LESS than two months in power, President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr.’s administration faces its first crisis that could dent the public’s confidence in his capability to lead.
At best, the issue reveals a chaotic, amateurish Malacañang bureaucracy — where officials are elbowing each other, as an insider described it in Filipino (nagbabalyahan).
At worst, it points to corruption at the highest levels since the issue, whether to import sugar or not, involves the opposing interests of elite groups — sugar planters who hate imports because they bring their prices down vs food and beverage manufacturers, whose margins increase with lower prices for the sweetener. None of these elites are beyond offering bribes for government to go their way, with their industries set to lose or make billions of pesos depending on the regulatory body’s decision.
And then there are the traders who would be getting a huge commission from the importation of 300,000 metric tons of sugar roughly worth P9 billion, after they get the authority to do so from the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA).
It’s even a double-whammy for Marcos’ prestige. First, the controversy involves the SRA which is under his direct supervision as he appointed himself Agriculture secretary, since he thinks he is the best qualified to run the department.
Second, there are allegations that it was his most trusted official, Executive Secretary Victor Rodriguez, who ordered both the agriculture undersecretary who could represent Marcos in the board, Leocadio Sebastian and the SRA administrator Hermenegildo Serafica, to get the body to issue “Sugar Order No. 4” on August 9, which allows the importation of 300,000 MT of sugar, roughly worth P9 billion.
This is purportedly in order to prevent a steep rise in local prices, since the SRA’s projections show a shortfall, partly due to the delays of a previous importation order because of a planters’ suit against such imports that was granted by two courts and because of the Typhoon “Odette” that ravaged sugar-growing areas.
The day after the SRA issued its order and posted it on its website, Press Secretary Trixie Cruz-Angeles was on the warpath, claiming that the resolution was illegal. “The chairman of the Sugar Regulatory Board is President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. As such chairman, he sets the date of any meetings and convening of the Sugar Regulatory Board and its agenda. No such meeting was authorized by the President, nor such a resolution was likewise authorized,” she said. Strangely the usually staid press secretary, who most often smiles while talking, pouted the whole time, and menacingly and melodramatically announced “many heads will roll.”
This is the first time ever in the Republic’s history that Malacañang publicly declared a decision by a body in the executive branch it supervises as illegal. This of course never happens since any government body in the executive branch always secures Malacañang’s approval first for any decision it makes that has national impact.
The lady doth protest too much. The SRA posted its order on its website August 9, with the president’s signature, and those of the SRA administrator Serafica, lawyer Roland Beltran representing the sugar millers, and Aurelio Valderrama, for sugar planters. After the press pointed this out, Cruz-Angeles changes her story, that it was not just illegal, but that Marcos’ signature was faked.
I find it difficult to believe that Serafica would risk at least 12 years imprisonment for falsifying a public document, a crucial one, the signature of the President of the Republic. Furthermore, Serafica, before President Duterte appointed him as administrator, had been a sugar planter who in fact represented sugar planters before in the SRA. Why would he risk imprisonment for an SRA move that is inimical to planters, as the importations could reduce sugar prices?
While the SRA has deleted the copy of its order in its website on orders of Malacañang, copies, or a copy of it, according to the order, was or were filed at the National Registrar the UP Law Center. I do hope somebody retrieves that copy from there to settle who is lying.
It isn’t clear if it was actually the President who told Cruz-Angeles to claim the SRA order was illegal and to say those nasty things that hinted that the SRA board members were crooks. Cruz-Angeles apparently didn’t know that the official who acted as its chairman that approved the order, is the much-respected Dr. Sebastian, the highest Agriculture department official after Marcos, a scientist with a PhD, who had served in the country’s agriculture bodies for two decades.
Furthermore, on August 4, just five days before the SRA issued its order, the Manila Times reported:
“In an interview, SRA Administrator Serafica said that President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. has approved the importation of sugar to prevent a shortage in the supply of the sweetener.
“This is very urgent. The marching order of the President is we need the supply, so we are trying to get all the needed data. It is a work in progress, and the SRA is working double time to finalize the importation of sugar the soonest possible time,” he said. “This is the first time in history that the retail price of refined sugar hit P100 per kilo as traditionally, the SRP (suggested retail price) is only at P50 per kilo while raw sugar is at P45 per kilo.”
Do you think an obscure bureaucrat, whose boss is Marcos not just as President of the Republic but as Agriculture secretary, would put words into the President’s mouth?
Cruz-Angeles’ claim that Marcos was the SRA chairman and “sets the date of SRA meetings,” and therefore the body couldn’t have approved the Sugar Order 4 is a half-truth. She apparently didn’t have a clue that her direct boss Executive Secretary Rodriguez (who purportedly was responsible for her appointment as press secretary) issued a memorandum on July 15 for Sebastian, expanding his authority to practically include all of those exercised by the secretary of agriculture. This included the authority to “sit as ex officio chairman of members of all duly constituted committees, councils, boards or bodies where the Secretary of the DA is a member…” These bodies obviously included the Sugar Board of the SRA.
There is no doubt that somebody is lying, or some people are. There can only be one among the following there versions which actually occurred:
First, the Malacañang (or Cruz-Angeles) version that top agriculture official Sebastian and SRA administrator Serafica approved the order to import the 300,000 MT of sugar, without Marcos’ approval, to the extent of falsifying his signature. I don’t think we were born yesterday to believe this preposterous yarn.
A second version is that Marcos approved the importation August 4, if we believe Serafica as quoted above, with the SRA implementing the President’s order posthaste August 9. For some reason though Marcos changed his mind, with his officials stumbling all over the place to cover up such a change of mind. Rodriguez said no problem, the order will be taken down from the SRA’s website, the document shredded and burned as if it had never existed.
Why did he change his mind? Senate President Jose Miguel Zubiri, whose wealth comes from sugar farms in Bukidnon, has been the champion of sugar planters opposing the importation. After the sugar order was rescinded, he was still frothing at the mouth, “feeling” his newfound power as Senate president and claiming the SRA officials should be fired, prosecuted and thrown in jail.
Zubiri was singing his heart out with Marcos by his side at Sen. Sonny Angara’s birthday party August 7, the karaoke part of which had become viral. Did he convince Marcos at that party, after several glasses of wine, to stop his approval for the SRA issue Sugar Order 4?
If this version is true, it certainly forebodes ill for the republic. It means Marcos ignored his technocrats who compile mountains of data and consult with both planters and end-users to determine whether there is a sugar shortage or not, and instead did a favor to a friend and political supporter — unmindful if sugar shortages hits us this year. This would be a classic case of what economists call “regulatory capture,” which is better described as when oligarchs screw a government.
A third version is that it was Executive Secretary Rodriguez who asked Sebastian (the top agriculture official after Marcos) and SRA administrator Serafica to have the SRA issue the sugar order. For some reason, Marcos forgot he signed the order, and realizing he did, scrambled to rescind it. I bet he probably told Rodriguez and Cruz-Angeles “Basta, gawan niyo ng paraan na mabawi ang order at hindi ako mapahiya.”
We are tired of crisis, to be frank. I do hope Marcos still has some of the lucky streak he had in the elections so that a severe sugar shortage won’t hit us soon. It’s not just prices of candy that will go up but also staples, even the lowly pandesal and cup noodles. Zubiri should try buying sugar at the supermarket, and find that retail prices of raw sugar in Metro Manila are now P80 per kilogram from P57 last year.
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