Senate probe into sugar fiasco: Officials say Marcos initially did not oppose sugar importation

Franco Luna - Philstar.com
Senate probe into sugar fiasco: Officials say Marcos initially did not oppose sugar importation
Workers organized different kinds of repacked sugar at a store in Quezon City on August 11, 2022.
The STAR / Michael Varcas

MANILA, Philippines — The Senate Blue Ribbon Committee's second hearing into the sugar fiasco saw doubts raised over Malacañang's rejection of the importation order behind the sugar fiasco being investigated by lawmakers. 

The controversy stems from Sugar Order No. 4 or SO4, which would have authorized the importation of 300,000 metric tons of sugar into the country to bridge a deficit that has been pushing up the local prices of the sweetener. The Palace eventually rejected the order, saying President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. never signed off on the order. 

Majority lawmakers in the first hearing pounced on claims by a former agriculture undersecretary that the move was meant to prevent a shortage in sugar. 

Here's a rundown of the principal findings at the hearing thus far:

Marcos wasn't against SO4 at first

Former Agriculture Undersecretary Leocadio Sebastian, among the officials who quit his post in the wake of the controversy, said that there was no opposition from the chief executive earlier on before he eventually disowned the order. 

But citing data from the Sugar Regulatory Administration, Sebastian said that while there isn't technically a shortage at the moment, the effects of the accelerating deficit could be felt as early as end-August, which prompted his office to offset the diminishing supply with imports greenlit by industry groups. 

The SRA is an attached bureau under the Department of Agriculture, concurrently headed by Marcos.

Former SRA administrator Hermenegildo Serafica added that in a meeting dated August 4, his office reiterated the importation plan and they presented the facts of the tightness of sugar supply and the rising sugar price in the market.

Serafica said that "almost all" of the industry stakeholders recommended 300,000 metric tons of sugar in position papers and meetings with the government, the same amount listed in SO4.

Sen. Risa Hontiveros questioned why not even President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was cool to the sugar order in the face of "near unanimity" among industry groups about the need to import. 

"Many things are not clear. And it also seems that many powerful forces are at play...Who is feeding the President or Malacanang wrong information?" the opposition senator said. 

"Is the president caught in the crosshairs of opposing camps? [And] is it not the Executive Secretary's job to protect the president? Are they not gatekeepers of these competing interests so that the President make policy decisions unfettered by political considerations?"

Importation weakening the local sugar industry 

Senators at the hearing Tuesday also pointed out the significant disparity between the price of sugar in the world market and domestically, with international prices of sugar standing at P22 per kilo while the cheapest retail price is at P70 per kilo. 

Meanwhile, retail prices of sugar in the country are now at P100 per kilo with the P70 per kilo available only in just a few outlets around the archipelago.

"Is sugar P22 in the market? Even if we go to give the money as a subsidy to the sugar industry, the consumers are still not at a loss, so why don't we think of the right policy to balance that," Sen. Grace Poe asked as she recommended the government look at the timing of the importation and the harvest season.

"I really think we can support the industry by adding a little bit of tariff and that tariff will not even disadvantage consumers because it will still come out cheaper...I support the sugar industry but I should also advocate for our consumers who are clearly the ones getting the short end of the bargain."

The same majority senators in the upper Chamber rushed to the defense of the president by shifting the conversation to the need to import in the first place. 

Sen. JV Ejercito said the SRA’s supposed efforts to implement the Sugarcane Industry Development Act were not felt by local sugar planters and refiners.

"It's saddening to think that our local industry, it really won't develop. The rice, no one will invest. The sugar industry, what is happening now. As long as the entry of smuggled agricultural products continues," Ejercito said in Filipino.

Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri framed the rejection of SO4 as a move against importation to help farmers strengthen the sugar industry on the ground. 

"The President stopped the order and called it illegal, and he wants the farmers to take advantage of his newfound mandate as DA secretary so we can help farmers longterm so we no longer need to import," he said. 

He went on to call for "unity" among players in the industry: "Right now, it's a mess because they're all fighting. One is calling the other side pinklawan, and the other one is calling them Marcos loyalists. We should stop calling each other names."


To recall, Sebastian at the first hearing said that he sent two memos to Executive Secretary Vic Rodriguez on the impending SO4 and the possible sugar crisis. He never got a response and admitted he signed for Marcos of his own volition to prevent a sugar crisis.

Citing a memo sent to him by Rodriguez months earlier, he said he believed he had the authority to do so.  

Rodriguez at the same hearing last week admitted to receiving these but said he purposely did not reply because Marcos had yet to come to a decision on the matter. 

Sebastian on Tuesday reiterated that he got "signals that the sugar order is a go" given the lack of opposition from the Palace but later admitted this was only his "own perception."

Sens. Koko Pimentel and Hontiveros questioned why Rodriguez was not present at this hearing to clarify this, to which Tolentino said he received word that the latter would be at a Cabinet meeting today. 

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