April returns to Portugal

Massive social unrest is leading to protest marches in the country

Antonio Jiménez Barca
A mural reading "Medium wage = €475."
A mural reading "Medium wage = €475."REUTERS

On a hilltop along the border between the Portuguese regions of Algarve and Alentejo, there is a small village whose name seems terribly symbolic for the country these days: Purgatório. The town has a tavern that doubles as a general store, several farming warehouses, a tired old man leaning against a walking stick, some cropland and a gas station. The gas station attendant, Ana Encarnação Rybak, stops tending to the geraniums to sum up the story of her wandering life in just one sentence: "I am 48 years old, I was born here but I lived France and Tunisia before coming back." Then she shakes her head to make it clear that things in Purgatório are bad, very bad, and provides a practical lesson in something that the economists of the troika (the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank) pompously refer to as "a collapse of consumer spending."

"I've been asked several times for seven euros' worth of gas, even five euros... but the other day a neighbor came and bought 1.75 euros' worth of gas for the car. That's the record. For now."

The tired old man with the cane suddenly hoves into view, striding resolutely down the street to join the conversation as soon as possible - the Portuguese like to talk - and explains the origin of the town's name: "Many years ago the village women called it that because they had to wait a long time for their men to return from the tavern."

He then confesses that he is the owner of the gas station and the tavern, that his name is José Cabrito and that he is 85 years old. Cabrito admits that Purgatório is a good name for the village, for the region, and for the country as a whole: "Yes, the truth is we're doing badly. We're moving backwards."

The other day a neighbor bought €1.75 of gas. That's the record. For now"

The old man is right. Portugal is retreating, moving back at increasingly quicker speeds. In the last quarter of 2012 it recorded a GDP contraction of 3.8 percent, the worst economic figure since the turbulent year of 1975. Unemployment is above 18 percent; an unheard-of rate. Over two and a half million people, representing 24.4 percent of the population, are listed as living in poverty according to the latest study by the charity Cáritas. But the real figure is likely to be higher, since that study was published in 2011, before the truly troubled years began.

The lower class is dragging itself along, and the middle class is being stifled by successive waves of budget cuts and brutal tax hikes in a country where the average salary is around 850 euros, and minimum wage is not quite 500. Old forgotten forms of penury are making a comeback: there are children whose sole dinner is the tupperware of soup that the school gives them, because their parents have no money for food. People are risking not going to the doctor because the emergency room costs 20 euros; there are discount checks for just about every kind of product, and people are addicted to a homegrown lottery called A Raspadinha, which promises the chance of winning a year's wages for just one euro a ticket.

There is a highway going south to Algarve, the A-22, which the government turned into a turnpike in December 2011 in an effort to raise funds. It is a modern, safe, fast road, but it is always deserted because nobody is willing to pay to drive on it; just a few kilometers south is the national road 125 - with just one lane in each direction - which runs parallel to the A-22. Since December 2011 this road has been jam-packed, and driving on it feels like a trip back in time: there are dangerous overtakings, accidents, fruit stands along the curb, and long lines of cars inching along behind spluttering trucks. One need only conjure up images of the absurdly deserted highway nearby to get a sense of the true dimension and bizarre cruelty of this economic crisis.

"At the last protest march in Oporto, I saw mostly perplexity and fear," says journalist Carlos Magno, who is the current president of the Board of the Regulating Authority for the Media. But besides fear and poverty (and the fear of poverty), there is something else in the air as well: a slow, peaceful yet firm feeling of revolution, very Portuguese in nature, and symbolized for the last few months by the old song of the Carnation Revolution that overturned the dictatorship in 1974: Grândola, Vila Morena.

At the last protest march in Oporto, I saw mostly perplexity and fear"

There is yet another emblem of this quiet revolution: Que se Lixe a Troika (Screw the Troika), a grassroots group born out of civil society, with no ties to political parties and that acts as a conduit for widespread discontent. The movement was created late last summer by a group of friends who didn't have a loudspeaker between them. Even now, there are no more than 120 of them in all, yet they comprise a pretty faithful portrait of Portuguese society and its feelings of disbelief, anger and panic at the realization that with each passing day, they are a little worse off than the day before. They are actresses, doctors, teachers, nurses, dockers, self-employed workers and people out of a job. Thanks to Facebook and their own power as a catalyst, they organized the two largest marches in Portugal since 1974, one on September 15 of last year and the other on March 2. Que se Lixe a Troika also promises to join (though not organize) the march held every April 25 to observe the fall of the Salazar dictatorship. A massive turnout is expected this year.

Grândola, Vila Morena is much more than a protest song. It was written in 1964 by the singer-songwriter José "Zeca" Afonso after a concert in the town of Grândola, as he drove back to Lisbon at night - he kept humming it to himself to avoid falling asleep at the wheel. Nearly 10 years after that, it became the password that military captains involved in the coup against Salazar used to let one another know that the time had come: at 12:30am, it played on the station Rádio Renascença, and the revolutionaries moved into action. It was an unlikely, non-violent uprising with a happy ending, and there was something surreal about it, too: a laborer riding on his tractor early in the morning who came across the rebel column of armored vehicles on its way to take Lisbon exclaimed: "Three cheers for this - whatever it is!"

The Portuguese people took to the streets at that moment, risking their lives to provide a brave, exultant, necessary civilian support to the armed revolution. And Grândola, the protest song written by Zeca Afonso to thank a city for its warm welcome, and also to avoid killing himself during the drive home, then became the purest symbol of Portuguese contemporary history.

None of this is lost on Carlos Mendes, a famous singer in Portugal. This member of Que se Lixe a Troika is friendly, talkative, politically committed, and concerned about the future of his children and newborn grandson.

A protest outside the parliament building in Lisbon last year.
A protest outside the parliament building in Lisbon last year. REUTERS

"In April 1974 I thought we were definitively entering a new world," he says, speaking inside the store full of paintings, furniture and oddities that his wife operates in Lisbon's Bairro Alto. "Afterwards, it's possible that the people of my generation let ourselves get carried away a bit, thinking that life was solved. And it isn't. At age 65, I am realizing that it isn't, that nothing has been conquered; or that we have to conquer it all over again."

Two months ago, Mendes and other members of the collective had the idea of walking into the nation's parliament disguised as spectators who were interested in the biweekly political debate; halfway through the session, they all got up and delivered a harmonious rendition of Grândola, Vila Morena. The conservative prime minister, Pedro Passos Coelho, who was addressing the assembly at the time, smiled and waited politely for the song to end. For the first time, the emblem song of the Carnation Revolution was being heard inside the halls of Congress, as a rebuke to the government in power. The video of that event spread like wildfire and inspired new forms of guerrilla-type protests using the same soundtrack. Ministers were faced with it at press conferences, institutional visits were punctuated by it. The press came up with a clever name: the grândolada.

One of the most famous lines in the song ("It's the people who are in charge") was written on the placard carried by the frontline protesters of March 2, when Lisbon was overtaken by hundreds of thousands of people of all ages (some newspapers talked about a million marchers) who advanced through the heart of the city in near silence.

"It was a strange, sad kind of protest. It was bitter. There were not as many insults as there was silence. But government officials need to take that sadness into account, because it is not a sign of resignation. There is no despondency in someone who takes to the streets, just contained rage. And that could blow up at any moment," says Paula Nunes, a 45-year-old producer who belongs to Que se Lixe a Troika.

In April 1974 I thought we were definitively entering a new world"

In an article published the next day, Mário Soares, former president of the republic and former prime minister, as well as a leading light of Portugal's historical left, agreed with the activist: "The government should resign now that the people are still calm; they should do it before the people become furious."

One of the protesters out that day was Belandina Vaz, a history teacher at a public high school. She is a clear case of how the austerity measures are eroding the middle classes. In 2009 she was earning 1,020 euros a month and she had two bonus payments. Now she only makes 920 euros a month and has no extra pay at all, after the government decided to cut back on civil service salaries and pensions.

"I was never able to have children because I never had any stability, I was always jumping from one contract to the next, I was always a substitute. But now I am 40 and this is my situation, and it's only going to get worse," she says.

It's not hard to understand why: the government has axed nearly 25,000 teaching positions, which means, among other things, no more support teachers for students with special learning needs. And the Education Ministry is fully expected to be affected by an additional cut of four billion euros imposed by the troika, to be implemented over the course of three years.

There is another emblem of Portugal's quiet revolution: "Screw the Troika"

"We will go back to an elitist school system that will encourage even more inequality, where self-sufficient students or those with parents who can help their children out will get ahead. The others will be left by the wayside," explains Miguel Reis bitterly. This 34-year-old high school teacher is out of a job and in a few months his unemployment checks will run out. After that, he is unsure what to do.

Both teachers belong to the original core group that formed Que se Lixe a Troika, which they define as a popular but not populist movement; nobody knows who the other members vote for, and the movement neither despises nor excludes political parties.

"Above all, we are against things: we are against a debt that we teachers and doctors and pensioners did not create - a debt that we have to pay back, and that we are paying back every day. Because that bailout, that request for a bailout, it was no help; to me, it was just theft," says Belandina Vaz.

On April 6, 2011, at 8pm, in an urgent and improvised press conference, then-Prime Minister José Sócrates, a Socialist, solemnly requested a financial bailout. The public deficit of 2009 and 2010 had soared above 10 percent and the ghost of bankruptcy forced Sócrates to yield, bow his head and ask for money. The troika granted Portugal 78 billion euros in exchange for a set of conditions aimed at curbing public spending.

The longer this government stays, the lower my payoff: It's them or me"

Two months later, the conservative Passos Coelho won the general elections. Since then, he has ruled under pressure from all sides: from the country's creditors with their demands, and from a growing tide of citizens who keep losing their rights and their quality of life. The government's strategy has been based on restoring market confidence (mission accomplished: in January, Portugal successfully issued long-term bonds and yields keep falling); on distancing itself from the Greek chaos (accomplished: Portugal, a politically stable country, is normally compared with Ireland by Brussels); on playing the part of the good student who does his homework without complaining (accomplished: Germany has nothing but praise for Portuguese dedication to the cause), and on weathering the austerity storm while the figures finally add up - the troika's figures, that is.

But the figures are not adding up. In late 2011, Finance Minister Vítor Gaspar announced that within the year the economy would start to grow. A year later, the destructive cyclone of recession is eliminating more jobs in a shorter time than when the minister was making his forecast. In fact, the deficit target has moved twice already since then. In 2011 it was set at three percent for 2013. In 2012 it was raised to 4.5 percent, and a month ago it went up again to 5.5 percent. The country is like an athlete in a nightmare, running towards a finish line that keeps getting more distant. And the big figures that don't add up have an impact on the small accounts.

In the city of Grândola, an elderly couple stands near the auditorium where Zeca Afonso once performed. They are Custodio Pereira, 86, and María Elisa, 81, retired peasants who receive a little over 500 euros a month between the two of them. They go inside the old headquarters of the Portuguese Communist Party to pay their fees. There is a linotype from the days of Salazar decorating the premises, and a portrait of Lenin on the right-hand wall. The bar is spotless and topped with glasses holding red carnations. The place has a sad air of defeat and dereliction about it. Enlarged and deformed by his glasses, Custodio's eyes have a weary look in them; his wife speaks up to save him the bother: "This is miserable."

In Lisbon, right next to the historic maternity ward Alfredo da Costa (which faces closure) physician Inês Pintasilgo, 25, says she knows one patient with ulcers on his calves who no longer comes to the dermatology unit because he has been denied the ambulance trip to the hospital as part of the cost-cutting measures; now he runs the risk of amputation. She also asserts that there are patients who choose cheaper drugs for diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, which simply means fewer months of life or fewer months with an acceptable quality of life. She also mentions the case of a woman whose seven-year-old daughter has cerebral palsy, and who sleeps with the child on her chest every night because the hospital has no money to buy her an oxygen meter to alert her if the girl is suffocating.

One patient risks amputation because the ambulance no longer comes for him

In the port of Lisbon, at the foot of the monstrous piles of containers and just a stone's throw away from the April 25 bridge, António Mariano is also doing his own math. After the seventh troika visit to Portugal, the government has accepted reducing compensation for layoffs to 12 days per year worked in some cases. Mariano has been working as a docker since 1983, and now he is in charge of overseeing the containers that come in and out of port. This 54-year-old unionist knows that he stands a good chance of getting fired. That is why he joined Que se Lixe a Troika, to force a change in government. To him, it's a case of survival.

"Before the troika got here, a laid off worker was entitled to 30 days' pay per year worked. Then it went down to 20 days. Now it's 12. The longer this government takes to leave, the lower my compensation will be. It's them or me."

On March 2, the massive, silent demonstration ended at the beautiful Terreiro do Paço square, which opens on the Tagus estuary. It was 6:30pm and dusk was beginning to fall, albeit slowly, like everything in Lisbon. At that moment, the entire multitude, including many youngsters who only saw the Carnation Revolution on TV documentaries and older folks who were personally there, began singing Grândola, Vila Morena.

To some, it was a cry of helplessness, of pure despair and nostalgia. To others, it was a gesture that demanded back the freedom and democracy that are being taken away by powers that never submit to elections. Yet others saw in it a nation paradoxically turning to a magical song from the past in order to put the future back in its place and stop watching the clock turn back.

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