Ramos’s defection was among the highlights of the People Power movement that overthrew the Marcos regime, which was known for widespread human rights violations and plundering up to $10 billion from government coffers.
He went on to serve as army chief and defense secretary of the post-revolution administration under democracy icon Corazon Aquino. He later succeeded her as the 12th president of the republic, from 1992 to 1998.
Ramos leaves behind a mixed legacy. To his supporters, he is a hero of the revolution who went on to urge the Marcos family to publicly apologize for their misdeeds. As president, he was credited with helping modernize the economy and forging a peace agreement with rebel forces in the southern Philippines.
To his detractors, he has yet to be held liable for police and military abuses under his watch — and his actions were not enough to prevent an eventual Marcos comeback.
Born on March 18, 1928, Ramos was a career military official before he got into politics. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served in both the Korean and Vietnam wars.
When Marcos declared martial law in 1972, Ramos led the Philippine Constabulary. In a 2017 interview with Maria Ressa, co-founder of the news site Rappler and a 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Ramos explained why he turned against Marcos — despite a long history that involved the future dictator hiding in his family’s sanctuary during World War II.
“You must understand that even with that close relationship and association during the war … why did I go against this guy?” he said. “It’s because of what is in the constitution. … You obey the orders of your superior, your commanding officer, if they are legal orders. But when he started to stray during the martial law years … that went against my values.”
During his term, Ramos brokered a peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front, then a separatist group operating in the Muslim majority south.
In 2016, Ramos threw his support behind populist candidate Rodrigo Duterte, the tough-talking strongman who would later be known for a brutal anti-drug campaign that left thousands dead.
But within the same year, the former president said Duterte’s government was “a huge disappointment and let-down,” criticizing Duterte’s constant cursing and hostility toward the United States in foreign policy in a column for the broadsheet Manila Bulletin. He resigned as Duterte’s appointed special envoy to China that same year.
Duterte also allowed the controversial state burial of Marcos in the Cemetery of Heroes. Ramos opposed the decision, which sparked thousands to take to the streets in protest. When Ramos was president, he allowed the family to bury the late dictator in their home region of Ilocos when they returned from exile in the United States. Some Marcos critics believe Ramos should not have allowed them to return.
In this year’s national elections, the party that Ramos founded endorsed the dictator’s son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who won in a landslide. However, officials from Ramos’s cabinet publicly endorsed opposition candidate Maria Leonor Robredo. Ramos himself, who had been out of the public eye because of the pandemic, did not make a public endorsement.
Despite the criticism, Ramos has generally aged as a respected figure in Philippine politics. His contemporary Juan Ponce Enrile, a former Marcos defense minister who defected alongside him, faced corruption scandals and has since walked back criticism of the dictator. He has since returned to the fold of power, and serves as legal counsel to Marcos Jr. at 98. Ramos’s successor to the presidency, Joseph Estrada, was later ousted in a second People Power revolution amid corruption issues.
In a forum covering Ramos’s legacy last year, political columnist and veteran journalist John Nery said the former president “passed the test of time.”
“It should be clear now that, in the end, and to the end, he retained an abiding loyalty to the primacy of the constitution. … whatever the constitution was,” Nery said. He added that Ramos’s loyalty to the law explained his defection.
“There is no gainsaying his constitutional sense, and his fidelity to it. When I think of the possibilities open to him, during the era of the coup attempts, to choose the other side — which would have completely changed the country’s history — I appreciate all the more that he knew his limits.”