Senate of the Philippines

Hontiveros: ‘It seems many powerful forces at play’ in sugar import mess

Pauline Macaraeg
Hontiveros: ‘It seems many powerful forces at play’ in sugar import mess

OPPOSITION SENATOR. File photo shows Senator Risa Hontiveros at the Senate hearing on the sugar importation fiasco on August 30, 2022. 

Joseph Vidal and Voltaire Domingo / Senate PRIB

(1st UPDATE) Executive Secretary Vic Rodriguez skips the second Senate hearing on the sugar importation mess to attend a Cabinet meeting, and will be invited to the next hearing

MANILA, Philippines – As the Senate wrapped up its second hearing on the sugar importation mess on Tuesday, August 30, Deputy Minority Leader Risa Hontiveros said that “powerful forces” seemed to be “at play” in Malacañang’s decision to reject the plan to import 300,000 metric tons of sugar.

Hontiveros also said many questions remained unanswered, including Executive Secretary Vic Rodriguez’s knowledge about Sugar Order No. 4 (SO4), which would have authorized the 300,000-MT sugar importation.

“Just for the record Mr. Chair, I would just like to manifest that what is clear to me so far is that many things are not clear. And it also seems that many powerful forces are at play,” the senator said in her closing statement at the hearing.

Hontiveros said it was “regrettable” that Rodriguez had to skip the hearing that coincided with a Cabinet meeting. At the first hearing last week, she had asked the Senate blue ribbon committee to invite him to the August 30 hearing so she can ask him questions about his knowledge of SO4.

“What is the ES hiding? What information doesn’t he want the public to know?” she asked.

At the start of the hearing, Senator Francis Tolentino said the Senate panel would seek to establish that day “whether or not there was a genuine shortage” to justify SO4. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., as agriculture secretary, disapproved the order upon its publication in the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) website, saying it was illegal.

Tolentino said the panel also wanted to determine that day if the SRA consulted with all stakeholders, as its former administrator had claimed, and if the concerned officials had the legal authority to issue SO4.

‘Wrong information’

In response to senators’ questions on the ongoing raids of alleged sugar hoaders, Acting Customs Commissioner Yogi Filemon Ruiz said that warehouses to be subjected to “visits” or “inspections” by their team were subjected to prior investigation and surveillance. They had conducted 31 inspections, to date.

Upon questioning by Senator Raffy Tulfo, however, Ruiz said that a vessel with sugar cargo inspected by their team in Subic had the proper documents, but remained under their custody three weeks on as the final investigation report has yet to reach Ruiz’s office.

Ruiz also later confirmed that their team found no imported sugar when they raided warehouses in Bukidnon.

Tulfo expressed concern that legitimate businesses and their workers were being adversely affected by the raids, and that “everybody is open to harassment.” Ruiz assured him that the Bureau of Customs leadership “would not tolerate that,” and added that businesses that could not present documents on the spot are given 15 days to comply.

Hontiveros said the raids conducted on legitimate businesses indicated that the President – who had ordered the inspections – was receiving “wrong information.”

“Why all these raids or visits on bodegas tapos malalaman (warehouses only to find out) in the end the import permits are in order and the mission is terminated?” the senator asked.

“Who is feeding the President or Malacañang wrong information? Is the Executive Secretary feeding the President wrong information? Is the President caught in the crosshairs of opposing camps? Hindi kaya usapin lang ito ng nag-aaway na mga kampo, Mr. Chair (Perhaps this might be something that just involves warring camps)?” she added.

Hontiveros: ‘It seems many powerful forces at play’ in sugar import mess

Malacañang had earlier cited the volume of sugar stocks discovered during the raids of warehouses as supposed proof that the sugar shortage is “artificial,” though SRA data indicated otherwise.

To show the impact of the sugar importation fiasco on workers, Hontiveros asked Coca-Cola Beverages Philippines, Incorporated to confirm if they had closed down five plants, and if they had cut the working hours of their workers. 

Juan Lorenzo Tañada, the beverage company’s corporate and regulatory affairs director, confirmed that they had temporarily suspended operations of certain plants on a day-to-day basis. This includes a plant in Davao; Imus, Cavite; Zamboanga, and Naga City.

“If the plants are not operating, the workers are not required to come to work but everyone is being paid their salary and wage,” Tañada said.

Meanwhile, Pablo Lobregat, president of the Philippine Sugar Millers Association, Incorporated (PMSA), said that the sugar shortage in the country is real, and cited factors that affected the current sugar supply, topped by weather disturbances such as Typhoon Odette in December 2021.

‘Heavy cost of wrong presumption’

During the hearing, former SRA administrator Hemenegildo Serafica and Agriculture Undersecretary Leocadio Sebastian maintained that they believed Marcos supported SO4, which was crafted based on Marcos’ order to “act fast” on the sugar supply issue and other “signals” from Malacañang, said Sebastian.

Sebastian indicated that these signals include Marcos’ order to craft a sugar importation program. Marcos also did not oppose or express any reservation about importing sugar to augment local supply, he said.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino “Koko Pimentel III asked the two officials why they did not just simply wait for the President’s official approval of SO4 before releasing it to the public. Sebastian again cited a July 15 memorandum from the Office of the Executive Secretary that authorized him to sign SO4.

Pimentel noted that because of their haste, they faced criminal and administrative complaints. It was learned during the hearing that Sebastian was on preventive suspension for 90 days, and that the President has not yet accepted his resignation.

“Ang cost sa inyo ang bigat…. Ang balik sa inyo napakabigat (The cost [of your action] is heavy…. The payback is very serious). You should welcome this hearing; this will give you a chance to clear your names,” he told the two.

Senator Ronald dela Rosa said all those who affixed their signature on SO4 “got walloped” by the “wrong presumption.”

Referring to Sebastian’s claim that there were “signals” from Malacañang supporting SO4, Pimentel said, “All the more we need ES before us.”

Pimentel reiterated in a statement on Thursday, September 1, that the probe would be not complete without the presence of Rodriguez.

“The blue ribbon investigation cannot and should not be closed until and unless we (some members) of the committee get to ‘cross examine’ ES Rodriguez on the testimony he gave. This is our right as members of the blue ribbon committee and also as a matter of fairness to those he mentioned in his testimony in a very negative light,” he said.

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During the hearing, Senate President Juan Miguel “Migz” Zubiri called on the sugar federations and groups to cooperate and to stop their “black propaganda” against each other.

“I’m making an appeal to them because right now, it’s a mess….. One is calling one pinklawan; the other, a Marcos loyalist. We should stop calling each other names. If we want to help the farmers and the federations, let us come up with the bottomline scenario of helping the industry,” Zubiri said in a mix of English and Filipino.

“Tama na muna ang away (Stop fighting), let’s come up with a better system of importation,” he also said.

Zubiri also backed the raids on warehouses of agricultural products, saying he would rather “err on the side” of anti-smuggling, anti-hoarding efforts. – Rappler.com

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Pauline Macaraeg

Pauline Macaraeg is digital forensics researcher for Rappler. She started as a fact checker and researcher in 2019, before becoming part of Rappler's Digital Forensics Team. She writes about the developing digital landscape, as well as the spread and impact of disinformation and harmful online content. When she's not working, you can find her listening to podcasts or K-pop bops.