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Werewolf: Portugal weathers the recession

Portugal weathers the recession December IssueOriginal Article

by Gordon Campbell

Tuesday night in Lisbon had started out like an old murder mystery movie. I’d been told to take Tram 15 to the end of the line and he’d be waiting for me, in Alges. My contact would be Rui Araujo, the leading investigative journalist in Portugal. I’d wanted an insider’s view …on everything, and this was my best shot at getting it. Tram 15 stopped and I got off into gathering darkness in Alges, the streetlights blurred into misty cushions of light by the fog swirling in from the River Tagus. There he was, motorcycle helmet in hand. Like Portugal though, we weren’t going anywhere, fast.

As it turned out, Araujo proved to be an engaging and informative host. He chose a place to eat in an old haunt off the main drag. He wasn’t eating though, just drinking black coffee and steadily smoking his way through a pack of Rothmans. He’d been working all day and would be so again later that night. “My wife says that when I’m writing books, I am a bit mad,” he says wryly at one point, “I don’t live like anyone else.” He’ll eat later, at maybe 2 or 3am.

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A graduate of the Sorbonne, a Neiman Fellow in journalism at Harvard. Araujo was the first journalist allowed into East Timor after the 1975 Indonesian invasion, and has covered wars in Bosnia, Zaire, Angola, and Rwanda. Born to the job, it would seem. In his early teens, he began writing out copies of his own newspaper at school by hand, and selling them to his schoolmates. At 20 in Paris, he talked his way into a job in journalism with Radio France, and was soon doubling as the Paris correspondent for Portuguese public television. “The first day I decided to become a journalist,” he recalls, “ I got a job.” Times have changed a lot in the profession.

These days in fact, Araujo is a living example – or warning - of the commitment required to make a serious living out of journalism. It helps that he loves the work, because at 55, he has to run harder and harder to stay in the frame. He writes for Portuguese publications, sells scoops to local television, and works as a stringer for publications in France and for French TV stations. He has written non-fiction books about the Salazar dictatorship, the war in Timor and corruption in Portugal and is also something of an expert on the history and dealings in Europe of intelligence agencies, past and present.

In what passes for his spare time, he also writes thrillers with lurid titles like Lisbon Killer and Fatal Dame – for fun, and for his friends, he insists. The Portuguese don’t read thrillers. More Dashiell Hammett by nature than Raymond Chandler, he was less interested in the central ‘enigma’ for the story, than in the details of police procedure he could wrap around the package.

Ultimately, Araujo spent six months trailing around with the cops at murder scenes, observing what they said and did and how they felt about life, justice and killer dames. In order to write books that no-one much wanted to read. ‘Workaholic’ doesn’t even come close to describing it. Lately, Araujo has been applying to get into Afghanistan to cover that war. Like New Zealand, Portugal has just committed a detachment of special forces to the conflict.

We happen to be meeting at a significant time. Only a few days before, there were elections in Portugal that saw the ruling Socialists back in power, but as a minority government this time.. Despite the global recession, Portugal has not suffered the sort of catastrophic meltdown that has been so evident this year in Spain. If you can believe the official statistics, Portugal claims to have only nine per cent of its labour force out of work, which is about half the rate of its larger neighbour. Has the government done much to lessen the impact of the recession ?

This is a small country, Araujo replies, with an economy based mainly on services. It has no major industries, nothing comparable to the ones in Spain. As a result, the initial impact might seem less, but could last longer. “ When the crisis will be over in Europe, we will keep on having it,” Reason being, those larger economies have major industries that will bounce back again once the inevitable recovery finally arrives. Not so in Portugal.

In the past, he continues, Portugal could always rely on remittances from its immigrants overseas – from the people who had settled in the country’s former colonies, or in the United States, Australia, Canada or Brazil. However, such people are older now, and the migrant young seem less attached to Portugal. “The new generations of immigrants do not feel so much that they belong to this society anymore..”

Fortunately, some aspects of Portuguese society may always help to cushion the impact. Araujo takes another drag on one of Rothmans’ finest, and explains. “Since this is a small country, the ties between persons do not force us to experience the full panorama of the crisis. And so parents help the kids, and everybody has a parent in the countryside. To that extent, I think that in big societies, a crisis will represent more suffering than in a small society. In Portugal, people know their neighbours. It is not so impersonal. Here, there are no anonymous citizens.”

Portugal. A small country living in the shadow of a larger neighbour that it sneakingly envies, and yet resents. Sure of its own moral worth, but unsure whether the rest of the world might overlook its merits. Yes, there is quite a lot for a New Zealander to identify with about Portugal. That’s even before you start talking about an economy based around services, tourism, agriculture and fishing and on being a branch office for companies that have their headquarters, and their allegiances, elsewhere. Like Auckland, Lisbon is the centre of national prosperity, since it produces nearly 40 % of the country’s GDP.

One big contrast with New Zealand is that Portugal plays a key gateway role in the global drugs trade. The cocaine comes out of South America – some of it through the former Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau - and it then passes via Lisbon, into Europe. Similarly, hashish comes from nearby Morocco up through the Algarve in the south of the country, and onwards into Europe. It is a balance of sorts. Aid money flows into Portugal from the EU, while drugs go in the other direction.

History offers another point of difference. New Zealand has never rated on the world stage, but little Portugal – with barely more than twice our population - was once a global power. It still shows. There are a striking number of bookshops in Lisbon, many of them of extremely high quality. In the front windows and on prominent shelves, there are books upon books about the colonial experience in Angola, Timor and Guinea-Bissau. Someone must be buying, and reading, this stuff. There seems to be a similar literary fascination with the Salazar dictatorship, which ended in 1974, during the so called Carnation Revolution. Araujo is on the second volume of his book about espionage aspects of the Salazar years.

The history is also plain to see in the style of the public monuments. Walking around Lisbon, you can’t help but notice how much of the public sculpture has the pomp and outlandish scale of the imperially insecure. The Rua Augusta shopping boulevard downtown for instance, is framed triumphantly like a Roman victory colonnade. In north Lisbon, there is an eye-catching statue of the Marquis de Pombal, who saved Lisbon after it was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami in 1755. Pombal’s quote : ”What do we do now ? We bury the dead and feed the living” seems to have been typical of his can-do attitude. Today, his gigantic statue ( and its setting) comprise the sort of fascist architecture that only a Nazi could really love. All faded glory and quite attractive, now that time has filtered out the brutality.

Time really has taken its toll of the place. Lisbon appears to be collapsing slowly, yet into a very soulful state of decay. Listen to fado – the country’s plaintive form of the blues – and you don’t really need a translator to hear that the songs all seem to be about people going away and, despite all their promises, never coming back. While Spain can seem tormented by its distant and recent past, Lisbon just feels wistful, and seductively anguished. It seems that way even in Chiado and Bairro Alto, the vibrant, party-central parts of town. Tourists, of course, have time to think about this sort of nonsense. The locals just get on with it.

On paper, the election results that were confirmed last month in Portugal can be deceptive. Yes, against all the rightward trends in Europe, the ruling Socialists led by Jose Socrates won again, with 36 % of the vote - but they lost the commanding majority they won in 2005. Socrates would have fared even worse but for the fact that the leader of the main conservative party ( the Social Democrats) was an austere neo-liberal economist called Manuela Ferreira Freite who - recession or no recession - was promising to make major cuts in public sector spending. On the election trail, she made Roger Douglas look like Hugo Chavez - and her election gaffes will almost certainly cause the SD to dump her, and then select the sixth new leader they’ve had since 2004.

Socrates will welcome any sideshow he can get. Since 2005, his arrogance and authoritarian tendencies have become the stuff of legend. As one editorial writer in Lisbon laconically put it, post election : “Jose Socrates will have to learn how to conjugate verbs that have been rarely heard since 2005 : cede, negotiate, discuss. It is asking from him a transformation that no-one really believes he is capable of.”

Given the circumstances, it is not surprising that the Socialists are not taking any friends into government. By mid-October, the smaller parties to the left and the right had made it clear they were not interested in a coalition arrangement with the abrasive Socialist leader. From now on, Socrates will be able to pass laws only by negotiating deals, on a case by case basis, with his rivals. By and large, the business sector has seemed happy enough with that situation - given that the platform of the main coalition option on the left ( the so called Left Bloc that scored a sizeable 10 % of the vote ) was calling for the nationalization of large companies, and for the rollback of Socrates’ unpopular Blairist reforms in education, and in health.

The other grouping on the left – an alliance between the Greens and the Communists - would have been only marginally more palatable. To date neither the Greens nor the Communists have been able to project anything like the spunk that has come to characterize the Left Bloc, a much more radical and media savvy bunch of academics, Trotskyists, and ideological fellow travelers.

“We used to call the Left Bloc the caviar left, or the kids who didn’t grow up, ” Araujo muses. “ But at the same time we need them, because sometimes they say one or two things that are really important to hear. But I wouldn’t appreciate it if they went into power. I think that would be a mistake for them, and for the country.” In the shadow cast by the recession, the environment issues barely rated. “The Greens ? They exist but they don’t exist, if you know what I mean.”

Socrates has next to nothing in common with his rivals on the left. A product of the conservative wing of the Socialist Party, he formerly took pride in describing himself as “the Portuguese Tony Blair.” As such, he shares more ground on economic policy with his Social Democrat opponents – in much the same way that Helen Clark and Michael Cullen only tinkered with the neo-liberal economic settings that they inherited and – thanks to the serendipitous good times in the global economy – there were plenty of goodies to share around fairly. Socrates by contrast, is a liberal in a recession with no room to move.

Araujo is pessimistic about his chances of survival. “I doubt that Socrates will finish his mandate. He will be out of office before the end of the term..” Maybe so. The trick has been done successfully before though, if only once. Only one minority government has ever lasted its full term since the Salazar dictatorship ended in 1974, and that was the one led by the former Socialist prime minister, Antonio Guiterres, between 1995 and 1999.

Socrates may surprise everyone. What will come under immediate fire is his ambitious deficit spending programme for soaking up unemployment, and for saving the economy from going into cardiac arrest. This includes plans to spend 5 billion euros on a new Lisbon airport, 3 billion euros on a bullet train link to Spain and a further 1.7 billion euros on a road and rail bridge across the River Tagus at Lisbon. Unsurprisingly, the conservatives decry this as unsustainable, and bound to worsen the high levels of public debt.

For their part, the left parties should have little problem with deficit spending for such socially beneficial purposes. Yet they will be demanding penance from Socrates for his prior reforms, and a firm commitment not to rollback any further the nation’s labour laws - which are still relatively restrictive for business, even by EU standards.

To a New Zealander, this is very familiar. Creepily so. Portugal is facing its own variation on the challenges that minority governments routinely face, and John Key has just had to negotiate his way through on several fronts, from the ACC changes to the Rugby World Cup. The real contrast is on social issues. In Portugal, these issues burn far more brightly, and the players seem more polarized than in New Zealand.

The Left Bloc for instance – on gay marriage, its nationalisation plans and foreign policy - is far more radical than the Alliance ever was, and it has made major inroads among voters since 2005 at the Socialists’ expense, while overtaking the Communist/Green coalition as well. Basically, the Left Bloc functions as an umbrella group of activist groups that retain their own identity. Ever since forming in 1999, it has been at the forefront of social debate. It proposed the country’s first law on domestic violence, and its programme ranges from ecological issues to anti-bullfighting laws. Mainly because the leadership is so dynamic and media smart, the Left Bloc is popular among young voters and has been far more effective at mobilizing them than our own Greens - for instance - have ever managed to be.

On the right, Leite reminded me strongly of Ruth Richardson, another sloganeering neo-liberal with zero political charm. Further to her right, stands a reactionary counterpart to New Zealand First in the shape of the CDS – Peoples’ Party, an anti-abortion, anti-immigrant party of long standing. In the recent elections, the Peoples’ Party gained ground, regaining its place as the country’s third biggest political party. It could become a major factor if Socrates should ever stumble, and give the Social Democrats a chance to form a government.

Fact of political life : for all their apparent rivalry, the Socialists and the Social Democrats have more in common with each other on the economy, than they do with the minor parties on their own side of the ideological fence. Nothing new in that. Look at the Republicans and Democrats in the US, Labour and the Conservatives in the UK, National and Labour here at home. Corporatism rules the world.

“ In Portugal we call it the centrao, “ Araujo says. “The central. The Socialist Party today is in power, but in reality, the SP is sharing [economic] power with the SD and tomorrow the SD will share it with the SP. They will not make trouble, real trouble by going, really going with the other guys. Because tomorrow, they know they will have the power.”

The political faces and social policy may change. Yet here in Lisbon, as in Wellington, the centrao will endure. ENDS

Photos of Rui Araujo by Rose O'Connor


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