Manila: Former Philippine president Fidel Ramos, who oversaw a rare period of steady growth and peace that won him the reputation as one of the country’s most effective leaders ever, has died aged 94, officials said Sunday.
Known as “Steady Eddie” for his unflappable demeanour during the country’s regular moments of upheaval, he was frequently pictured chewing unlit cigars as he guided the Philippines with a sure hand from 1992-1998.
A career military man who never previously held elected office, his professorial conduct was unlike the bombastic image of many Filipino politicians.
He was also the first Protestant to win the top office in the overwhelmingly Catholic nation, despite opposition from some in the Church. He later made an aggressive push for family planning to rein in rapid population growth.
But like other top officials of his generation, Ramos played a role in the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, which saw thousands killed and thousands more arbitrarily imprisoned.
“It is with great sorrow that we learn of the passing of former President Fidel V. Ramos,” said Trixie Cruz-Angeles, press secretary for President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the son and namesake of the late dictator, who took office last month.
“He leaves behind a colourful legacy and a secure place in history for his participation in the great changes of our country, both as military officer and chief executive.”
Ramos’s family is expected to release a statement later Sunday. The cause of death has not been released.
The European Union delegation in the Philippines expressed its condolences, describing Ramos as a “dedicated statesman” and “pillar of democracy”.
A graduate of the prestigious West Point military academy in the United States, Ramos had a lengthy career in the armed forces, including combat against communist guerrillas, and was deployed in the Korean War as part of the Philippine contingent.
He was later commander of the paramilitary Philippine Constabulary - the key institution that enforced the brutal repression of dissent after Marcos declared martial law in 1972.
Ramos’s moment of truth came in February 1986, when popular outrage was hitting its peak over the murder of opposition leader Benigno Aquino and massive regime cheating in a snap election.
Sensing Marcos’s weakness, a group of young military officers and their leader, defence secretary Juan Ponce Enrile, plotted to seize power but were found out.
Facing arrest, Enrile and his allies holed up in the military headquarters in Manila and appealed to the public to protect them from an imminent government attack.
Ramos joined their rebellion, withdrawing his support from Marcos and inspiring many others to rise up as well.
Soon, millions were massing in the streets for the peaceful “People Power” revolt that sent the dictator into exile and ushered in Corazon Aquino as president.
‘My atonement was revolt’
Aquino promptly appointed Ramos as military chief and then defence secretary in gratitude.
He would prove to be a crucial ally to Aquino as the military rebels who sought to topple Marcos soon turned their sights on her.
He led the loyalist forces that helped quash the coup attempts against her from 1986 to 1989.
When elections came in 1992, Aquino gave her endorsement to Ramos, which was crucial to him winning the presidency despite the opposition of influential Catholic Church figures.
As president, Ramos solved a crippling power crisis caused by years of under-investment in energy, and broke up cartels in telecommunications, aviation, and shipping - boosting a moribund economy that reaped a period of renewed growth.
He also made peace overtures to communist guerrillas, Muslim separatists and military coup-plotters.
In the end, only the communists refused to sign agreements with his government.
Ramos was also a key, early supporter of Rodrigo Duterte as he waded into national politics with his run at the presidency in 2016.
After Duterte’s landslide victory, Ramos even served as the president’s special envoy to Beijing to ease tensions over the disputed South China Sea.
But the relationship swiftly soured and he publicly criticised Duterte’s expletive-laden speeches, his moves away from the US alliance and his anti-drug campaign that claimed thousands of lives.
Ramos was also aghast at Duterte’s decision to allow Marcos to be buried in the national Heroes’ Cemetery despite the damage his dictatorship caused to the Philippines’ economy and social order.
When a Marcos daughter tried to link Ramos to the abuses of her father’s rule, Ramos said he had already apologised and made amends for his role.
“My atonement was leading the military and the police” in the revolt that toppled Marcos, he said.