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What made him happy

/ 12:09 AM November 03, 2014

When Juan Flavier was health secretary in the administration of President Fidel Ramos, he brought with him to one Cabinet meeting a box of condoms. Ramos was then scheduled to visit Thailand and his security people had asked for some “protection.” AIDS was a serious problem in Thailand in those days. Cabinet members and the president helped themselves to some of the samples.

After the meeting, reporters asked if it was true that Flavier had handed out condoms. He told them the truth.

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The next day it was front-page news. Sen. Kit Tatad called for Flavier’s resignation. The Church went after him, and priests all over the country denounced him from the pulpits, calling him an abortionist. During a nationally televised talk show, one priest said that Flavier “hated babies.” Flavier lost his cool and snapped, “I love babies. I love them so much I made four myself. How many have you made?”

By the time the whole condom uproar died down, the Department of Health’s approval ratings had gone up and AIDS awareness in the country had soared to its highest levels—almost 90 percent after Flavier’s first year in office.

In his autobiography “From Barrio to Senado,” Flavier narrates his problems in his first bid for the Senate. It was no secret that Cardinal Sin was opposed to his senatorial candidacy.

“The only aspect to running that I despised but I also anticipated was the mudslinging that could be called unchristian. The Catholic Church, of all sectors, proved to be an expert and enthusiastic participant in the game of black propaganda and disinformation.

“As expected, I was denounced as an ‘abortionist.’ Priests called me an ‘agent of the devil.’ They were so persistent in their lies. . .

“According to a survey commissioned by the Johns Hopkins University Communications Group, I lost at least 300,000 votes due to the Church campaign against me.”

But in the end, Flavier placed fifth in the winning senatorial lineup. If we include the 300,000 votes lost due to Church opposition, he easily would have made it to the top 3. There must have been a lot of Filipino Catholics who decided not to follow the Church and who voted in accordance with their conscience.

For all his differences with the Church, at the height of his notoriety as a “condom pusher,” Pope John Paul II singled him out of a gauntlet of Philippine officials gathered to bid good bye to the Holy Father. Flavier remembers receiving a rosary. As the Holy Father touched his head, he said, “Thank you for all the health preparations.” A few years later, Cardinal Sin approached the senators one by one and thanked them for their role in the impeachment of President Estrada. When he came to him, Flavier recalls that Cardinal Sin gave him a hug.

“In all sincerity, let me say it ranked right up there with receiving a personal blessing from the Pope. I knew even then that nothing had changed in our relationship and positions. Still, it was a special moment, something I will never forget and anxiousness did genuinely lift from my heart. I’d like to think for a fleeting moment, the Cardinal and I were able to express respect for each other as men committed to our respective missions in life.”

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* * *

As an elected official, he followed some simple rules:

  • On speaking engagements, job recommendations, requests for abuloy, charity and so on, he would have none of these practices.
  • He refused to be a ninong in any wedding or baptism. Neither would he cut any ribbons. All of these was spelled out, printed and posted outside his office door at the Senate.
  • As for the Countrywide Development Fund better known as PDAF today, or pork barrel, he turned his over to the Land Bank of the Philippines for administration and disbursement.
  • On party loyalty, Flavier recognized that President Ramos got him into government. He said he would never change parties. “In a world of ever-shifting loyalties, it is one of the things I am truly proud of. Coalitions have come and gone but Lakas-NUCD has remained the only political party I have ever been a member of.”

For a while, he thought of running for the presidency. In his own words, “There must have been some part of me that wanted to see what else I could give to our country.”

But soon enough he realized that he didn’t have any “fire in the belly” for the position. He argues that “fire in the belly” is the first prerequisite for anyone aspiring for the highest political office in our country. You must absolutely want to be president. You must absolutely have the drive to seize the position.

“Without that fire, without that ambition the position will be ill-served even by the most noble of intentions.”

* * *

As the title of his autobiography indicates, Flavier made it from the barrio to the Senate. He was a small-town boy whose parents were grade-school dropouts. He became a doctor, serving in the rural areas, and along the way he was selected to head the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement. He later became president of the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction.

As health secretary and, later, senator of the Republic, he was responsible for some of the most meaningful initiatives that benefited our people: The Anti-Smoking Law of 2003; population management programs; Traditional and Alternative Medicine Act; measures for the prevention and control of diabetes and other similar health proposals.

But what made him happy?

At one time during his Senate stint, he found himself alone at the session hall when Sen. Miriam Santiago approached his desk.

She asked him, “Johnny, why are you so happy? You look so happy every time I see you. What makes you happy?”

Flavier thought for a second. Then he replied, “My grandchildren.”

“I truly find it amazing that among the things I would like to take credit for in this world, more than laws and bills, and trees I had planted, and barrio programs I had nurtured; what truly makes me feel that my life has not been wasted is the thought that there are decent young people who will simply be proud to call me ‘Lolo’.

“Senator Santiago merely smiled and thanked me for my answer. I thanked her for her question.”

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