Los Angeles Times Interview : Fidel Ramos : Building a Stable Democracy in the Philippines

<i> Jim Mann is a Washington columnist and correspondent for The Times specializing in foreign affairs</i>

Until recently, the Philippines was earning its sobriquet as “the sick man of Asia.” In the world’s fastest-growing region, the former American colony was an oasis of stagnation and decay.

But in the past three years, Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos has brought his country greater political stability and economic growth than it has known for decades. The power blackouts that regularly interrupted daily life in Manila have ended. Factories are sprouting up where the U.S. Navy once reigned at Subic Bay. The Philippine economy is now expanding at a rate of about 5% a year--not as fast as its Asian neighbors, but far ahead of the contracting economy under dictator Ferdinand Marcos or the flat growth rates of Ramos’ predecessor, Corazon Aquino.

In a country famous for flashy, adolescent nicknames such as “Bong Bong” and “Teddy Boy,” Ramos is such a sober and uncharismatic grown-up that he has earned the moniker “Steady Eddy.” He spent most of his life as a military officer in the Philippine armed forces. He was educated in this country, graduating from West Point in 1950, and obtaining a master’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Illinois the following year. He was a platoon leader for a Philippine unit fighting alongside U.S. forces in Korea.

Ramos was among the military officers who, in 1972, helped President Marcos to declare martial law in the Philippines. But 14 years later, Ramos and Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile were the two principal architects of the military rebellion against Marcos that helped launch Aquino’s “people power” revolution. Ramos later served as Aquino’s armed forces chief of staff and defense secretary, successfully overcoming seven separate coup attempts against her.


He won election to the presidency on his own in 1992. His mandate was less than impressive: He obtained only 24% of the vote in a seven-person race. But after taking office, he moved quickly to bring about political and economic change in the Philippines. He brokered peace talks with Philippine communists, Muslim separatists and the renegade movement in the armed forces. He courted foreign investment, liberalized the Philippine economy and imported new power-generating equipment.

Ramos’ term as president ends in 1998, and, under the constitution, he is required to step down then. However, some political leaders in the Philippines have charged that he plans to change the constitution so he can run again.

Ramos, 67, and his wife, Amelita, have five daughters. He was interviewed in New York, where he was attending ceremonies for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. His style is straightforward and relaxed--yet always careful enough to promote the Philippines and the changes he is trying to foster.

Question: It’s been three years since the closing of the U.S. bases at Clark and Subic and the other facilities in the Philippines. I wonder whether you’re glad the bases closed and with the aftermath.


Answer: The initial reaction to that, of course, was dismay on the part of the communities around Subic and Clark and also on the part of those, including myself and Mrs. [President Corazon] Aquino, who wanted a stronger U.S. presence in the Philippines. But, immediately, our leaders--and I supported them, although I was still a candidate at the time--put out a new look called the Bases Conversion Development Authority. That involved a win-win situation, where the former U.S. military facilities are being converted to productive investment and trade areas.

So the basis for our relations with the U.S. now is trade, not aid. This was jointly declared by President Clinton and myself in November, 1993, when I made my first official visit to the U.S.

Q: So would you recommend to Japan and South Korea, which are having problems with U.S. bases, that they close them?

A: They’re, in fact, looking at our entire [bases-conversion] policy. Many groups have come to study how we did this. Even Panama--the president of Panama himself--spent a little time there, the president of Argentina. Pakistan is also interested, because they have some conversion to do.


Q: You say Japan and Korea are looking, too?

A: They’ve studied us. As far as visiting, oh, yes, they have done this. The president of Taiwan has been there.

Q: But if everybody closes down these U.S. bases, if Japan and Korea do so, too, then what happens to the U.S. presence in Asia? Are you recommending that other countries do what the Philippines did?

A: These decisions will have to be based on their own national and economic interests. I’m not recommending anything in that regard. But we are saying that the U.S. must maintain a constructive presence in Asia and the Pacific. This is not merely a military presence, but an economic presence.


Q: Should there be a U.S. military presence in the Pacific?

A: During this time, yes. But not at the overpowering level that existed during the Cold War. What is important is America must assess things in terms of her own national interest. I think here [in the United States] there is a preponderance of concern now on the domestic issues. Social concerns. Certainly, that is reasonable. That is also our own priority.

The name of the game is not so much any more trying to outdo each other in an arms race. But, in this sense, the U.S. has maintained a presence there. During this transition period--meaning as we go into the 21st Century--the minimum of stabilizing forces must be around. But it is not so much the military connection or support that must exist. It is the interdependence of our respective economies and our regional economies that must be maintained. There is a new global order out there now.

Q: Are you concerned about China’s military power?


A: Yes, we are. We have this continuing dispute over the islands of the South China Sea. Only last February we had a very serious alarm that took place because of our detection of some facilities on Mischief Reef. But it’s only 135 nautical miles from our Palawan province to the mainland, which is along the South China Sea, just like from here [New York] to Boston. So why shouldn’t we be alarmed?

Q: Is there anything you think the United States should do in Asia about China’s military power? What should the U.S. policy be?

A: Maintain a constructive engagement with all the countries in the Asia-Pacific. I think it is better that China remains within the community than to be isolated by some military confrontation or a race for dominance in weaponry or military presence. I don’t think so much the military connection or support that must exist. It is the interdependence of our respective economies and our regional economies that must be maintained. There is a new global order out there now.

Q: Let me switch to your domestic economy. Some countries in East Asia, like your neighbor Singapore, argue that you have to have authoritarian controls to foster economic growth, and that too much democracy gets in the way of prosperity. What’s the Philippines’ response?


A: Every country is unique in itself, you see. The Philippines are not trying to copy any other country’s model. We are developing our own model, but we’re not imposing our model on any other country.

Ours is a unique blend of Western democracy and Oriental values, and we are able to blend these in our society. But, in our case, we chose democracy first, and then work on the economy later. I don’t think our people would have this otherwise. This is not to say we copied America’s value models; ours is different, but, in many ways, ours is even more liberal.

Now, what we are saying is we are making democracy work in the Philippines. The performance of the last three years has proven that. But the macro-economic qualities--we have been able to make the peso very steady. We also have a single-digit kind of inflation. Just five years ago, this was at 18%, 20%, 25%. We hope, at the end of ’98, to be down to 25% poverty. And a growth rate of double digits in 1998.

But the growth rates themselves do not mean automatic prosperity or affluence. This has to be balanced out so that we do not overheat, so that we bring up with us the poorest among the poor, and the benefits of growth are shared. This is the unique quality of being more democratic than the others. We are able to spread it out among our population. I don’t want to compare ourselves with any other country. Some countries are one small compact unit of 67,000 hectares. We have 67 million people spread out in 7,107 islands during high tide. In low tide, we have a few more islands.


Q: What about family planning? How important is that to economic growth, and what is your goal?

A: We have a population policy that is based on, first, family planning. We respect the family as the basic social unit. That’s a part in our constitution. But we do not force anything on anyone. We do it by persuasion. In this way, we’re able to maintain our good relations with the church.

When I came in, we were at about 2.2% [annual population growth]. I’d like to bring it down to, hopefully, less than 2%, maybe 1.9% in 1998.

We are seeing, by voluntary decisions by married couples, smaller and smaller families. If we had a big population growth before, that was because there was this belief that the more children there are in the family, the more hands there are to work on the farm. They are now shifting from basic agriculture to industrial life. Just like all other countries. And we’re seeing the shift from agricultural labor, which is really haphazard. We are seeing more and more of that shifting to the industrialized sector. We created 800,000 quality jobs last year. These are mostly in the industrialized sector.


Q: Are you saying that these high growth rates in some of your neighboring countries are because of a lack of democracy?

A: No, no, no. I didn’t say that. It’s just that they gave priority to their economic growth. In our case, we made sure our democracy was stable. I think you know that we wasted 14 years in the dictatorship, which we threw out. Together with Cora Aquino, Juan Ponce Enrile and myself.

We put our democracy in place first, instead of the economy. Now, you will realize that in Asia-Pacific, there are many authoritarian regimes--regimes that started as authoritarian but have not yet acquired a democratic base. Why? There is a new World Trade Organization now that is open, transparent and for which officials are accountable. And these have to be acceptable to the rest of the world. In the case of the Philippines, we were like that already. We are not having any problems relating to the rest of the world. Some have problems [because] they started the other way around. So I am saying, it’s not a disadvantage to the Philippines to be this way.

Q: Are you going to change the constitution so that you can run for president again in 1998?


A: No, I have denied this many times. I am ready to go by the end of my term, June 13, 1998.

Q: You’re going to retire then?

A: I want to make sure that my efforts over the years--and it’s not just as the six years of president; I started when I was a 2nd lieutenant, in 1950, in the service of the Philippine government--do not go to waste. But we will do this all under a democratic process.

Q: What does that mean? What do you need to do to make sure your efforts don’t go to waste?


A: Well, make sure that, first of all, I am expanding a core of believers in the Ramos formula. Second, that I identify the potential leaders who can carry on after me. No one is going to live forever. I plan to enjoy life after 1998. Maybe cut five strokes from my golf handicap. (Laughter) I am serious about that.

But, at the same time, with the right kind of leadership in place, I shall still be able to advise, be consulted and to influence the new national leadership so that we go into the 21st Century with a sustainable kind of growth. Not the overheated kind of growth. Not the boom-and-bust kind of cycle in the economy. And with the democratization, the spread of the benefits of growth to as many of our people as possible.

Q: So maybe, like in Singapore [where longtime Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has taken the title of senior minister], you’re going to be the senior minister?

A: No. That’s their formula. In the case of the Philippines, we have done this sort of thing much longer than others. We were the first democratic republic in Asia, the first to declare its independence from the colonial masters. We had to fight for our independence twice--from Spain and from the United States. So our road is very clear: We will develop democratically. But we must also have sustainable development.