THE first significant group ever to come out in the open for Mar Roxas’ presidential quest, a report said, came from the so-called “Sugar Bloc.” This means the nabobs of the sugar industry (if you can realistically call them that now, with the industry on its death throes), who wielded extraordinary political power during the pre-martial law years.
The report said that the sugar barons are ready to flex their muscles once more – out of nostalgia perhaps – to make their favored candidate the next president. Their effort carried a tacit admission that their once-formidable power to anoint presidents of the republic is gone and they have to recapture that in 2016 via a full-throated support for Mr. Roxas. That silent admission is true and no voter 45 years or younger has ever heard of a powerful political force called the “Sugar Bloc.”
But here is the truth. Should one stretch the meaning of “Sugar Bloc” a bit and include presidents with connections to sugar planting or milling, or presidents with roots planted in provinces identified with the sugar industry, then we can truly say that they have never left Malacanang. Technically, the “Sugar Bloc” has never been out of power.
Let us look at the last 15 years.
The most raucous celebrations after EDSA Dos climaxed into Mrs. Arroyo’s assumption of the presidency came from two areas: Negros Occidental and Pampanga. Not only are the two the home provinces of Mike and Gloria Arroyo, respectively. They are the two Philippine provinces most identified with sugar raising, sugar culture and sugar milling. Mike Arroyo’s family owns sugar plantations in Negros.
The late former President Diosdado Macapagal was born poor in Lubao, in an enclave of tuberculosis-stricken people. But after he topped the Philippine Bar and showed promise in the political field, his first political forays were enthusiastically supported by the sugar planters of the province – at a time when they were truly the major economic force there. Cong Dadong , by which the former president was known, did not seek them out. It was the planters who attached themselves to a rising political star.
Negros Occidental and Pampanga share common surnames: Guanzon, Dizon, Lacson, Gamboa and a lot more. And there is a 99 percent likelihood that these families, whether based in Negros or Pampanga, have been engaged or are still engaged in sugar raising or in an economic activity related to sugar. It is not unusual that a cabinet member from Negros (Rafael Alunan) is first cousin to the actors from Pampanga (the Rodriguez brothers). And that the Negros side and the Pampanga side are both landowning families.
It is not unusual for one branch of a sugar-planting family from Porac, Pampanga to migrate to Negros. And for one of the sons of that family to smoothly transition into mayor of the premier city (former Mayor Ray Dizon of Bacolod City).
You cannot take away the word “sugar” from the roots and life history of Mrs. Arroyo.
Mr. Aquino’s ties to sugar need no explanation. Even the present generation is aware of Hacienda Luisita. Before the decision to redistribute the land, Hacienda Luisita was the most valuable piece of real estate devoted to sugar. A contiguous area of over 6,000 hectares in a strategic spot of the central plains with a frontage so vast that it spills along the national highway, it was – and still is – a developers’ dream.
Central Azucarera de Tarlac, the milling complex just off the national road, was – and still is – the premier sugar milling entity in North and Central Luzon. It has a golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones. Plantation luxury is synonymous with the complex – even after the lapse of the Laurel-Langley agreement and the sugar sector’s fall into disgrace.
The foundation of the family wealth of the Cojuangcos was sugar. And at one point in his life, Mr. Aquino was involved in the hacienda business.
So, it was, indeed, surprising for the sugar barons not to acknowledge the deep and lasting connection of both Mrs. Arroyo and Mr. Aquino to sugar. What could be behind that deliberate omission?
Over the last 15 years, sugar industry issues have been a peripheral concern at the higher echelons of policy-making. As sugar’s share of the national economy dropped to a level of insignificance, so did the attention of policy-makers to sugar-related issues. Mrs. Arroyo and Mr. Aquino took no extraordinary steps to protect sugar from the vagaries of global trade and the WTO diktats.
The appointment of the SRA head was a perfunctory, minor appointment, unlike in the old times.
The present-day sugar barons are looking for a champion, or, at the very least, a president who will look after the needs of the sector, from production support to protection from externalities. Maybe a president who can put up one major bank dedicated to sugar crops loans. Just like in the good old days when three or four banks catered to the sector’s needs.
But there is a problem with nostalgic trips. The barons have no political muscle to flex and they are, as the numbers say, probably betting on the wrong horse.