They call him Eddie in the Philippines, an unpretentious nickname that says a lot about the style of Fidel Ramos. The country’s president is a straight-talking, cigar-chomping, 69-year-old former army general, a product of the United States military academy at West Point, where he first demonstrated the bulldog determination that has since become his trademark. It is a quality that has served him well since he was elected to a six-year presidential term in 1992, arming him with the weapons to force-feed a cure to a national economy once derided as the “sick man of Asia.” Under Ramos, the Philippines’ health has been reinvigorated to the point that the economy is now growing by roughly 8 per cent a year and is widely recognized as one of the most robust in the Far East.
The feat has not gone unnoticed, even in faraway, frigid Ottawa. When Prime Minister Jean Chrétien arrived in Manila last week at the head of his 500-member Team Canada trade mission, he went out of his way to heap effusive praise upon Ramos. Unfortunately, Chrétien was so swept up by the emotion of the moment that he committed a rare diplomatic blunder, stumbling into the noisy Philippines debate about—of
all things—constitutional change. In an expansive mood while addressing a forum of Canadian and Filipino businessmen, Chrétien regretted that Ramos would not be able to seek re-election as the country’s constitution limits him to one term. “The world community is very disappointed that you cannot run again because you have gained a lot of respect all over the world,” said the Prime Minister in an unscripted remark.
The gaffe set off a round of grousing both in the Philippines and at home in Canada.
Among the most caustic was the editorial comment of the Manila newspaper Today, a constant critic of Ramos’s government. “This man is beyond tactless,” the daily fumed about Chrétien. “His stupid remarks are inexcusable, more so because he comes from a country that was just saved from splitting up between its snowy parts.” Even Chrétien was forced to admit his error, attributing it to his enthusiasm for Ramos. “I got so carried away,” he confessed to a breakfast gathering of Canadian businessmen in Manila, “that I started campaigning for him.”
Despite the Prime Minister’s brief lapse, however, Team Canada’s two-week trip to South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand remained relatively free of other controversies. To be sure, the mission’s members encountered problems at each stop on the tour: worker riots in Seoul over sweeping new South Korean labor laws; protests in Manila from environmental groups seeking compensation for toxic waste spilled from a mine partly owned by Vancouver’s Placer Dome Inc.; and, in Bangkok during the tour’s last stop, complaints about the exploitation and abuse of children in Thai factories and the country’s flourishing sex industry.
But at the same time, the 400 business executives and close to 100 politicians and educators on the trip did succeed in signing scores of new busi-
ness ventures estimated by Ottawa
officials to be worth more than $1 billion. In Manila, 52 agreements were initialled, tallying an estimated $505 million. Bangkok yielded 55 joint ventures. The deals in both cities came on the heels of the 73 others, worth more than $600 million, that were signed the previous week in Seoul.
Team Canada’s delegation arrived in Bangkok late last week to discover that the government of newly elected Thai Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh had shelved for two years major military purchases, including a $290-million consignment of armored personnel carriers, which General Motors of Canada was pursuing through arms dealer Hawkes Intertrade. In a private meeting with Chavalit, Chrétien was able to persuade his host to lift his freeze on one key project—the $ 155-million purchase of a Canadian satellite from Spar Aerospace. Other than that, the Thai leader pleaded poverty with his Canadian counterpart. “I will tell him I have no money,” joked Chavalit in reference to a slight economic downturn that has overtaken Thailand in recent months. As he prepared to head back to cash-strapped Ottawa, it was an argument that Chrétien could readily understand.
BARRY CAME with ABBY TAN in Manila and DOMINICFAULDER in Bangkok
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