Scandal and silence in Lisboa

Essay @ Precarious Europe, published 17 May 2015

I am often asked, in way of “how do you do” – so, what is happening in Portugal? Portugal, that ten and a half million strong nation on the sea, right in the butt of Spain, the place where Ibiza holidayers graduate to when they decide to retire. Portugal, where I was born and raised and gained political consciousness, the country I left at 18 attempting to escape what to me was a dull, depressing and oppressing reality.

Portugal has been riddled with austerity measures almost as drastic as those in Greece. Yet with less than five months until the next general election, a Portuguese version of Syriza seems to be nowhere in sight. Is it because the Portuguese are the “good student of Europe”? Is it because they are lazy? There is no one theory that can explain what is happening in Europe’s oldest nation-state. I thought of explaining the socio-economic and political circumstances of my “homeland” by way of anecdotes. The Portugal of my little flat in an old Lisbon neighbourhood and family dinners says more than IMF spreadsheets. I later discovered I was also explaining myself: my story, my life, my family, my adult decisions. Portugal had finally caught up with me.

‘The owner of all this’

My mother double-parks her car, sets the emergency lights blinking and tells me to wait. “Where is that woman?”, I hear her mutter as she closes the door and heads towards the local supermarket still fumbling through her bag. On the sidewalk in front of the supermarket entrance sits an eastern European woman begging. I can only see the back of her head, covered in a colourful scarf. She turns around as she hears my mother approaching and I glimpse a dark tanned face, aged early, eyes dampened with misery. Her skin is tough, parched and wrinkled but she cannot be older than 40. My mother crouches, handing over a couple of white boxes. The woman mouths several things I cannot hear from inside the car. My mother returns, turns the engine on and we are off again. “Paracetamol”, says mother, “she’s been complaining of headaches.”

Mother has always been a charitable person – something that used to upset me as a child, because she seemed to have more time for ailing old women than for me. The Catholicism she brought me up in was propelled by the principle of “love thy neighbour” more than any other commandment. For all that, I have never seen my mother help as many people as she has in the last few years. You see, this is austerity Portugal, of Dickensian poverty mingling with tourists and German state convoys, of young men sleeping rough under five star hotel delivery doors, of a middle-class looking woman coming up to me in downtown Lisbon, looking down in utter shame, asking for some cash.

First it is important to note that I can write this piece because I am privileged. Because of my family I could leave Lisbon before the 2008 crash. I might be one of over 30,000 Portuguese people living in Britain, but I didn’t move due to the staggering 34 per cent youth unemployment rate. I wasn’t forced to board a plane to Germany or Switzerland or Brazil, encouraged by the Portuguese political elite, whilst colleagues and friends cried on TV begging the government to find us jobs in our own towns. I remember a nurse being interviewed at Oporto airport in 2012 as he boarded a plane with 23 other colleagues, heading to full-time employment in England. “Don’t tax our tears”, he said, “let us cry and hate this country we’ve been expelled from.”

No, I am not an “austerity refugee”. In fact, my family has had a role to play in the suffering of the millions of Portuguese workers now without jobs, of a generation lost to precarity and depression.

It’s August 2014 and granddad is looking down at his two breakfast kiwis on the hotel terrace. The sun burns my back and I avoid his eyes as I wait for him to speak. Finally, he begins talking about the scandal that engulfed my family – and the entire nation – that summer. “You see, it was me who led those initial investigations”, he says. Granddad spent his entire life in the banking sector. I am to this day still struggling to understand how, for all intents and purposes, he could not foresee what happened to the Banco Espírito Santo (BES) – Portugal’s biggest private bank to date. As the chairman of BES he was in the eye of the storm and our annual holiday in Madeira had been close to being cancelled plenty of times before we finally left. The bank was collapsing following the discovery that the head of the Espírito Santo family, and CEO of the group, Ricardo Salgado, had been involved in a tax evasion and money laundering scandal amounting to €3.6 billion in losses.

The fall of Banco Espírito Santo came as a shock to the nation. It’s not simple to explain why without understanding the reverence with which the Portuguese elite dealt with the Espírito Santo family. Ricardo Salgado was once coined “the owner of all this”, in reference to the large swathes of land across the country belonging to him and the clan. Since becoming chair of the board of BES, my granddad would often chew our ears with sycophantic odes to Salgado. “A brilliant man”, he would say, “a visionary”. Aunts and uncles and cousins galore – many in my family sang praise to the man who “rebuilt” BES after it had been taken over by the state during the 1974 Carnation Revolution. Their dismay as the scandal broke out was in tune with the rest of the country.

The case brought to light a series of dodgy deals between some of Portugal’s most revered institutions. Portugal Telecom – once a public enterprise – had invested a large sum into a BES holding company. The decision had been taken by no less than two of Salgado’s best mates, Zeinal Bava and Henrique Granadeiro, who were then at the helm. When the holding company went bankrupt, Portugal Telecom was left with the bill. This is only one example of dodgy deals between BES and other Portuguese companies led by some of the country’s most powerful families. Ricardo Salgado, once a not-so-backstage advisor to successive Portuguese governments, was in disgrace.

Today, everyone in Portugal knows that millions of euros worth of public money have been squandered by the country’s oligarchs, disappearing into pockets and offshore accounts. Never before had the case of the 99% been so easy to make on the streets of Lisbon. The scandals have seen a first opening to processes of accountability in Portugal, as the BPN bank investigation unraveled further cases looking into corruption and cronyism. The former Prime Minister José Socrates was arrested last November (for money laundering and tax avoidance), and there was even a very public humiliation of incumbent President Aníbal Cavaco Silva for being a major shareholder of another bankrupt Portuguese bank BPN. Yet, for all this, there has been no popular movement taking full advantage of this opening.

Why no movement?

When I returned to Lisbon for a flying visit last March I decided to do a lot of dog walks. I wanted to feel the streets. Mother lives a few minutes away from parliament so I walked Ragid the dog down the main road towards a small garden behind parliament and next to the official residence of the Portuguese prime minister. It was 8am on a Saturday morning. Not a single political poster in sight. Not a sticker. Nothing. The police officer outside the PM’s door was young and sleepy. He looked at me a couple of times but didn’t say a thing. We set off again towards São Bento’s Square in front of Parliament. No graffiti. No messages of hope or hate. Ragid and I moved onto a nearby university campus. If not here where else will I find political propaganda? But again my heart sank. I walked home with the black dog in tow.

A couple of days later I met with journalist and long-time political activist Nuno Ramos de Almeida. He had just left Portuguese daily “i” on sabbatical, to lead a new anti-capitalist project called AG!R (the Portuguese word for “to act”, with the exclamation point as part of its branding). I waited for Nuno outside an underground station and finally spotted some graffiti: “And when you lose your job? General strike 22 March”. It was followed by a pun on the Portuguese for “every man for himself”, urging people to save BES (ironically I presume). Nuno took me to the closest coffee shop. “You have to understand, the left in Portugal has always been much stronger than in Greece or Spain”, he said.

Indeed, due to the 1974 revolution, the Portuguese left has both a strong tradition and a significant role in mainstream politics to this day. Just compare the support for communist parties in Portugal and Greece over the last few decades. The Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) has always been ahead of the Greek Kommounistikó Kómma Elládas (KKE) by a few percentage points.

The hegemonic power of the orthodox, Stalinist tradition still has its hold on the Portuguese working class. In the last general elections, PCP won 14 seats in the 230 strong Assembly of the Republic (the official name of Portuguese parliament). Together with the Greens it forms an electoral coalition that is hard to budge. It’s control over the Portuguese Labour movement makes it hard for new aspiring forces of the left to make their mark.

AG!R launched earlier in March and is positioning itself on the same axis as the Spanish Podemos. “We want to return democracy to the people”, said Nuno. “The political camp of this initiative goes beyond the spectrum of left and right”. This aim to bring together more than the usual suspects is admirable but can it work? Nuno’s tone is jocular, as if taking it all too seriously would be a mistake. The left in Portugal is plagued by the usual sectarianism and petty quarrels.

The new left project of the late 1990s, the Left Bloc, has been leaking members for the last decade. In fact, it haemorrhaged severely during the first years of the financial crisis. In 2011 it signed its own political death sentence when it supported NATO’s intervention in Libya and joined in backing the Socialist Party presidential candidate, going against most of its voters’ wishes. To many, the Bloc has lost its Left side. Those who since then bid adieu to the Left Bloc can now be found interspersed across small anticapitalist projects, including AG!R.

Someone once joked I was “up for a Nobel Prize” after noticing how I am happy to engage with members of parties across the Portuguese left: Bloco’s MPs, former PCP leaders, the new eco-socialist party Livre, the rank-and-file of AG!R to name but a few examples. It’s easier for me, as I no longer live in the country. I have both all and little hope for the left. I want them to succeed, to take power, to mobilize Portuguese unemployed youths and oppressed black communities. I scour the internet, hoping to find political videos or other party promotion that can engage the thousands of people struggling every day to put bread on the table, the families where parents and children all have to share a bed, or the black communities whose young men and women suffer daily brutality at the hands of the police. A sign that, in short, there is still a banner to raise when we finally take to the streets.

When prodded about all this, Nuno tells me there is only so much a group like AG!R can do. I can see a glimpse of despair in his eyes, the look of someone who knows exactly the issues I am talking about but has no way to solve them either. It’s the blind leading the blind here.

I left him with a slight sense of relief. Perhaps it was better that I did not live in this godforsaken country, where responsibility for change would rest upon my shoulders. On landing in Heathrow a few days after that, I felt guilt but also a sense of cutting lose and being free. Being an émigré can be a blessing as much as a curse.

Hairdressers, taxi drivers, waiters, all will tell you how the BES affair, as well as many others now uncovered, is an outrage, but they will also shrug: “What is one going to do? They are the ones who rule.” Portuguese history is peppered with moments in which the people rose to overthrow the powers that be, but seemingly the very same families that held the reigns before return, like weeds, to take back their mansions and their businesses. Alongside them a few new names, mine included, that feed from the leftovers of exploitation. The country seems balanced on a fine line between rage and perseverance – much like my family has been divided between those who hang on to the status quo for their own benefit and those, like myself, who’ve shunned all that in favour of a life less parasitical.

There is a famous Portuguese song, by revolutionary singer-songwriter Sérgio Godinho which goes along the lines of: “here we keep going with our heads between our ears”. It is a great metaphor for Portuguese attitudes towards injustice and oppression: an unshakable feeling of acceptance, of resignation, whilst underneath the tension simmers. Until one day it boils over.

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