POSTSCRIPT / May 4, 1999 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Imported sugar is cheaper, but won’t be retailed cheap

WE don’t have to see the autopsy report to conclude that NBI Director Santiago Toledo was killed by stress.

The poor career official must have been harassed day and night by intense pressure from high places to make certain statements or to issue this and that report to clear certain people who had run afoul of the law.

We’re not saying Toledo had to concoct lies, but at 65 and nearing retirement after faithfully serving the bureau since 1962, Toledo obviously tried very hard not to utter anything that would displease the powerful forces s orbiting around him.

We would dare say that it was these unforgiving forces that killed him and, in the process, brought disgrace to the once venerable investigative agency.

* * *

THE Senate was set yesterday to begin the pro-forma debates on the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States.

The foreign relations committee headed by Sen. Blas Ople is reporting out favorably the controversial agreement that would govern the status of American servicemen entering these parts as temporary visitors.

Favorable vote on the committee report is expected to be at 20-3, with the puny opposition being registered by Senators Teofisto Guingona, Sergio Osmeña III and Raul Roco.

Dramatizing the sensitive nature of the document, Malacañang submitted the agreement to the Senate despite its stand that it is not a treaty requiring concurrence by the chamber but is a mere executive agreement.

Obviously, Malacañang was playing safe, making sure it had the prior approval (not necessarily in the sense of concurrence to a treaty) of the Senate when it carries out the pact with the US.

* * *

WITH the VFA’s favorable endorsement by the Senate, President Estrada would be one step closer to a state visit to the US before the cold winter winds start blowing in the American capital.

A pilgrimage to America and a one-on-one meeting with the Great White Father at the earliest opportunity has been an obsession of the Estrada presidency – as it had been with previous administrations.

This could explain Malacañang’s alacrity in attending to the wishes of the White House involving bilateral issues. But we understand.

Maligned during the poll campaign as a presidential pretender sorely unprepared for the presidency, Mr. Estrada’s finding implied endorsement from Washington would make up for that perceived weakness and boost his credentials.

With the VFA in his pocket, Mr. Estrada would have won his ticket for a state visit to the capital of the Free World.

* * *

ON another bilateral front, why should our President explain to the haughty Malaysian prime minister the recent visit of Azizah Ismail, wife of imprisoned former Deputy Minister Anwar Ibrahim? Since when has Manila been a colony of Kuala Lumpur?

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad may choose to question Azizah, or even throw her in jail for imagined crimes, but he has no business questioning actuations of his opposite number in Manila.

The seeming conflict is all a matter of perception. Malaysia charges that we were siding with Anwar when we received his wife. The other side could very well charge also that we would be siding with Mahathir by refusing entry to her.

But she had a valid passport, and that was all she needed to come in. Mahathir, even without a passport, would be welcome despite his obvious anti-Filipino prejudices.

* * *

THE best move in such a dilemma is to do what is best for our country. The wise option, as taken by President Estrada, is to act normal. And the normal action for us Filipinos is to allow entry to a well-meaning visitor.

Azizah was a model of proper behavior during her visit. Although a victim of tyranny, she was even restrained in her language. We saw no antics nor heard any word that could be construed as inflammatory or inciting.

The only improper language we heard was from Kuala Lumpur, where Mahathir spat out the word “puppet” to describe the lady in relation to her host in Malacañang. That jab was aimed not only at Azizah but also at the supposed “manipulator” of the “puppet.”

But we should just ignore the rantings of Mahathir. Our President comes out bigger by not answering back or trying to explain.

* * *

THE Rotary Club of Manila should be commended for helping iron out diplomatic kinks in the controversial visit.

It would have been problematic if Azizah came here as official guest of President Estrada. The other object of her visit, Cory Aquino, was not as big a problem, but it was deemed best if Azizah did not make a big to-do about being received by the former president.

Enters the Rotary Club as Azizah’s official host. That was neat. And, we would add, patriotic.

While she was in town as guest of the Rotarians, it was deemed natural for Azizah to call on Mrs. Aquino and her husband’s friend the President. The whole world, including Malaysia, knows what’s really going on, but on the surface, the official fact was that the Rotary invited Azizah and she came.

* * *

ANOTHER brewing dilemma centers on a move to import 500,000 metric tons of sugar to fill the shortage and lower its price.

This may be oversimplifying it, but the problem appears to boils down to this: If we import sugar to meet the shortage, prices could go down to almost half of present levels. But by importing cheaper sugar, we run the risk of crippling the local sugar industry.

What do we do? This is the time for people, especially consumers, to speak up – and for the press to honestly echo public opinion and not only what influential sectors tell the media.

The moves of Malacañang are being watched closely.

* * *

ALREADY, some political allies of President Estrada operating with some Filipino-Chinese businessmen are being reported as poised to corner the projected 500,000-ton sugar importation.

Unfortunately for them and Malacañang, most people are liable to believe this report even without proof being offered.

The impression had been burned into the consciousness of most people that some presidential relatives and cronies have been busy cornering juicy deals while their patron is still in the Palace.

Former congressman Jose Zubiri of Bukidnon pointed out that a mere P5 markup per kilo of the 500,000-ton importation would mean a P2.5-billion profit without extra effort.

The importers’ profits would even go higher, he said, if they succeed in having the Palace waive the conversion fee (something like P200-P250 per 50-kg bag) levied on imported sugar.

Local sugar is priced at P800-P840 per bag, while imported sugar costs only P500-P600. The conversion fee imposed on imported sugar is supposed to close the gap in prices.

* * *

THE question appears to be: Do we import sugar to force down the price even at the risk of slashing the megaprofits of the sugar barons?

Since the consuming public does not have a presidential relative, a crony or a classmate to plead their case in Malacañang, our guess is that the retail price of the imported sugar would not be much different from the current high prices of local sugar.

Those presidential tears are Eye-Mo drops and the bleeding heart for the poor is just special effects. Behind the scene, it is the relatives and cronies who would get the better deal.

With the selling price of imported sugar raised to approximate that of local sugar, the Estrada administration would be killing several birds with one stone.

The cronies and relatives would get their millions, the interests of the sugar barons would be protected, and the government would earn from the import and conversion levies.

Another bird, mind you, would also get killed by the same stone: The consumers who have no choice but to accept the high prices.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of May 4, 1999)

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