By Milwida M. Guevara
I voted for another candidate instead of FVR. He struck me as bland and uninspiring. This impression hardly changed as I sat listless on the chair as meetings that he chaired went on and on. Certainly, there was no love at first sight.
It is said, however, that love that is learned is deeper and lasting. It comes with admiration and respect. I am now a part of the FVR fans club who gathered together to celebrate his birthday last week. The President who used to be serious and stern was at his element cracking jokes. He ended his birthday message with his traditional jump for joy.
This is the President who, in 1991, challenged us to imagine how Philippines would look like in the year 2000. He prodded us to leapfrog. We were not just to keep pace with the others in the region. The sick man of Asia needed a major force to overcome the inertia of lethargy. The economy must steadily grow. The budgetary deficit, interest rate, and inflation needed to be tamed. Divisiveness and the lack of unity must be overcome.
He brought everyone into the fold: the left, the right, the rebels and the secessionists. Many a times, I looked at him with questioning eyes. These included the days when he played golf with those who pilloried us in Congress. I steadily complained to General Almonte why the President could not dissociate himself from those who made life difficult for us. His answer was always a crispy laughter. It took me time to appreciate that cohesion means treating everyone equally regardless of color, faith, gender, affiliation, and preferences.
And how I hated those days when I went home at midnight and left again at dawn. It took us hours to do Complete Staff Work (CSW) for tax reform proposals which were taken up in LEDAC meetings at 7 a.m. The effects of every proposal on revenue, growth, prices, and tax burden had to be quantified and analyzed. And since he reformed the entire revenue system, it meant spending 24/7 doing spreadsheets, writing studies, and defending each proposal in both Houses of Congress. Because the President insisted on consulting ALL sectors, it meant hundreds of simulations and tons of patience and adjustments. There was hardly any time to know who Brad Pitt and Kevin Costner were. I thought Larry Bird was a character in Sesame Street. Years later, I had to buy a complete set of “Friends” to understand why my friends were hooked on the TV series.
FVR knew no Christmas or Valentine’s day. We spent Christmas Eve in the Palace in 1996. There were no Christmas carols. We were not called to a feast but to brainstorm on how to end the year with a surplus. Because of the Asian crisis, we had to demonstrate that the economy was strong and resilient. And happily, our Christmas wish was fulfilled. While the rest of the countries in Asia reeled with problems, the Philippines sailed through the crisis. (At least by the time he left office.)
He was also a caring President. Through the help of Col. Valong, I slipped a note to him to ask for his help. A Colombian priest was kidnapped and held in ransom. He stopped the Cabinet meeting and directed that the priest must be rescued in 48 hours. I cannot remember when and how the operations were completed. What stands out in my mind was the Protestant President hugging the priest and telling him “I prayed for you all the time.”
And his care and concern was for everyone. He held Cabinet meetings in the remotest barangays and directed Cabinet members to consult with the residents days before the meeting. Time stood still as he posed for souvenir pictures. The presidential plane was ready to take off but FVR was still throwing caps and t-shirts before the cheering crowd.
I had the great fortune of being with the President before a huge crowd of foreign investors. They paid a huge sum to listen to him in a conference in Hong Kong. As soon as he entered, everybody stood up, clapped mightily, and cheered until he went up the stage. I never felt prouder to be a Filipino! And why not? The sick man of Asia was the newest Tiger in the region! Poverty incidence was reduced from 44.2% in 1985 to 31.8%. GDP grew at 5.85% despite the crisis. The tax effort peaked at 17%. There was peace in the countryside and people were happy.
That was more than 20 years ago. But the feeling of pride of being part of that era continues to warm my heart. I was a lucky witness to how a man can become a great President.