverty Alleviation Act of 1997,” RA 8425, so that four housewives up to 20 can put up a small business. We expanded the Muhammad Yunos principle. We extended micro-credit to micro-fiance and micro-enterprise, including providing for savings and insurance. We applied the honor system and this was very popular during our time. Because of his extravagant lifestyle, Erap disrupted that anti-poverty program — in the same way he did not fulfill the 1996 Final Peace Agreement (FPA). He went on an all-out war in Mindanao in 2000.

That’s not the solution.

You can have the most beautiful peace agreement done in heaven by God himself but if the implementation is wrong… it won’t work.

This peace agreement now, what do you think?

It depends on the implementation, especially down below at the local level. The support of the President, the Commander-in-Chief, is so necessary. Now, if they think that they are finished by just signing the new “Bangsamoro” agreement in the presence of so many VIPs, they’re wrong. We had the same optimistic prognostication in 1996 but the implementation by the next president starting in 1998 went wrong.

Six years for a lousy president is too long and six years for a good president is too short. That is why — remember I told you — you should have declared a coup at the end of six years. Why did you not declare a coup?

The answer is simple. You ask your friends, Joe Almonte, Tony Carpio (he was my chief legal counsel) and some generals who were about to retire in 1992 — they said, “We can do it.” General Almonte said: “The police and the Armed Forces including the political parties are with you.” I told them even if we are successful in the initial campaigns, within two years we will all be gone because coup plotters and military strongmen do not last that long. I wanted to do it the legal, constitutional way so that we will all last a long time, and we have to do it well, with the people’s support.

During the martial law years my feet were always on the ground. When Marcos declared martial law nothing happened. The people didn’t care, the voters didn’t care. As an engineer, you are familiar with structures. Structurally, what is wrong with us?

The base. In engineering the foundation is all-important… more than the beauty of the design. So if there is something rotten in the foundation, the entire structure is bound to be weak and subject to decay and deterioration. Many concluded that the 1986 People Power Revolution in EDSA abolished the Marcos cronies. But another set of cronies of the Aquino regime replaced the old one. Leo Oracion — the lead climber of our Philippine team that climbed Mt. Everest — said it very correctly. My Makati office was the hangout of the team. Former DOTC USec Art Valdez was the Chief of the Mt. Everest Expedition. When Leo Oracion came home, his team was welcomed in a grand reception in Malacañang by President Gloria Arroyo. During the press interview, when he was asked: “What do you have to say?” He looked straight at Gloria Arroyo and said, “Going to the top is optional (when scaling Mt. Everest) but coming down is mandatory — because you cannot stay at the top forever.” I liked that. That was talking about dynasty, about dictatorship, about Cojuangco, Aquino, Binay, Espino in Pangasinan, Marcos, Romualdez. Is there a Ramos dynasty? None! All our offspring are daughters and they are not interested in politics. My sons-in-law are professionals and businessmen. My closest relative in politics is my sister, former Senator Letty and her son, Ranjit, who served as congressman of the 6th District of Pangasinan, and is now a provincial board member. But after their terms — no more politics. Dynasties are the worst. Look at the composition of the House of Representatives and the Senate — full of dynasties. It is worse in the Senate, they’re only 24 but the Senate is run by at least five families.

The Economist says we’re number six in terms of crony capitalism.

We are also high in growth but the economic growth is not inclusive.

Why is it that there are more hungry people now and more unemployed despite the high growth rate?

Because the wealth is under the control of maybe just a hundred families — call them dynasties, oligarchs, aristocrats, elites and monopolists. Now, what I’m saying is if the distribution of wealth is extended all the way down to the grassroots equitably — each according to his ability, that’s both communistic and democratic.

For me, it’s according to his needs.

That’s Marx. The Germans have modified it very nicely. The third way, it’s not communist, it’s not fully capitalistic. It is more democratic and the wealth of the country is distributed equitably. From my little office on the 26th floor of a building in Makati, I tell people to look down and they can see immediately the problems of the Philippines — the gaps in education, housing, income, health, longevity, transportation, food, water, opportunity, etc. but the most terrible of these gaps, is the “tang-gap.” (Laughter) When a bribe is offered, we — the poor included — naturally tend to take it because of need. It is the guy who offers the bribe who is the most criminal and most condemnable — not the bribe-takers.

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