Remembering FVR

BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. - Ambassador B. Romualdez - The Philippine Star

During my early years as a news reporter assigned to cover Malacañang, one of those whom I had the opportunity to interview was General Fidel V. Ramos, popularly known as FVR. From the way he spoke and the manner by which he conducted himself with his upright posture, FVR struck me as someone who was every inch a soldier and totally disciplined with his comments.

During the times he would be waiting to see president Marcos Sr., I would spend time talking with him outside the study room at the Palace. On one occasion, Enrique Zobel, a close personal friend of General Ramos, invited me for lunch at the BPI executive lounge. During that lunch EZ hosted sometime in 1982, FVR revealed that he was really looking to continue in public service even after his retirement.

That was perhaps the first indication – at least to me – that the general would be treading a different path, as the turn of events served as the impetus for Fidel Ramos to become the 12th president of the Republic of the Philippines. His tenure generally marked by a perception of political stability, FVR used his great prowess at psywar to confuse and perplex perceived political enemies.

He was undoubtedly an excellent drumbeater who was able to lead the country on a steady course of economic growth, positioning the Philippines as the next tiger economy of Asia. I saw this for myself when I joined several of his trips as part of his business delegation, particularly in Los Angeles, in San Francisco and during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference in Vancouver, Canada in November 1997, and then on to Seattle.

When the 1997 Asian financial crisis hit, the Philippines was not as badly hurt as the other countries in the region because, as FVR explained it, we kept our economy open and enhanced our competitiveness – summed up in his trademark battle cry of “Kaya natin ‘to!” (roughly translated as “We can do this!”). That’s because he was not afraid to take the bull by the horns, so to speak, when he fast-tracked an energy program – even utilizing power barges – to solve the energy crisis that saw the country suffering from 12-hour daily brownouts that began in 1990 and continued until the early part of his presidency. As a result, he was able to add 1700 megawatts of new electric capacity, prompting many to say that he saved the country from ruin because the “dark days” came to an end and investors started coming in.

Age had not dimmed his intellect because long after he left the presidency, he would regularly send me copies of his articles printed on paper with the RPDEV (Ramos Peace and Development Foundation, Inc.) letterhead along with a handwritten note as well as comments on the margins, in his trademark red ink.

There is no doubt that Fidel Ramos was an extraordinary individual who immensely contributed in making people proud of their country with his positive outlook and trademark thumbs up sign. In fact, this was the very same reason why we honored him with the Max Soliven Lifetime Achievement award during the “2018 People of the Year” awards, in recognition of the indelible mark that he had left in our country’s history.

A lot of people, friend or foe alike, appreciated the gesture of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in giving credit for all the things that FVR has done in spite of what happened in the past, making it a point to be present during the late president’s burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani. As President of the republic, BBM wanted to show unity and the appreciation of the people for all the contributions that FVR made in helping stabilize the country, describing him as a great leader and a dedicated statesman.

The relationship between the Philippines and ASEAN as well as the United States was one of its best during FVR’s term. In a statement, the US-ASEAN Business Council mourned the loss of “an elder statesman and enduring ally for US-Philippines and US-ASEAN relations,” noting that he “strengthened democratic institutions by ensuring the supremacy of civilian authority over the military,” which ensured the country’s economic prosperity.

We should remember that the long journey home of the Balangiga Bells which were taken as war booty by American soldiers in September 1901 first gained traction when FVR personally asked president Bill Clinton for the return of the bells. As president Clinton seemed amenable to the idea, FVR instructed then-Philippine Ambassador to Washington Raul Rabe to start the work of recovering the bells, which were displayed at Warren Air Force Base near Cheyenne in Wyoming.

The efforts to recover the bells met with a lot of resistance compounded by legal obstacles, but the impassioned speech of former president Duterte during his State of the Nation Address in July 2017 revived the clamor for their return.  Together with many groups that include US veterans, private American individuals like our honorary consul in Florida Henry Howard and countless friends who worked to overcome the obstacles – it was truly an honor for me that the bells were returned to the Diocese of Borongan in Eastern Samar in December of 2018.

I have to thank FVR, too, because when I was first offered the post of ambassador and I initially declined, FVR was one of those who urged me to accept the job – and I must admit, he was right: there is nothing more humbling and gratifying than to be given the opportunity to serve your country, most especially during challenging times.

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