As president of the Philippines from 1992 until 1998, Fidel Ramos, who has died aged 94, struggled to steer his country towards modernisation after the chaos caused by the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Marcos, who was Ramos’s second cousin, had become president in 1965. Ramos, a young officer for whom promotion had hitherto been slow, was three years later appointed Marcos’s assistant on military affairs and he became head of the army’s special forces unit.
As the newly appointed chief of the Philippine Constabulary in 1972, Ramos undoubtedly knew beforehand that Marcos was going to impose martial law in September that year. And he was probably aware of the illegal detention, torture and killing of the thousands of Filipinos who opposed Marcos’s brutal regime. Ever the military man, he later defended his role in the martial law era by saying he was merely upholding the constitution.
Over the years, however, Marcos’s greed and excesses became too much for Ramos. Bypassed for the post of the armed forces’ chief of staff by Marcos’s driver and right-hand man, General Fabian Ver, Ramos secretly joined a group of high-ranking politicians and military men that was formed after they learned of a plot to replace the ailing dictator with either his flamboyant wife, Imelda, or Ver.
In the snap presidential elections of February 1986, Ramos sided with the defence secretary Juan Ponce Enrile and came out in support of the popular opposition leader Cory Aquino. Holed up in Manila’s army headquarters, the rebels had only a few hundred men against the might of Marcos’s military. For three days their position looked bleak, but with the support of the church, an estimated 2 million Filipinos took to the streets of Manila against the regime. Nuns knelt in prayer in front of Marcos’s tanks, and flowers were placed in the barrels of soldiers’ guns.
A very ill Marcos vacillated. His troops began to defect in the wake of the mass movement, and he and his family fled to Hawaii. Ramos was made chief of staff by the new president, Aquino, and skilfully thwarted six coup attempts against her government. In 1988, he became defence secretary and at the end of her term Aquino repaid his loyalty by endorsing Ramos as her presidential candidate in the 1992 elections. That seal of approval ensured Ramos just scraped into office with a little over 20% of the votes. One of the defeated candidates was Imelda Marcos.
Ramos’s government had more than a mountain to climb. Although Aquino had restored democracy, the country was an economic mess, struggling to repay its debts and frequently subject to power blackouts. Ramos immediately privatised the electricity industry and restored power. Pursuing a policy of economic liberalisation, he achieved annual growth of more than 5%, and pronounced the Philippines, if not a tiger economy, a tiger cub one.
“The Philippines is no longer the sick man of Asia – he is out playing golf,” Ramos, a golfing fanatic, proudly pronounced. He also achieved success in internal security by signing a peace deal with the country’s biggest group of Muslim separatist rebels, the Moro National Liberation Front, in 1996. For his part in reaching this agreement, Ramos received the Félix Houphouët-Boigny peace prize.
His plans for the Philippines to stand shoulder to shoulder with its tiger economy neighbours were scuppered by the 1997 economic crisis. Partly because of his reforms and partly because it had less far to fall, the country emerged from the crisis the least scathed. But Ramos’s legacy was left badly bruised.
The following year, the mainly rural population demonstrated their frustration and overwhelmingly elected the opposition leader, Joseph Estrada, a former movie idol whose image was based on heavy drinking and womanising, as president.
In a flamboyant and colourful country, Ramos was respected for his sincerity and honesty, but he was hardly a dynamic character. His nickname was “Steady Eddie”. Although his trademark was an ever-present cigar, he ate frugally and drank rarely. Keen on fitness, he regularly lifted weights, ran and went scuba diving.
In retirement, Ramos remained involved in domestic politics but preferred his role as an international diplomat travelling the globe promoting the Philippines. He had always been more popular overseas than at home.
He played a part in the unseating of Estrada in 2001 and supported Estrada’s successor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, throughout her presidency. Although he was an early supporter of Rodrigo Duterte, in 2016 Ramos resigned from the post of Philippine envoy to China in protest against Duterte’s “war on drugs”.
The only son of Angela (nee Valdez), a teacher, and Narciso Ramos, a lawyer, he was born into a comfortable middle-class family in Pangasinan province, north of the capital, Manila. His interest in politics was kindled as a young boy when his father was elected a congressman. Narciso later became foreign affairs secretary and was one of the founding signatories to the creation of Asean, the Association of South East Asian Nations, in 1967.
Just before the second world war, Ramos was sent to Manila to study. A Protestant in a predominantly Catholic country, he inherited a strong work ethic, helping the family to get by in the war years by selling bananas and vegetables from a pushcart in a Manila market.
After graduating from high school, he won a scholarship to the US military academy West Point, beating more than 400 candidates for the single place. He had been so skinny that he made his own dumbbells to build up his chest to meet the physical requirements.
More than a third of his class were killed in the Korean war. Ramos was awarded a medal of merit after his platoon captured a Chinese-occupied hill near Chorwon in North Korea. Upon his return to Manila, he married Amelita Martinez, a teacher, in 1954.
She survives him, as do their five daughters, Angelita, Josephine, Carolina, Christina and Gloria.