Philippine Daily Inquirer

Close encounters with 6 presidents

- By ChristineO. Avendaño

CARMENCITA SUVA, or fondly “Tita Ching” to Palace reporters, had close encounters with six presidents in 42 years.

In her autobiogra­phy, “From Macapagal to Macapagal-Arroyo: My 42 years inside Malacañang,” launched last Tuesday, she relates a “moment” with strongman Ferdinand Marcos.

It happened four decades ago, when her boss, the minister of in- formation, was out and Tita Ching had no choice but to take dictation over the phone for a statement that Marcos wanted to go out to the media that day.

She must have done a good job because after reading back the notes without a single correction, she earned a “very good” praise from Marcos.

Presidenti­al encounters of this kind happened all the time in the public service life of Tita Ching, who worked in Malacañang for four decades.

Former Press Secretary and now Monetary Board member Ignacio Bunye once said that Tita Ching was a good candidate for the Guinness World Records as the “longest-serving career official of any country,” having served six presidents and 21 press secretarie­s in 42 years.

She had been in government service from the time of President Diosdado Macapagal until the presidency of his daughter, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Tita Ching was also a witness to two presidents being toppled by peo---

ple power that occurred on a highway named after her grandfathe­r.

She is the granddaugh­ter of Epifanio de los Santos, “after whom the world-famous thoroughfa­re, Edsa—site of historic people power—was named,” Tita Ching said.

Day’s first lesson

Before “her grey matter plays tricks” on her, she decided to write her memoirs to “share rich and diverse insights on what it entails to serve at the Office of the Press Secretary and for six presidents.”

Six years after retiring from government, Tita Ching finally launched her book, “From Macapagal to Macapagal-Arroyo: My 42 years inside Malacañang,” at another Palace, the Palacio de Manila last Tuesday, which happened to be her 70th birthday.

She started writing last year after much prodding from friends and family, who attended the book launch. Also there were former Presidents Arroyo and Fidel Ramos, as well as her past bosses that included former Press Secretarie­s Francisco Tatad, Ricardo “Dong” Puno, Rod Reyes, Milton Alingod and Hector Villanueva.

“I do hope that through this humble attempt, people will be informed—and perhaps be amused—with the intricacie­s of working in the press office and in close proximity to the office of the most powerful person in the land,” Tita Ching said in her speech at the launching.

“The book also portrays the kind of relationsh­ip our elected leaders have with the working press,” she added.

And as she stressed in her speech, the “first lesson of the day” was “Be truthful to the media.”

Most loved president

Looking back at her long service in government, Tita Ching said she considered Ramos “as the country’s most loved President, especially by the Malacañang staff and members of themedia.”

This was because both Ramos and his wife, First Lady Ming Ramos, “took time to know [the staff and the Palace media] personally.”

Ramos even asked her to remind him of the birthdays of Palace reporters who would receive a cake and a signed photograph of the President.

“All the Presidents I worked for had special traits. But FVR stood out because of his public relations savvy and persuasive­ness. He would ask his staff to work in the Palace even on Sundays and holidays, phrasing his directive in such a manner we were only too willing to com- ply,” she said.

But Ramos, whom the media called “Eddie” or “Tabako” because of his habit of chewing unlighted cigars, also had a funny side.

According to Tita Ching, FVR liked to play pranks on people, especially those who would doze off during long plane rides.

“[Ramos] would ask his close-in photograph­ers to take his picture as he posed with the sleeping staffer or journalist, making faces and silly hand gestures,” she said.

Marcos in Hawaii

But it was not always good times in the Palace, as Tita Ching was a witness to the turbulence that hit some of the six presidenci­es she had served.

There was of course, themartial law years, when the media was closely monitored by the Marcos regime.

Tita Ching recalled a “bizarre” event in a 1981 trip to Hawaii where Marcos was to give a keynote speech before a group of internatio­nal newspaper publishers.

Marcos was set to arrive at the hotel and she had just finished preparing the display of books, brochures and other reading materials “that parroted the achievemen­ts of President Marcos.”

She returned to the display and got the “shock” of her life when all the materials had been replaced with other “printed materials vilifying and con- demning Marcos.”

Apparently, when she left for a few minutes, somebody had sneaked in the anti-Marcos propaganda.

She reported the incident to her superiors who decided to “catch the one responsibl­e for the swap.”

She said the culprit later returned “carrying a bag” with anti-Marcos propaganda and she came face to face with Heherson Alvarez, who was a staunch anti-Marcos activist.

Alvarez, later became environmen­t secretary under President Corazon Aquino and then senator before serving in the Arroyo government as climate change adviser.

Alvarez and fellow political activist, the late Raul Manglapus, were also staying at the hotel.

Erap days

The short-lived presidency of Joseph Estrada also had its share of turbulent times.

Tita Ching recalled the time when Aprodicio Laquian, Estrada’s chief of staff, made a remark that put the Chief Executive in a bad light.

Laquian had given a speech before the Manila Overseas Press Club saying that Estrada allegedly spent long hours drinking with shady characters and had “midnight drinking sessions” with some of his Cabinet members during meetings.

While watching the news on TV that day, Tita Ching saw and heard Laquian make “dev- astating remarks about the President.”

“What we heard made our jaws drop in astonishme­nt,” she said, noting that Laquian was talking “as if he were a member of the opposition.”

According to Tita Ching, Estrada was furious about the incident and he banished Laquian, a Filipino-Canadian “who headed straight to the airport to board a flight back to Canada.”

Estrada held an impromptu press conference and “lambasted” Laquian, she recalled.

“What Laquian did that day made an indelible imprint on the minds of many Filipinos. But what we could not understand was why he did it that time,” Tita Ching said.

‘Inquirer’ banned

Another crisis that hit the Estrada presidency was his falling out with the Philippine Daily INQUIRER, she said.

Estrada had accused the INQUIRER of “bias, malice and fabricatio­n” and had banned then Malacañang reporter Juliet Javellana (as well as Martin Marfil) from attending his news conference­s.

“I felt sad like I was torn between two lovers. Juliet, like the rest of the Palace reporters, was close to me. But I had to toe the Palace line as the President was my boss. I was walking a tightrope during those times,” she said.

But Tita Ching said eventually, Estrada “got over his anger” and one afternoon, he invited the Malacañang Press Corps for merienda and extended the invitation to Javellana as well.

Estrada’s ousting from power came in January 2001 and Tita Ching recalled how “gloom filled the Palace that day” when the President voluntaril­y left the Palace on a barge.

She said even media people critical of Estrada “had sadness in their eyes.”

GMA years

After Estrada, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo rose to power, and she would be the last President Tita Ching would serve.

She recalled that Arroyo would ask her about her experience­s in Malacañang during the time of her father, Diosdado Macapagal, the first president she served.

Tita Ching was only 21 years old when she worked as personal secretary to Vic Villafranc­a at the Office of the Press Secretary which was then headed by Rufino Hechanova.

“Sometimes after lunch meetings, [Arroyo] would pull me aside and ask me questions about the arrangemen­ts and functions of the rooms to confirm memories of her childhood days in Malacañang,” she said.

She recalled one time when Arroyo asked her if the study room was where her late father read at night. It was, indeed.

Recalling Arroyo’s father who was fondly called “Cong Dadong,” Tita Ching described him to be a simple man whom she would usually see “during lazy afternoons” coming to office in a “plain shirt.”

All in all, she served only three of the more than nine years that Arroyo was in power.

Oakwood and other crises

Tita Ching witnessed the first crisis that struck the Arroyo administra­tion when rallyers very loyal to Estrada stormed the Palace on May 1, 2001. The rallyers were also “hostile to the media” and started “ransacking and destroying media vehicles outside the Palace,” she said.

Arroyo was prompted to declare a state of rebellion because of the violence and this saw the arrest of many prominent personalit­ies.

Tita Ching was also there when Arroyo “confronted a military revolt” launched by reformist soldiers who took over Oakwood Hotel in Makati City on July 27, 2003.

“The Palace once again turned into a virtual military camp,” she said, adding that she did her duty, which was to “take care of themembers of the press who were in full force at the Palace that day.”

She described Arroyo to be “formal and business-like” when she dealt with her on profession­al matters. The President was also “meticulous and hardworkin­g.”

“But when it comes to personal questions not related to our tasks, she was an ordinary human being, laughing, joking and always asking about your welfare,” Tita Ching said of the former President.

After Arroyo won the 2004 presidenti­al elections, Tita Ching retired from the government service onMay 14.

The quiet life

She said she opted for early retirement because of the “hurt” she experience­d following a complaint filed against her by the Presidenti­al Anti-Graft Commission (PAGC) for allegedly falsifying her Statement of Assets and Liabilitie­s and Net Worth (SALN)

Tita Ching was later cleared by the PAGC but that “personal crisis” gave her the “ deepest wounds in my lifetime.”

In her speech at the book launch, Tita Ching said she was “now in a stage of semi-retirement.”

“I can’t retire from work completely since [a newspaper] employed me,” said Tita Ching, who is vice president for public relations of theManila Bulletin.

“After chroniclin­g a few details in my life and sharing beautiful and interestin­g memories inside Malacañang, I can now live in peace with no ghosts haunting me ever again. And mind you, working for a private company is truly a peaceful, quiet life,” she said.

 ??  ?? ‘TITA CHING’ Carmen Suva, mother hen to Palace reporters for 42 years, sits with one of the subjects of her book, ex-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, at the book launch.
‘TITA CHING’ Carmen Suva, mother hen to Palace reporters for 42 years, sits with one of the subjects of her book, ex-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, at the book launch.
 ?? RICHARD REYES ?? CHING’SDAY Carmen “Ching” Suva prepares to blow the candles of her 70th birthday cake with members of her family behind her.
RICHARD REYES CHING’SDAY Carmen “Ching” Suva prepares to blow the candles of her 70th birthday cake with members of her family behind her.

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