BELOW THE LINE
By Jose Abeto Zaide
Former President Fidel V. Ramos turned 92nd last Wednesday, 18 March. A congregation to commemorate that milestone on Friday, March 22, was postponed over concern about the growing cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) in the country.
But an old man remembers.
Like any envoy worth his salt, I coveted a Presidential visit. But Vienna never seemed to luck into the President’s itinerary. When the then Foreign Secretary Roberto R. Romulo eventually told me that President Fidel V. Ramos was coming, I had barely three weeks’ notice.
“I don’t know, José… I never heard of a presidential visit planned less than six months. But I wish you luck…” Those were the non-comforting words of the Austrian ASPAC Director-General Kurt Spallinger.
PRAYERS, GOOD WORKS. I found Ambassador Gerhard Henning, chef de cabinet of Austrian President Thomas Klestil, who promised to take the message to the highest level at the Salzburg festival. It was a suspenseful weekend. I do not recall how many churches I petitioned, but the last one was the Church of St. Elisabeth of the Visitation.
PRETEMPS. At the Manila briefing for the President’s European swing, Foreign Secretary Roberto R. Romulo briefed Philippine officials and taipans on protocol matters and sartorial do’s and don’ts in Europe. “Dark suits, no white socks, and no brass buttons!” he underscored. Just then President Ramos arrived, cigar-in-hand, spit-and-polish, with brass buttons on his double-breasted brown suit. “Shall we tell the President…?”, I whispered to RRR. “Shut up… Zaide,” said Romulo, threatening to declare me ex-cathedra.
In London, Ramos’ visit was an up and up. He had a strong troika of salesmen in DFA Secretary Romulo, Finance Secretary Roberto Ocampo, and Trade and Industry Secretary Cesar B. Bautista. But the main card was always the President, who had turned things around by filling in the void of electric power and political power in the country. He had five speaking engagements in London.The President opened his talk with the historical footnote about the British taking and holding onto Manila in 1762-74. And then he asked them, “Why did it take you so long to come back?” This always drew a good guffaw from the audience. British Ambassador Alan Montgomery sat through this same opener five times. He had a fresh smile each time the President used that line, as if he (the British Ambassador) were hearing it for the first time.
After the welcome honors in Vienna, President Ramos peeled off from Austrian President Thomas Klestil’s protocol – and walked towards a toddler he saw waving a mini-Philippine flag. Photo of the President and the flag-waving boy in mother’s arms would make the front page of the next morning’s Der Standard:
The presidential chief of protocol, Ambassador Marciano Paynor Jr., cued us that the key to a successful visit is the animo of the crowd at Filipino community convocations. He recalled how a cadenced flag-waving and foot-stomping in Canberra peaked to a crescendo and fired up Ramos. Now we knew Mr. Ramos would arrive in Vienna fresh from a robust welcome by 5,000 OFWs in a Kuwait stadium. Our 900-something (the maximum permitted by the fire department at the Vienna Hilton ballroom) would pale in comparison.
But I had an equalizer. We would give him a Mexican wave, or the“Ola” of football stadium! We practiced this at a meeting with Filipino community leaders. I instructed all leaders to sit in the front row, trusting that others behind will follow. My deputy, Minister Victoria Bataclan, rehearsed this again 15 minutes before the start of the program.
Ours was one where the Presidential Couple did not have to agonize over a tinikling number. Vienna gave arias by sopranos Camille Lopez, Armela Fortuna, Christiana Serafin, and tenor Abdul Candao. After the peroration by Filipino leaders, I said that my only role was to introduce the President to the Filipino community (39 associations at last count), who would greet him as one Filipino nation: On cue, the leader seated leftmost rose, bursting his lungs to shout, “Mabuhay ang Pilipinas, Mabuhay si Pangulong Fidel V. Ramos!” Followed by raising and lowering of both arms… as the Mexican wave flowed from left to right. The band broke into Johann Strauss’ Radetzsky March; everyone cadenced clapping to the march. At the end of the piece, the leader seated rightmost shouted again,“Mabuhay ang Pilipinas, Mabuhay angPangulong Fidel V Ramos!” and the Mexican wave flowed from right to left, cadenced clapping and Radetzsky March again!
Joining the exercise were the journalist Christopher Rabe, who flew from Dusseldorf and who would write a half-page interview of Mr. Ramos for the German business daily Handelsblatt. Also among the enthusiastic Mexican-waving cheerleaders were R. R. Romulo, Rizalino Navarro, Senator Alberto Romulo, Andres Soriano III, Tony-Boy Cojuangco, and the rest of the traveling taipans.
PFVR whipped up the crowd. He tossed his Philippine centennial baseball cap to the crowd, which dove for it like fighting for a home-run baseball. He began his spiel about the Filipino being the best in his field… a Filipina champion welder… a Filipino champion hairstylist… the tandem of the Filipino nation pushing from below and OFWs pulling from abroad (like bibingka baked on the top and below)… and he flashed a Wall Street Journal story showing the Philippines outstripping South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong in drawing investments!
He cast a spell that evening and throughout the visit, reviving hope and spirited enthusiasm for the Philippines. Many, including discriminating free-lance journalist Pat Sutter, swung from objecting to Cha-Cha to endorsing Mr. Ramos for 1998!
We had a good luncheon speech for the president. We collaborated with Austrian Ambassador Wolfgang Jilly and Dr. Franz Berner on the Austrian draft. I had alerted Undersecretary Rod Severino not to touch our draft (after reassuring him by sending the drafts of both the Philippine and Austrian presidents). After listening to the concert of the two luncheon speeches, Rod gave me the supreme compliment, “Toto, you have just made history!” (Apropos to Vienna, I rather thought that we had conducted a symphony).
At Wolf Heurigen, the presidential couple planted a vine and supped on schweinehackse, wurst and the vinter’ sauslese wine. At the end of the repertoire of the Austrian accordion player and his tenor, the latter said, hesitantly, that they would try another number… which he proceeded to sing, accent-free, “Ma Ala-Ala Mo Kaya?” (He had rehearsed it with the Presidential Guards advance party). President Ramos rose on his feet, and joined them in his campaign song number.
We gifted the First Couple with Augarten porcelain. Gus Albor created a golden meandering river on white porcelain for the Piso-Piso sa Pasig of Madame Ming Ramos. Consul-General Peter Wagner (Salzburg) and his wife Elisabeth showed the way to the other Honorary Consuls Fritz Karl Rauchdobler (Linz), Reinhard Pitchmann (Bregenz), Josef Kastelic (Slovenia), and Wolfgang Rossbacher (Carinthia) who contributed towards an Augarten porcelain figure of an officer on horseback for Tabako, whose code-name we knew as The Horseman.
As the First Couple were about to leave the lounge to board their plane, faint notes wafted into the hall. The painter Gus Albor was strumming the guitar, and my officers and staff were bolstered by Manny Baldemor as principal tenor, serenading the couple as they walked to their waiting plane… “Ma Ala-Ala Mo Kaya…?”