The Majority v. Minority Blue Ribbon Committee Reports on the Sugar Importation Issue
October 2, 2022
“Pussyfooting” is putting it very mildly, Reader. A more graphic description would have been “busily brown-nosing”. Examples: billionaires falling over each other to treat the President and his party to the most expensive meals that could be had in New York; or our Congressmen and Senators again falling all over each other to pass the President’s confidential and intelligence budget without even the hint of a raised eyebrow.
Actually, pussyfooting could also be described as people falling all over themselves to ensure that the President’s feelings are not hurt, or that he is not discomfited in any way. So pussyfooting it will be.
But the case I am discussing with you today actually involves both. And the pussyfooters (PFers) were Senators of the Republic. If their actions only affected themselves, there would be no problem. But other people were hurt in the process. The country was hurt in the process. Ironically, even PBBM has been hurt in the process.
What is the case? The Sugar Importation Issue. Who are the PFers? the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee majority members. Who were hurt in the process? DA Under Secretary Leocadio Sebastian , Former SRA Administrator Hermenegildo Serafica, and SRA Board Members Gerardo Villarama (representing planters) and Roland Beltran (representing millers).
Why was the country hurt in the process? Because it lost the services of Leocadio Sebastian, bureaucrat par excellence (agriculture expert, international civil servant, TOYM, recipient of Vietnam’s highest civilian award for his work on agriculture) – and might lose the potential services of people of integrity and competence who will be gun-shy to join PBBM’s government.
Why was PBBM also hurt in the process? Because he showed that he didn’t quite understand what the issue was about, he was more interested in protecting himself from a possible PR fiasco. He allowed Sebastian, et. al., to be used as scapegoats, thus sending a structural message to all (especially those with competence and integrity) that working with or for him was filled with risks. In other words, inadvertently showing poor leadership.
Let’s take these one by one. And before I proceed, I want to thank former Negros Occidental Governor Lito Coscolluela (who is also a small sugar planter), as well as Senator Koko Pimentel who provided me with a copy of the Blue Ribbon Minority Report. The Majority Report I watched on YouTube.
The Sugar Importation issue (which Senate President Zubiri calls a fiasco) is simple: the SRA issued (part of its mandate), the so-called Sugar Order No.4, (SO4) “Second Sugar Import Program for Crop Year 2021-2022”, calling for the importation of 300,000 metric tons (mt) of sugar.
No sweat, right? As the Minority Report so succinctly puts it: “there is a clear, actual, indubitable and undeniable sugar shortage, which is dangerous if insufficiently and/or inadequately addressed.”
Gov. Lito further furnished me with Philippine Sugar Statistics that on the supply side, show that sugarcane area, production of both raw and refined sugar have declined (at least since 2018) steadily every year. On the other hand, demand has increased, if only because of the increase in population, but also the (albeit slow) recovery of the economy from covid. The resulting shortages force sugar prices upwards, and the Philippine Statistics Authority data show that the year-on-year inflation rates of “sugar, confectionery and deserts” for July and August 2021 and 2022 were 26.0% for the Philippines, 19.8% for NCR, and 27.2% for AONCR. In Bicol Region and Davao, these rates were above 36%. To compare: inflation rates for rice were 2.2%, 0.8% and 2.4% respectively.
Basic economics tells us that when supply decreases, prices rise, c.p. When demand increases, also rise. So when both happen together, the consumers face a double whammy. Why imports? To increase supply and keep prices from rising so much.
It is not as if the Philippines has not been importing sugar. I understand that we have been importing since 2013, but the data Gov. Lito provided goes only as far as 2015 (see below). But every year since 2015, the country has been importing, with volumes as high as 548,345 m.t. (in 2018). And this year’s import figure was arrived at after consulting all the sugar federations – seven of them, who would be the most negatively affected (prices would go down) by it. Their consensus: 300,000 m.t. tons.
So why the fuss about importation? The fuss arose because Press Secretary Trixie Angeles Cruz asserted that SO4 was not signed by the President, who as Secretary of Agriculture, is chair of the SRA Board. Former Executive Secretary Vic Rodriguez echoed that assertion. Therefore, SO4 was illegal. The President did not know about it, so something was wrong. And heads should roll – specifically the members of the SRA board who signed, and USEC Sebastian who signed as chair of the board.
The only truth in the above is that SO4 was not signed by the President as Agriculture Secretary. But, it was signed by his Chief of Staff and Undersecretary, Sebastian, who according to a July 22 memo, was given the authority to sign for the Secretary (President) and sit for him in the various boards etc. In other words, he had authority to sign.
Q: Did PBBM know what was going on? Either A1.) He certainly did, as attested by Sebastian, et al., or A2.) He certainly did not, according to Cruz and Rodriguez. I don’t know any of them. But I know of Sebastian, and from Gov. Lito, I know that Serafica and Valderrama are respected by their respective constituents. I have also seen Rodriguez at work. And I know that Cruz is just a PR something or other. Who would you stand behind, Reader?
But at this point, the President should have stepped in, and resolved the controversy. Did he or did he not know that a sugar importation order was going to be put out? In the hearings of the Blue Ribbon Committee, Sebastian, et al, all claimed that they had met with the President, and he was apprised of every step they made. Rodriguez claims that they did not meet face-to-face. He was right, but only because the meeting was via zoom: they were face to face with Rodriguez, and together they had zoomed with the President. At this point, Rodriguez said he would have to try harder to recollect whether there was a zoom meeting or not.
All PBBM had to do was tell the truth. But up to now he remains silent on the issue.
The Senate Blue Ribbon Committee, except for the two minority senators, took the Rodriguez version as gospel truth (I wonder what they have to say now that Rodriguez has resigned as ES). The Majority Report recommended that Sebastian, Serafica, Valderrama and Beltran, be charged with all kinds of graft and corruption. Just like that. Bending over backward to please, and remove all responsibility from the President.
The Minority Report, to the rescue. Aside from pointing out the current shortage of sugar, it opines that 1) Executive Secretary Victor Rodriguez is not entirely blameless in the so-called fiasco behind SO4 (methinks there is pussyfooting here, too. Such delicacy of language!). 2) The series of actions of Sebastian, Serafica, Beltran and Valderrama had overwhelming badges of good faith. And 3) the recommendation of the majority to initiate administrative and criminal charges against them and to issue a look-out bulleting (to prevent their fleeing the country!) lack factual and legal basis.
Thank heaven for Senator Risa Hontiveros and Sen. Koko Pimentel.