FIDEL V. Ramos’ recent interview with Rappler’s Maria Ressa was a study in sophisticated elder statesmanship. He was cordial and engaging, of course, and kept the talk good-humored and paternal. He didn’t sound the least bit patronizing towards his interlocutor, who seems incapable of giving anyone a hard time and tends to err, rather too often, on the side of pleasant chat. FVR, fortunately, speaks with natural candor and can be pointedly direct, as one would expect of a military man. With half a century’s worth of public service to his name, and always at the epicenter of power, there is not much FVR does not know and has not seen. His insights are so obviously gleaned from formidable experience and, now in his late 80s, from a confidence that he has nothing left to prove. When he takes Imelda Marcos to task, or gives his opinions on President Duterte’s personality, the drug-bust operations, and foreign affairs, it’s clear we are hearing something so incredibly rare these days – the truth from someone who wants to tell it.
Much of what FVR says to journalists can be read in his columns that appear in the Manila Bulletin. This is no bad thing. A process clearly accounts for his articulacy. His thoughts have been allowed to ferment and take shape in print before they are given a public airing. Consequently, nothing he says is half-baked and he rarely contradicts himself. His questions to Imelda Marcos are precisely what the public craves to know: “Where is the rest of the hidden wealth? What really happened in August 1983? (He is absolutely dismissive of the lone gunman explanation with regard to the assassination of Benigno Aquino). And, his plea to her to make plain her family’s ambition, seems to be fueled by the anger he feels at the way her children shamelessly keep the military at their beck and call. When he denounces extra-judicial killings, by conjuring up the image of a poor man brandishing a home-made gun, a paltik, before he is sprayed with bullets by heavily armed police officers, he knows, with forensic accuracy, the glaring unfairness of the fight. “An overwhelmingly lethal combat ratio advantage of 5 to 1 versus their obviously poor, scruffy, slipper-clad suspects.”
FVR’s column writing, actually jottings, reveals the gradual, occasionally tedious, altogether laborious process of piecing together reflection, knowledge, and the raw material of experience. His prose is sparse, his tone laconic, somewhat emotive, mainly due to his over-emphatic punctuation, with sentences sometimes written out in full capitals and lavished with question and exclamation marks: “Is this P. Du30’s real ‘war’ on poverty?? Obviously not!! It’s just unexplained killing.” When Duterte said FVR visited him in Davao multiple times, and handed over a “thick list” of names of government officials, police chiefs, and Chinese nationals supposedly involved in the narcotics trade, FVR responded in his column with the compressed refutation that teenagers are guilty of overusing: “No way!!!”
He can be amusingly mordant: “The presidency,” he writes, “is no place for panicky, self-centered, onion-skinned, and fragile characters.” On camera, this particular thought, concerning the President’s volatile personality, coalesced into a telling reflection: “[Fear] is the kind of environment in which he grew up. But a lot of his fears are being generated by him [sic]. He is afraid of fear. He is insecure.”
FVR’s pivotal role in the EDSA uprising is frequently extolled as a high point of the man’s moral courage, a moment that truly tested his mettle and displayed his convictions. But as the first and, thus far, only Protestant President the country has known, FVR’s adoption of a radical population policy, which aimed to significantly reduce the country’s population, might better fit this accolade. Just days after his inauguration, in 1992, FVR took on the Catholic Church. Seeking to achieve a per capita income of $1,000 a year by 1998, FVR figured that the population growth rate needed to fall below 2 per cent. He appointed Juan Flavier to the Department of Health. Flavier came with 30 years of experience in rural practice and was a staunch advocate of family planning. Together, FVR and Flavier established “freedom of choice” as the foundation of the government’s family planning program, which aimed to limit family size through the provision of artificial birth control methods. The Church, Flavier asserted, did not own women’s bodies and went on to defend women’s right to information about contraception. This is one of the finest instances of truth-telling that occurred under FVR’s watch. By 1993, FVR and Flavier were pushing for the use of prophylactics to curb the spread of HIV.
The CBCP responded by declaring “total war” on the government. “Contraception was contrary to the will of God,” fulminated the bishops from the pulpit, and issued trenchant pastoral letters. On the orders of Jaime Cardinal Sin, the Church organized protest rallies, denied communion to government workers that tried to implement the family planning program, and threw their tremendous support behind pro-natal politicians. As the historian Robert L. Youngblood notes, FVR was painted as a renegade soldier and decried by Cardinal Sin as the man “who helped Marcos put up the structure of dictatorship”.
Sin wasn’t lying. A cousin to Ferdinand Marcos, FVR had served the dictator with unstinting loyalty and devotion throughout the martial law period. He was the enthusiastic chief of the Philippine Constabulary. Was he personally responsible for the savage atrocities, the torture, the disappearances, and the killings that defined the era?
On this matter, the normally loquacious, truth-telling FVR is keeping schtum.