Portuguese protest austerity

In Lisbon, Oporto and at least 18 other Portuguese cities on Saturday, hundreds of thousands of workers, students, pensioners and others marched against the right-wing government of Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho and his enablers in the “Troika” of the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund. The marchers were demanding an end to policies of austerity, privatization and “labor flexibilization” that are being imposed on the Portuguese people by their own ruling class, by the Troika and by international monopoly capital.

The demonstrations were strongly boosted by the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers, which is close to the Portuguese Communist Party, but attracted millions of unaffiliated people also. One popular slogan was short and to the point: “Screw the Troika” (Que se Lixa a Troika). Another was poetic: Many people wore carnations in commemoration of the “Carnation Revolution” of 1974, which brought down the Salazar-Caetano dictatorship.

But perhaps the one that most shook the government was musical: The sound of hundreds of thousands of people singing the ballad “Grandola vila Morena” (Grandola, you Dark Town). This song, written by the leftist songwriter Zeca Afonso,, refers, on the surface, to the fraternity and solidarity of the inhabitants of the town of Grandola, in the Alentejo region of Southern Portugal. But its symbolism is stronger: The playing of this song on the radio was the signal for the uprising of young military officers and others in 1974 that brought the Carnation Revolution into the streets. By singing Grandola, the people of Portugal are saying to their reactionary government that the revolution of 1974 might be repeated.

Portugal is in terrible shape economically, but the nostrums employed by Mr. Passos Cuelho at the behest of the Troika (and in exchange for a 2011 bailout of $102 billion) are clearly making things worse. He has laid off state workers and cut public services to the bone, while sharply raising taxes. This has caused a vicious cycle of more cuts and economic shrinkage. When asked what people who find themselves permanently unemployed should do, the best he has been able to do is to recommend they move to some other country.

Insult has been added to injury by a new policy, designed to catch tax evaders, which requires all consumers to keep and make available receipts for all purchases, no matter how trivial. The way the Portuguese people are dealing with this bit of bureaucratic nonsense is to put the name and tax ID number of Prime Minister Passos Coelho on the receipts, with the idea that this would show him as having expenditures far beyond what he declares on his own taxes, with the hoped for result of triggering a nasty audit of the prime minister’s own personal taxes.

There have been street protests against the neo-liberal austerity and privatization programs for several years now, but the government continues to pile on more anti-people measures. The latest is a labor reform which reduces to 12 days (from the previous 30) the period during which an employer has to pay a worker he or she fires unjustifiably. This is a typical measure of labor “flexibilization” which is somehow supposed to reduce the unemployment rate, which currently stands at 17 percent of the workforce. It was strongly protested in the Portuguese parliament by a deputy from the Portuguese Communist Party, Jorge Machado, who said “Facilitating firing will not solve any problem; facilitating firing will only create more unemployment and help to replace workers with rights by workers without rights and, in this manner, increase the exploitation of people who work.”

The Portuguese Communist Party and other left and labor groups promise the demonstrations will continue.

Photo: Portugal demonstrators protest austerity measures.   Francisco Sero/AP


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.