From one 'Pig' to another
CAESAR, my taxi driver, says he cannot bear to read or watch the news anymore. The content is too depressing and makes him angry. As he coaxes his battered old Mercedes up Lisbon’s cobbled hills, like a roller coaster car creaking to make the top of the ascent, he asks me where I’m from. “Ireland,” I say. “Ah, you know they call us the Pigs [Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain] in Brussels.”
We compare notes on our countries’ bailout prospects, while Caesar says he cannot get a loan from the banks to buy a new taxi. His taxes have risen and his income is down. “The politicians live like kings,” he says, “They have drivers and mobile phones that we pay for. I think they have forgotten how real people live.”
Sound familiar? On the surface, it appears as if everything is normal in Lisbon, a patient and pretty capital city from where some of the greatest naval explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries set out for the unknown.
Even for mid-April, the city centre is bustling with tourists. The old trams which run through the city generally have standing-room only, and unlike the city centres of Dublin or Cork, there aren’t many “To Let” signs in the city’s commercial centre. The newspaper kiosks give the game away though, with headlines such as “Jobs for the boys” and “Ratings agency says bailout was necessary”.
The difficulties in Portugal are both financial and political, with the former spurring the collapse of the last government and an election called for June 5th. The country’s debt has spiralled in the past decade, while the economy saw growth levels too low to keep pace. Experts predict that Portugal may need up to €80 billion in a bailout, and there are fears that the country could enter a double-dip recession with spiralling unemployment.
The decision to apply for a bailout was welcomed by the EU – “This is a responsible move by the Portuguese government for the sake of economic stability in the country and in Europe,” said Olli Rehn, the European commission’s economic and monetary affairs commissioner. Yet not all Portuguese share his assessment and behind the calm facade and bustling tourist industry, anger is growing in Portugal.
This anger is being led by a new youth movement called Geraçao à Rasca, which in English translates as Precarious Generations. Its members claim they are determined to bring the message of the people offline and on to the streets. Overlooking the Avenida Da Liberdade, two leading members of the movement, Paula Gil (26) and Joao Labrincha (27) both look exhausted after a long day of media appointments.
They are tailed by a TV documentary team who have followed their story since their organisation was formed online and gained national recognition. Those young who are left in Portugal are determined to have their say in how the country is shaped in the years ahead, and their movement is now beginning to gain appeal far outside their demographic.
Labrincha explains: “This was a protest that started in some conversations we had with our friends and families. We created an event on Facebook, and two days later we had people getting in contact. Within a week we had 70,000 members and then we took part in a protest on March 12th all over Portugal and abroad. We had over 400,000 people, young and old, come out onto the streets.”
As we look down on the Avenida where one of the protests took place, Gil tells me that it was the largest mass public demonstration since the overthrow of the dictatorship in the mid-1970s. “I have never seen anything like it. It was full of creativity and very emotional. People were crying in the streets. They had many posters, some referring to the struggles in the 1970s.”
Greater numbers of people are expected to take to the streets on April 25th, the day when Portugal annually celebrates the birth of its democracy. One of the main issues is the lack of full-time contracts for young workers entering the workforce, as well as corruption in political life.
The protestors are not unaware of the wider European issues, including the Irish situation. “We know that Irish people have got in touch and told us to stand strong against the IMF,” says Gil, “I don’t think Ireland is in a better situation now than before the IMF came in. The debt will always be there until you pay . . . I had hoped that the Portuguese would stand up to the IMF, but that isn’t the case.”
As happened in Ireland, many in Portugal expect a strong electoral backlash against the government when elections take place on June 5th. Some are concerned that the country may become more polar and a swing to the hard left or right is possible. There is a certain nostalgia for the ideologies of the 1970s. The more the EU pushes their solution on Portugal, the more sections of society are likely to recoil.
“The problem I think is that the solution cannot be the same as we have been doing until now,” says Joao. “What we are doing is just giving medicine to someone with a disease, but it is only medicine for the symptoms. We are not treating the disease.”
Journalist Susana Moreira Marques says that many of the songs and slogans being used by the new youth movement are from the 1970s and that the extent to which the youth movement has gained popular support has been more akin to Egypt than Greece or Ireland.
“There is a feeling that as a small country we don’t have much to say. People feel we are being told what to do by the big shots. We are the poor cousin and we have to toe the line with the rich union. A big problem, which I have heard from Ireland, also, is the idea that with the European Union, a few get to say what the others must do.”
Back on the streets, and by mid-afternoon, many riverside benches are taken up with locals enjoying the hazy sun. “People are very pessimistic here, I think it is a fatalistic southern European thing of ‘oh my God, we are all doomed’,” says Marques. “But then, it is almost summer and it’s not so bad. I have this theory they waited until spring to apply for the bailout.”
Like Ireland, Portugal may be financially broken, but there is something slightly more palatable about being bailed out when the sun is shining and a new generation are taking to the streets.
‘We are witnessing a government and state selling out ’
ALEX SOUSE CARVALHO
“The media have tried to make comparisons to what is happening here in Portugal with Greece and Ireland and to so some extent to Iceland. I think while we all know that the reason for the IMF in Portugal is different, the results might be the same.
“We cannot expect to pay the debt if we are in economic recession. That is something civil society has to emerge from and then have that debate. We’re witnessing a regression going back to 19th century labour rights. We have the most-qualified generation in history, but there is a gap between what they expect and demand and what is being secured by the state. We are witnessing a government and state selling out to external intervention.”
“With regards the EU/IMF bailout, it was bound to happen and should have happened sooner. There are many people – politicians and others – sucking the state for money for years and years, so it does not come as a surprise.
“We have been living on credit for a long time. Basically since I was young, I hear the word ‘crisis’ almost every day. People are angry but the feeling is there is no alternative. Portugal needs new parties and new ideas based on happiness instead of greed. With the bailout, the poor and middle-class people will be even poorer and the rich will get richer. So will the banks and the insurance companies, as always. There is a feeling that politicians have failed the people and that corruption and lack of control of waste of public funds is everywhere.
“On the anniversary of the revolution on April 25th, there will be many protests, I am sure.”