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

November 05, 1995|Jim Mann | Jim Mann is a Washington columnist and correspondent for The Times specializing in foreign affairs

NEW YORK — 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?

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