President wanted bigger sugar imports — former SRA chief

PHILIPPINE STAR/ EDD GUMBAN

PRESIDENT Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. had proposed to import 600,000 metric tons (MT) of sugar amid rising prices and tight supply, according to the former chief of the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA).

“The president mentioned about a volume of 600,000 MT,” Hermenegildo R. Serafica, who resigned last month after signing an order to import 300,000 MT of sugar that the president later vetoed, told a Senate blue ribbon committee hearing on Tuesday.

Executive Secretary Victor D. Rodriguez denied the claim. “I categorically deny that there was an instruction from the president to even consider or to import 600,000 metric tons of sugar. There was no such pronouncement or order.”

Mr. Serafica, who said Mr. Marcos had suggested the amount at a “hybrid” meeting, told senators he disagreed with the proposal.

He claimed to have told the president on Aug. 4 that 600,000 MT was too much since cane delivery from farmers had started and milling was about to begin.

Former SRA board member Aurelio Gerardo J. Valderrama, Jr. affirmed Mr. Serafica’s claim about the Aug. 4 meeting, and that Mr. Marcos had mentioned the 600,000 MT of sugar.

“This was discussed in our Zoom meeting together with the president and he mentioned the 600,000 but former Administrator Mr. Serafica said that it might be too much because the milling season was about to open,” he told the hearing.

Senate President Juan Miguel F. Zubiri said he did believe Mr. Serafica’s testimony. “The president does not even want 300,000 metric tons, what more if it was 600,000? I don’t believe the president had said that. Impossible,” he said in mixed English and Filipino.

“You’d better clarify [that], Mr. Serafica. You are very close to being cited in contempt,” he said at the hearing.

Mr. Rodriguez said the president never mentioned any amount. “The amount of 300,000 metric tons has been mentioned many times by the SRA board, and that is precisely why we were asking them to submit to us an import plan so they can justify why they are so fixated with 300,000 metric tons if importation.”

United Sugar Producers Federation President Manuel R. Lamata told senators Mr. Serafica was lying. “There is no truth to whatever he said. There is no shortage.”

He also said he never heard of the suggestion to import 600,000 MT of sugar.

Senator Aquilino Martin D. Pimentel III said there might have been inaccuracies in Mr. Serafica’s testimony, but “let us all remember as well that Mr. Valderrama confirms such a meeting.”

He said Mr. Rodriguez should not have ignored inquiries from the SRA about the import plan.

“I purposely did not respond because these are the matters that were still on the table of the acting secretary of the Department of Agriculture that we had yet to act upon and that he had yet to decide on.”

“It’s such a waste, reputations are damaged, it taints the start of the Marcos administration that there’s a fiasco like this,” Mr. Pimentel said. “Just a little improvement in the communication. You could have answered that we are not yet ready to give you approval, or wait for a while.”

Mr. Rodriguez wasn’t supposed to attend Tuesday’s hearing “per instructions of President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr.”

In an earlier letter to the blue ribbon committee, he promised to answer written inquiries about the sugar fiasco. On Tuesday morning, 14 of 17 members of the committee then voted to summon him to the hearing.

Mr. Rodriguez arrived at the Senate for questioning around noon and apologized. “I have no intention whatsoever to disrespect the honorable members of the Senate and the Senate as an institution.”

He noted that as soon as heard about the subpoena, he informed Mr. Marcos, who was on a state visit to Singapore, about it and sought his permission to go to the Senate.

The committee ended the investigation and agreed to issue a report before hearing to come up with one final report, approve it before the congressional break on Oct. 1. — A.N.O. Tan