President ordered sugar imports questioned by senator – Panganiban
MANILA, Philippines — Senior Agriculture Undersecretary Domingo Panganiban on Tuesday said President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. had ordered the importation of 440,000 metric tons (MT) of sugar early this year through “selected” traders due to concerns that the high retail price of the sweetener would further increase the inflation rate of 8.7 percent at the time.
At Tuesday’s resumption of the Senate inquiry into the allegedly illegal sugar importation, Panganiban disclosed that the president, who concurrently sits as secretary of the Department of Agriculture (DA), had approached him after a Cabinet meeting in Malacañang to discuss the sugar situation in the country.
Marcos then told him to “immediately” start the importation process, prompting him to hold a meeting with the officers of the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA), he said at the hearing of the Senate blue ribbon committee.
“The president said, ‘Lets do it ourselves for the meantime.’ Two days after, he called again a meeting with me and several sugar importers,” Panganiban said. “He told us that we really need to import at this point because the inflation rate might worsen and the price of sugar in the public market might further increase.”
Pressed by Sen. Risa Hontiveros to clarify his statement, Panganiban denied saying that Marcos had told him to “do it [sugar importation] ourselves,” rephrasing his statement thus: “[The president] said, ‘Let’s import through selected importers of sugar.’”
Testifying at the same hearing, Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin defended the president’s action as he rejected Hontiveros’ claim that it was akin to government-sponsored smuggling.
The retired Supreme Court chief justice said the shipment of sugar from Thailand was “legitimate and fully authorized by the government” despite entering the country before the SRA issued Sugar Order No. 6 on Feb. 15.
“The importation was not an effort at cartelization, nor was it about government smuggling of sugar,” Bersamin said.
“To us in the Office of the President, we have committed no irregularity when we issued that sugar order, neither was there any violation committed by any of the parties who were involved in the questioned transactions,” he insisted.
Bersamin also argued that there was actually no law requiring a sugar order for the importation of the commodity.
“There are actually several ways of importing sugar. One of them is this sugar order. The other is the minimum access volume,” he said, adding that there is a provision in the Price Act allowing the President to order importations “when there is an urgent need.”
Citing the Customs Modernization and Tariff Act, he also noted that “submission of requirements after (the) arrival of the goods, but prior to the release from customs custody” was allowed in certain cases.
Bersamin, however, said it was Panganiban, not the president, who handpicked the three traders — All Asian Countertrade Inc., Sucden Philippines Inc., and Edison Lee Marketing Corp. — supposedly based on the recommendation of the SRA, which Mr. Marcos also heads as agriculture secretary.
“There was guidance from the President, but I confirm that I was the one who instructed Panganiban to proceed with the processing of the sugar order and to attend to this issue of this importation,” the executive secretary said.
“The background of the three and others were considered by [Panganiban],” he added.
Hontiveros, who had exposed what she termed as state-sponsored smuggling of sugar, found Panganiban’s statements “shocking” for openly circumventing the legal process for bringing in the agricultural commodity into the country.
Hontiveros was also taken aback by Bersamin’s argument, which she said clearly flouted the policy that the SRA had been implementing since its creation in 1986.
In fact, she said the lack of sugar order was among the issues that the Senate had raised last year when it investigated the foiled attempt to import 300,000 MT of sugar.