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A Mexican wave for Tabako


 José Abeto  Zaide

José Abeto Zaide

By José Abeto Zaide


They call him Tabako. I first heard that monicker from Rene Valencia, who must have picked it up as First Lieutenant volunteer with the Philcag contingent to Vietnam under the leadership of General Fidel V. Ramos.

When President Fidel V. Ramos and Cuban President Fidel Castro first met, the two cigar-chomping tocayos predictably compared Philippine and Havana cigars. Dr. Castro offered his famous robustos to Mr. Ramos, who returned the compliment with a Philippine El Conde de Guel. Each Fidel extolled his own. It took Ramos to break the impasse by proposing a Philippine-Cuban joint venture. (Or, as Gary Lising retells it, they ventured on a joint.) And that is how the Don Juan Urquijo top-of-the-line brand was born under the wing of Tabacalera La Flor de Isabela.


Flashback to EDSA People Power February, 1986: They drew the line against President Ferdinand Marcos. Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile had an Uzi submachine gun and came out of Camp Aguinaldo with his bodyguard Col. “Gringo” Honasan. From the other side of EDSA, the then vice chief of staff and Philippine Constabulary commander Fidel Ramos aka “Steady Eddie” sashayed out of Camp Crame, his trademark cigar grit between teeth. Civilian bravura vs. a soldier who knew the futility of the charge of the light brigade!


I was DFA chief of protocol when FVR assumed as president. Preparing for the president’s European swing, Foreign Secretary Roberto 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 added emphatically. At that point, President Ramos arrived, cigar-in-hand, spit and polish, with brass buttons on his double-breasted suit. “Shall we tell the President…?” I whispered to Secretary Romulo… “Shut up, Zaide!” said Romulo.

In London, Ramos’ visit was an up and up. He had a strong troika of salesmen in Foreign Secretary Romulo, Finance Secretary Roberto Ocampo,  and Trade and Industry Secretary Cesar B. Bautista (the last of whom was formerly our ambassador to the Court of St. James). But the main card was the president himself, 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. Mr. Ramos always began his talk with the historical footnote about the British taking and holding onto Manila in 1762-74, and then asking them, “Why did it take you so long to come back?” This always drew a good guffaw from the audience. The British envoy to Manila, Ambassador Alan Montgomery, sat through the same opener five times. And I could not help but admire how Her Majesty’s envoy 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 nearly five years working the salt mines at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Secretary Romulo let me have my first embassy. Vienna is a diplomat’s dream post. Small countries like ours have dual roles – as an embassy to Austria and as a mission to the United Nations and International Organizations. Vienna has the old world charm and perquisites of a box at the Musikverein for the New Year’s concert and a winter ski holiday for the diplomatic corps.

I should be the happiest where I was, and my deputy Ray Santiago cautioned that I should not wish for a presidential visit. Who is the foolish ambassador who wants to whip up a storm? But I envied colleagues whose chief of state had visited them at post.

Much as I coveted a presidential visit, Vienna never seemed to luck into the President’s itinerary. When Foreign Secretary Romulo eventually told me that President Fidel V. Ramos was coming, I had barely three week’s 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 last non-comforting words of Asia-Pacific Director General Kurt Spallinger of the Austrian Foreign Office.

Prayers, good works. I found the Chef de Cabinet of President Thomas Klestil, Ambassador Gerhard Henning, who promised to take my request for a Presidential visit on very short notice to the Austrian president 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.


Abangan… to be continued. FEEDBACK: joseabetozaide@gmail.com

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