Fidel Ramos, who has died aged 94, rose to the highest military command under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos before playing a key role in his overthrow in 1986. He then served as the armed forces chief of staff and defence secretary under Corazon “Cory” Aquino, and succeeded her as president in 1992.
Seeking to explain why he had remained loyal to Marcos, his second cousin, for so long, first as head of the Philippine Constabulary, then, briefly, as acting chief of staff, Ramos said that his decision to break ranks was because the president had undermined the constitution.
“You obey the orders of your superior, your commanding officer, if they are legal orders,” he told an interviewer in 2017. “But when he started to stray during the martial law years… that went against my values.”
In 1986 Marcos called a snap election, confident he could fix it against his opponent, Cory Aquino, widow of the opposition leader Benigno, who had been assassinated on his return to the Philippines in 1983 from self-imposed exile in the United States.
The official electoral commission gave victory to the incumbent, the unofficial one to Aquino. A coup was then launched by reformist-minded young military officers, who were joined by Juan Ponce Enrile, the defence minister, and Ramos.
Vast crowds demanding an end to the 20-year dictatorship assembled on the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA) in Manila in what became known as the EDSA People Power Revolution. Marcos and his family fled to Hawaii and Aquino was sworn in as president.
As head of the armed forces from 1986 to 1988, then as defence minister from 1988 to 1991, Ramos defended the Aquino government against numerous coup attempts.
In 1991 he declared his candidacy for the presidency but lost the nomination of his party, Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (Struggle of Democratic Filipinos), to Ramon Mitra, Speaker of the lower House of Representatives. Ramos jumped ship to found his own Partido Lakas ng Tao (People Power Party).
At the head of a coalition, he won the 1992 election in a seven-way race with less than 25 per cent of the vote, the lowest plurality in Philippine history. He was the first Protestant head of state in an overwhelmingly Catholic country.
“She has done her job, which is to establish political freedom,” he said of his predecessor in an interview with the Far Eastern Economic Review. “My priority is unifying the country.”
His achievements were manifold. A peace agreement was reached with the Muslim separatist Moro National Liberation Front, and repeal of an anti-subversion law made membership of the Communist Party legal. The economy was liberalised and frequent presidential trips abroad generated an estimated $20 billion of foreign investment. Family planning was promoted in the face of opposition from the Catholic Church.
Economic growth revived, passing five per cent in 1995 and 1996, but was hit at the end of Ramos’s term by the Asian financial crisis, though the Philippines suffered less than its south-east Asian neighbours.
Fidel Valdez Ramos was born in Lingayen in the north of the country on March 18 1928 to Narciso Ramos, who would later become a congressman and foreign secretary under Marcos, and Angela Valdez.
He was educated first in Lingayen, then in Manila, where he obtained a degree in Civil Engineering at the National University. In 1950 he graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point. He also earned a master’s degree in civil engineering at the University of Illinois.
Ramos saw service against the Huk peasant rebellion on Luzon, the main Philippine island, and in the Korean War, where he distinguished himself against the Chinese in the fight for Hill Eerie near Chorwon.
In the Vietnam War he served as non-combat civil military engineer and head of a Philippine civil action group. During his 38 years as a soldier he was the only career officer who rose through the ranks from platoon leader to four-star general. He became the equivalent of a five-star general when, as head of state, he was commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
During his presidential term he had to deal with a crisis over electric power supplies, a confrontation with China over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea and the protection of Filipino migrant workers, whose foreign remittances are so important to the economy.
His plans to celebrate 100 years of independence from Spain in 1998 with a centennial expo at the former American Clark air base were marred by allegations of corruption, and his attempt to amend the 1987 Constitution was stymied by the Supreme Court. He reinstated the death penalty, which had been abolished in 1987, only for it to be removed again under President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
Ramos remained influential after stepping down, helping in 2001 to depose his successor and former vice-president, Joseph Estrada, in what became known as EDSA II. Estrada, who was found guilty of plunder, was succeeded by his vice-president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
In 2016 Ramos supported the successful presidential candidacy of Rodrigo Duterte, who appointed Ramos as special envoy to China. Later that year, however, Ramos resigned in protest at Duterte’s violent measures against drug dealers. He also opposed the president’s decision to allow Marcos a burial with full military honours in the Cemetery of Heroes in Manila.
The final irony in Ramos’s long life was the election as president in May this year of Bongbong Marcos, Ferdinand’s and Imelda’s son.
Ramos married Amelita Martinez in 1954. She and four of their five daughters, including Cristina, a former member of the national women’s football team, survive him. The second eldest died in 2011.
Ramos was appointed Honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1995.
Fidel Ramos, born March 18 1928, died July 31 2022