Portugal: Still waiting for better days
22 March 2012
On March 12, 2011, João, Alexandre and Paula helped organise a massive demonstration against job insecurity and unemployment. A year later, with the country once more in the grip of a general strike, their situation hasn’t got better. Excerpts.
Little if anything has changed in Lisbon’s historic Alfama district in the year since. That’s where Alexander, Paula and João organised the marches that shook up the early spring of 2011 and drew nearly half a million people into the streets – protests that would go down in history as the “March of the Desperate Generation”. Certainly, their personal lives have seen some changes, and the country is no longer exactly the same either.
The tallest of these three friends has a bohemian look and a sense of irony on the tip of his tongue. Alexandre de Sousa Carvalho, 27, seems unimpressed with his life following March 12, 2011. “What has changed in my life? I have more friends on Facebook and, for a week, I was a celebrity,” he sums up with a sip at his beer, cigarette in hand.
Two months ago he stopped receiving the 900 euros of his fellowship and had to give up the studio where he lived alone in Lisbon. “I sleep in a room with no furniture in an apartment that I share with eight people I don’t know in the slightest.” He is waiting patiently for the money for his Doctoral Fellowship to arrive. Alexandre’s thesis is in African Studies, on power-sharing in Zimbabwe and Kenya.
Liberating breath of the Arab Spring
Paula Gil, 26, who seems the most timid of the trio, but certainly no less combative than either of them, has just had a bumpy, roller-coaster ride of a year. After completing an internship in an NGO she found herself unemployed (without benefits), and then landed administrative and secretarial work. She was paid very modestly and in fake “green receipts”. These receipts, designed in theory to compensate the self-employed, have become a symbol of job insecurity in Portugal. Her situation could have been better – but it could have been worse. “I’ve been paying my way for ten years,” says the young woman.
Worse would be unemployment. That’s the story of João Labrincha, 28, who lives without any state subsidies. He does, though, have the unwavering support of his family. Despite the obstacles, he’s making his way in life. “I’ll find work soon. I’m preparing a project linked to citizenship.”
While the event that brought them together a year ago started out as non-partisan and secular and spoke to the hearts of all the unemployed, the “500-euros-a-month” workers, sub-contractors, interns, students with scholarships and temporary workers, it turned out to be something much more comprehensive, and is even becoming a case study for sociologists and political analysts.
The organisers are proud to have opened up a Pandora's box of social protest in Portugal, and even in Europe. “Except during the PREC (the ‘Ongoing Revolutionary Process’, the name given to the period of intense protests that began with the Carnation Revolution in 1974 and ended with the adoption of the constitution in 1976), “Portugal has never known such an eventful year.” After the ‘12M’ (May 12) came March 15, October 15, November 24 and January 21.
In 2011, João remembers, the dynamic was a little different, propelled by songs from the Portuguese band Deolinda (songs about the Geração parva, the “Foolish Generation”), the end of the Sócrates era, rising unemployment and even the liberating breath of the Arab Spring.
“I’ve already emigrated to England and Luxembourg”
“The next protests won’t necessarily have to come from the same mold,” insists João, and Paula agrees with him. Alexandre is less receptive to the idea. “It's not fair,” he says, “that it’s always the same ones who have to do all the work to start up a big event like the one on March 12. So stop waiting for the Messiah.”
Troika, cutbacks, unemployment: when Alexander, Paula and João hear these three words their blood boils. “Our politicians are just servants who do nothing but listen to their master’s voice – namely, Merkel and German bankers.” The Portuguese, the trio worry, are becoming “infantilised by technocrats”.
The movement’s detractors accuse it of being only “half a dozen 'Deolindo' radicals” who are protesting without having any concrete solutions to propose for the future. “Maybe we don’t know what we want,” they retort, “but we do know what we don’t want.”
Paula would like to continue working in Portugal and “to make a difference”. It’s not impossible, though, that she may eventually leave her country behind. “This won’t be anything new. I’ve already emigrated to England and Luxembourg.”
A year from now, Alexander would like to be in Kenya monitoring the elections in the country he is writing his doctoral thesis on. He doesn’t know if he’ll come home. “I want what everyone wants. I want my country to love me as much as I love her.”