This story has an an aviation angle. But it doesn’t come until the sequel… .
Two years after Erap Estrada became President, I had dinner with Fidel Ramos, former President of the Philippines. There were about 20 of us. I sat on his left, right beside him. There were photographers, media, etc.
The former CEO of Urban Bank, the late Ted Borlongan, a batch mate of mine at Ateneo High School, hosted the dinner at Urban’s penthouse. Before I sat down to dinner, Ted slipped me a gorgeous Cohiba cigar. This was to make up for many hours of torturing me when he was Deputy Corps Commander of Ateneo High School’s PMT.
Thus fortified, I walked up to Fidel Ramos and said, "Mr. President (you always call a former President ‘Mr. President’), sana ikaw pa rin ang Presidente." I wish you were still President.
Fidel Ramos beamed at me and said conspiratorially, "Ganyan din ang sinasabi ni Erap, haha!" That’s what Erap is saying now, too!
At that time, Erap was of course already in deep doo-doo with impeachment proceedings.
Now, you should know that Fidel’s favorite cigars were Cohibas. Fidel Castro, that is. Not Fidel Ramos. (Don’t fret, we will get back to Ramos.)
Fidel Castro had a bodyguard, who in turn had a friend, Eduardo Rivera, who rolled cigars at the La Corona factory in Havana. Rivera (Eduardo, not Tonet) rolled a personal blend of tobacco.
Fidel Castro liked the shape of the cigar, and was even more impressed with the taste, after he smoked it.
Rivera’s cigars became Fidel’s favorite, and Fidel even gave away some of Rivera’s cigars to friends. Later, in 1966, Rivera decided on a brand, Cohiba, for Fidel’s cigars.
Fast forward to 2000. Dinner at Urban Bank. Fidel (Fidel Ramos, not Fidel Castro), was sitting on my right. Ted Borlongan’s generous Cohiba was in my left inside jacket pocket.
At dinner, Ramos chatted with me. He was such a charmer, really knew how to do it. He leaned over, put his arm on my arm, and whispered in my ear.
Keenly conscious of the photographers and media gawking at us, I kept my face expressionless. I first shook my head regretfully, then nodded sagely, as Fidel Ramos, former President of the Republic, kept whispering in my ear.
The photographers snapped away. Who was this mysterious, sagacious stranger, they were wondering, who Fidel Ramos was consulting with?!
Ramos seemed satisfied with my nods, and began eating again.
Unknown to everyone, what Ramos had said to me was, “Natikman mo na ba ‘yung isda?" Have you had the fish?
That’s when I shook my head regretfully, No, hindi pa.
Click, click, click went the cameras. Somebody was even swinging a directional mic around, for heaven’s sake.
Then the former President of the Philippines said, “Huwag mong kainin, parang sira na. Malansa." Don’t eat it, it isn’t fresh.
So I nodded wisely. Click, click, click.
Then he spotted the cigar in my jacket’s inner pocket. From where he was sitting on my right, he could see the cigar peek out as my jacket swung open whenever I reached for food (not the fish!).
Again, the arm on my shoulder.
"Is that contraband you have there in your pocket?"
The Cohiba was in its yellow and black tube. Not a single internal revenue tax sticker in sight.
"Yes, Mr. President, unfortunately, it is." I was screwed.
"You realize that as an officer of the government, it is my duty to confiscate that." He was speaking loudly now, deliberately.
"Yes, Mr. President." I obediently took the Cohiba cigar and surrendered it to Fidel Ramos.
Click, click, click went the cameras.
He seized the cigar, that crooked, triumphant smile on his face.
"Don’t worry," he said, patting my arm. "I assure you that it will be properly disposed of like any other contraband. By burning."
Then he added, "Would you like a receipt?"
"Yes, Mr. President." I was thinking, it would be a neat souvenir. A receipt for seized goods from the President himself.
So the former President of the Philippines, Fidel Ramos, reached into his own jacket pocket and, with a flourish, produced a Tabacalera cigar. Along with his business card.
Sadly, I have lost track of where I kept both the cigar and his card. But I will always have the story. And there must be a dozen or so media photographs may or may never have been published in the news, of President Fidel Ramos and I agreeing in executive session that while Ted Borlongan’s fish may have sucked, his cigars were worthy of a brief conspiracy between Rivera and Fidel.
Posted in Bangkok, September 2, 2010