Is NFA Administrator Jason Laureano Y. Aquino just naïve or part of the cabal?
For the past few weeks, Cabinet Secretary Leoncio “Jun” Evasco and Aquino were at loggerheads over the issue of rice importation specifically whether or not to extend the import permits that had expired on February 28, 2017 to March 31, 2017. The NFA Council and its Chairman Evasco were for the extension; Aquino was against it.
Despite several threatening memos, Aquino stood his ground: No to extension. The issue came to a head a week ahead of the President’s state visit to the Middle East when he dismissed posthaste an undersecretary at the Office of the Cabinet Secretary for overreaching her authority. The undersecretary signed the import permits for the five importers whose permits had expired on February 28. By law, only the Administrator can sign and issue Permits to Import. Many saw this development as a clear victory for Aquino.
Even the President saw the wisdom of disallowing the import extension at that time since the months of March, April and May are harvest season. Allowing the importation of rice during these months would flood the market with imported rice and weigh down the prices of the locally produced staple thereby adversely affecting the interests of our farmers.
Before the Holy Week, this writer had dinner at the EDSA Shangrila with Aquino and his assistant, Atty. Rachel Manuel. Aquino clearly emphasized to me that he was against extending the import permits from 28 February to 31 March for the importers whose import permits were due to expire. He explained that “If the others can comply with the deadline, why can’t they?” Solid argument for standing his ground. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, as the saying goes.
Aquino accused the NFA Council chaired by Evasco of denying his request for the approval of the standby authority to import 250 MT rice through government-to-government (G2G) contract while at the same time railroading the MAV extension issued by the Council to the importers whose permits were to expire on February 28.
At around 9 p.m. of February 23, someone from the Council directed the NFA Council Secretariat to “facilitate ASAP” the unnumbered Memorandum dated February 21 to draft a Resolution extending the MAV arrivals, Aquino said. A resolution extending the MAV arrival was routed to the Council members, bypassing him (Aquino) as the Vice Chairman of the Council, he added.
Aquino signs import permits way past 28 February deadline
Little did the President know that Aquino himself had signed three import permits from Vietnam on March 13 way beyond the MAV February 28 deadline. These are in documents obtained by The Manila Times from a source at the Department of Finance during the Holy Week. The three importers whose permits were signed on the same day were: Villa Shipping Lines, Inc.; JVV Ex/Import and Kakampi MPC. The permits cover a total of 5,380 MT.
If Aquino were concerned about the timing of the rice imports, why did he sign on March 13 the import permits for the three knowing fully well that the imported rice would arrive in the Philippines during harvest season or at a time when imports should have been disallowed?
In a phone interview, Atty. Rachel Manuel said that the reason for the issuances of the import permits to the three was “force majeure,” which is allowed under the law. According to her, the shipping company itself had asked for an extension of the MAV “dahil nagkaroon ng problema sa port” (“because a problem developed in the port”). She added, “due to the port congestion in Hong Kong.” She also specified that the date of the Bill of Lading was before February 15.
Wrote Aquino in his memorandum to the NFA Director, GMOD (Grains and Marketing Operations Dept.), dated February 28 and a separate memo to Customs Commissioner Nicanor Faeldon on March 20, 2017, respectively, the key paragraphs of which read:
“After due deliberation and reconsideration on the request of (name of importers) please prepare the corresponding Import Permit for the shipment of this importer under the 2016 MAV Rice Importation Program.”
“This is in view of the explanation made by (name of shipping company) (copy attached) that (sic) transpired to (sic) the voyage of the carrying vessel that effect (sic) the shipment of their rice imports. Their rice cargo was already on board carrying vessel as reflected in their Bill of Lading as early as February 16, 2017.”
At the same time, Aquino also signed a memorandum exempting imports from Pakistan and India from the MAV February 28 deadline. Manuel rationalized the exemption by saying that it was the Ambassador of Pakistan who requested for the extension. She did not mention the Ambassador of India. She also said that it takes 30 and 28 shipping days for the imports from Pakistan and India, respectively, to arrive in the country compared to 7 and 5 days from Thailand and Vietnam, respectively. Besides, the requests for extensions by the two ambassadors were made on January 20, way before the February 28 deadline, she added.
Participants in the deliberation unknown; Aquino usurps council powers
Aquino said that there was a deliberation. Yet he did not say who among the NFA personnel took part in the deliberation on the request for extension. Assuming there was indeed a meeting held on whether or not the request for extension should be granted, isn’t this a usurpation of the powers of the NFA Council? For only the council can decide on whether or not to import or extend the MAV deadlines. Also, only the council is empowered to decide on the timing of the imports and the corresponding volume of imports.
A check with the GMOD however showed no record of deliberations among NFA personnel or a meeting between the NFA and the importers’ representatives, giving rise to suspicion that the transaction was held privately between Aquino and/or his representative and a certain Marlon Barillo who allegedly represented the three importers who were issued Import Permits on March 13 by the NFA Administrator.
If there were deliberations, the NFA Executive Committee would have been involved and records kept. As of this writing, a highly reliable source said that there was nothing on record that would show that the issue of the application for the Import Permits for the three was ever taken up.
The question arises: “Can Aquino on his own issue Import Permits without first securing the approval of the Council that by law, is mandated to determine the timing and the quantity of all rice imports to the country? And why did he not secure the approval of the council before he issued the Import Permits to the three on March 13?”
President Duterte not informed of Aquino-issued imports
The President was dumbfounded when he saw and read the import permits issued by Aquino the Friday ahead of his State Visit to the Middle East, a reliable Palace source said. “Bakit walang nagsabi sa akin nito (referring to the signed import permits)? (“Why didn’t anybody tell me anything about these?”)
In his speech before the Nueva Ecija farmers on April 6, the President boasted that he had fired an Undersecretary for approving rice imports at the time of the harvest season. “Anong mukha ihaharap ko sa inyo?” referring to the would-be arrival of the imports during the harvest season if Aquino did not stop them. The President may have to eat his words. Imported rice would be arriving soon during harvest time.
Based on the reaction of the President, it would seem likely that Aquino told the President only half the story. Behind Aquino’s blusters, it would appear that he too was supportive of the importation of rice by the private sector; it only depended on whom he was talking to.
Subsequent calls and text messages by this writer to both NFA Administrator and Atty. Manuel were not returned.