Tug-of-war between Evasco, NFA's Aquino continues

AT A GLANCE:

MANILA, Philippines – The conflict between Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr and National Food Authority (NFA) Administrator Jason Aquino continues, with the country’s food security hanging in the balance.

Both are still caught in a tug-of-war for President Rodrigo Duterte's support, given their competing views on rice importation. Who's winning the battle? It’s a tough call.

The latest in the saga is the decision of the NFA Council, headed by Evasco, to speed up the procurement of 250,000 metric tons of rice via importation by private traders. Expediting the process was ordered by none other than Duterte himself in a Malacañang meeting on Monday, March 19.

It’s a modest win for Aquino, on the one hand, because he got the rice to replenish NFA buffer stocks earlier than expected. The NFA Council’s earlier decision was for the imported rice to arrive in June. The President appeared to back Aquino on the need to import rice for NFA as soon as possible. 

Evasco’s spokesman Assistant Secretary Jonas Soriano even quoted Duterte as saying, “Better too much rice than too few.” 

Aquino was present at the meeting and was even “introduced” to the NFA Council members by Duterte, according to an official present.

But the meeting was also a win for Evasco because Duterte left it up to the Council to decide on the importation method. Government-to-private (G2P) importation, the method favored by the Council, was retained even as Aquino continues to push for government-to-government (G2G) importation.

Two weeks before, Evasco also scored a win when, during the March 5 Cabinet meeting, Duterte supposedly gave instructions that announcements on the rice supply come only from the Council.

This was after Aquino was scolded in a Senate hearing for “sowing panic” by claiming rice shortage in the country. This perception caused rice prices to shoot up, to the distress of poor Filipino households.

Aquino later on admitted there was only a shortage in NFA’s buffer stock but there was no rice shortage as a whole in the country.

But only 4 days before the Cabinet meeting, Aquino was able to get a one-on-one meeting with Duterte in Davao City. 

On March 1, Aquino met with the President and Special Assistant to the President Bong Go where he apparently secured Duterte’s commitment to order the “immediate” importation of rice, instead of the NFA Council’s June target. 

Ang instructions niya nung inaprubahan nya ang importation ay immediate ARRIVAL at hindi sa JUNE 2018 na gusto ng Council,” he said on Facebook, where he also posted photos of the meeting.

(His instructions when he approved the importation is for immediate arrival and not on June 2018 which the Council wants.)

Sabi ni Presidente kanina, di dapat mawalan ng bigas ang NFA. Dagdag nya, gugustuhin nya na sobra sobra ang stocks ng NFA kesa magkulang at marami magugutom na mahihirap nating kababayan,” he also said.

(The President said earlier, the NFA should not run out of rice. He added, he would rather the stocks of NFA be overflowing rather than be inadequate and cause many of our poor countrymen to go hungry.)

How is Aquino able to secure such access to Duterte? Insiders point to his supposed good relationship with Bong Go.

Smear campaign vs Evasco?

These recent events have been accompanied by what supporters of Cabinet Secretary Evasco fear to be a smear campaign.

Evasco told Rappler on Thursday how he is frustrated by articles and posts in “newspapers, social media” which make it appear like the NFA Council, which he heads, is delaying importation of rice at the cost of poor Filipinos.

Recent Facebook posts of Duterte online supporter Trixie Cruz-Angeles are telling. 

“The NFA Council is MISLEADING the public. They say Government to Private procurement will protect the farmers. That's pure bull excrement,” posted Angeles on Friday, March 23, a day after Evasco announced the decision of the Council to import the 250,000 MT of rice through G2P.

“But why is the Council going for a G2P? Its [sic] to delay. G2G takes 30 days. G2P takes 45-60. And the longer the rice prices remaon [sic] high without the competing NFA rice, the bigger the profit for traders. So I'm calling bull on the NFA Council,” she added.

In other recent posts, she claimed the NFA Council is disobeying Duterte and that Duterte himself prefers G2G, the same importation method Aquino is lobbying for. 

“Unlike what was discussed during the Council meeting with the president they insist on the Government to Private instead of the Government to Government importation ordered by PRRD,” she said on March 22.

“Why is the NFA Council bent on disobeying the President? Even worse, why are they delaying importation of rice?” she said in another post.

Angeles, a lawyer whom the Supreme Court in August 2016 suspended for 3 years for taking her client's money but not delivering on a case, has close ties to Aquino. In fact, Aquino had tapped her to be NFA Council Corporate Secretary without waiting for the required approval of the NFA Council.

In February 2017, Aquino signed a special order for the “hiring/employment of Atty Rose Beatrix L. Cruz-Angeles as Board Secretary.” Two months later, a document provided to Rappler showed Cruz-Angeles was already signing documents as board secretary despite the non-approval of the Council that she take the post.

Document shows Trixie Cruz-Angeles signed as NFA Council Board Secretary in April 2017 despite non-approval of the NFA Council. Rappler sourced image

Document shows Trixie Cruz-Angeles signed as NFA Council Board Secretary in April 2017 despite non-approval of the NFA Council.

Rappler sourced image

With the Council disapproving the appointment, Assistant Secretary Ricardo Bernabe III is the current interim board secretary.

Evasco wanted Aquino out

Who is Duterte siding with: a former soldier who asked him to run for president or a former rebel priest who helped his mayorship and ran his presidential campaign?

Perhaps the more telling indicator is not Duterte’s actions but his inaction.

Since February last year, Evasco had declared in public he wanted Aquino out as NFA administrator.

A month later, on March 22, Evasco wrote a confidential memorandum for the President asking for his “approval and/or confirmation of the Council Resolution approving removal of Jason Laureano Aquino as NFA Administrator and NFA Council Vice-Chairperson.”

Evasco's letter to President Duterte seeking removal of Jason Aquino as NFA Administrator. Rappler sourced document

Evasco's letter to President Duterte seeking removal of Jason Aquino as NFA Administrator.

Rappler sourced document

Exactly a year after, Aquino is still NFA Administrator and enjoys, not only access to Duterte, but support.

Yet this support also apparently has its limits. So far, Duterte has trusted the Evasco-headed Council to decide on the mode and timing of rice importation. This, despite Aquino’s persistent efforts to get Duterte to back G2G importation.

Back in February 2017, Aquino even wrote directly to Duterte seeking approval of G2G importation. A month later, he wrote to then Vietnam Ambassador Truong Trieu Duong to assure him that private importation is being delayed to make way for “the immediate conduct of Government-To-Government importation of rice which is scheduled this March.”

NFA Administrator Jason Aquino's letter to Vietnamese Ambassador on March 3, 2017. Rappler sourced document

NFA Administrator Jason Aquino's letter to Vietnamese Ambassador on March 3, 2017.

Rappler sourced document

Duterte has also not granted Aquino’s request to name bills to strengthen the NFA as part of his legislative agenda. 

Copies of bills sent by Aquino to Duterte back in February 2017 did not make it among Duterte’s priority bills or the Common Legislative Agenda approved by the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (Ledac).

It seems Duterte has been calibrating his moves when it comes to the clash between these two trusted men. But for how long can he sustain the balancing act? – Rappler.com

Topmost photo: CLASH. NFA Administrator Jason Aquino (left) and Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr don't agree on the proper mode of rice importation  

– Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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