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23 April 2012

A Postcard from Portugal

After 7 months in Luxembourg, where my professional carer has been successfully relaunched, I returned to Portugal for this Easter. It was a time to review family and many friends, to rest and see a bit more of a country that can have many good experiences to offer. I brought back mixed feelings, while it is always pleasing to return home, the contact on the flesh with the present social context was rather depressing. Portugal has changed a lot these past months, the crisis has installed itself and spread like the plague. Most folk are being hit one way or the other and families that seemed to be in a comfortable situation when I left are now facing daunting difficulties. This text is a postcard from my visit to Portugal. It has no real photos, like a black and white documentary about war, I prefer using words to paint an hideous scenery.

The first shock I took was immediately in the way from the airport to home. Since I had a few visits to make the following week I decided to buy a 10 trip train ticket, to go to Lisbon and back, about 20 Km each way. 19 €, said the automatic sales machine. In Luxembourg I pay 12 € for a 10 trip multi-modal ticket, allowing me to go wherever I want during 2 hours. Days later, a small 3 Km trip on bus cost me 2,2 €, about 1 € more than in Luxembourg. A monthly full-mode pass for the whole of Luxembourg can be bought for 48 € (480 € for an yearly pass); for a 3 mode pass, that only permits travelling inside the metropolitan area of Lisbon, my sister is paying almost 80 € per month, well over 15% of the minimum wage. And the ridicule came with a trip to Évora, a lovely city 100 km from my mother's place. The only train available is the intercity (the high speed trains only travel by the coast); even so the round trip ticket cost 22 € (including an on-line purchase discount). In comparison, I'll be making a trip in France on the TGV, which for 20€ will take me 300 km away. The transport policy in Portugal seems to be one deterring citizens from using mass transit.

Just two days after my arrival diesel crossed the psychological barrier of 1.5 €/litre. While the government is barring access to mass transit, international oil prices are barring access to individual transportation. Mobility has suddenly become an huge issue. For someone earning the minimum wage, the daily commute from the outskirts to the city centre now calls for deep consideration, the expenses related to the round trip and eating in the city centre, bring the question if staying at home isn't more profitable. On longer range travelling, the introduction of high tolls on all high-ways is also changing things fast. A car travelling on a high-way now imposes higher costs on tolls that on fuel, rendering high-ways inaccessible to a lot of folk. I went to the mountains where my father was born for the Easter festivities; as one gets way from Lisbon the traffic in highways simply dies off, it is like driving in the desert. This decline in traffic has greatly reduced the income of high-way managing companies, forcing the government to fill the gap; just one small example of the contradictions of the so called aid package.

This Easter there was about half of the folk that usually flows to my father's home village for the occasion, and the vast majority were retirees. It was a depressing vision. This lost Mobility is killing the internal tourism, that had previously provided a flow of monies to rural areas, supporting a few vital jobs. It is all dying pretty fast, accelerating desertification.

In March one of the shocking marks of Austerity was revealed with a 20% jump in the mortality rate. Authorities were swift in attributing this to the flu, despite the fact of this disease being there also last year. Though rates on State health services have been doubled, the real problem is that the elderly folk living in rural areas cannot afford the voyages to the hospital any more. Small proximity services have been progressively closed down, centralising the health system in larger population centres. With the Mobility issues I described above this has rendered the State health system inaccessible to a relevant stripe of the population.

Another visible difference in Portugal is the proliferation of urban gardens. Especially in the suburbs they are popping everywhere, occupying most vacant fields, private or public. It is something unregulated and completely outside of the law, basically the illegal occupation of property. But law never was something that serious in Portugal, and in the end these are poor gardeners. When I was a child it was also like this around the suburbs where I grew up, in the south margin of the Tagus; at that time every garden even had its own water well. These assorted and disorganised gardens, enclosed by high rises, railway lines or free-ways, paint again a third world like landscape that had been relegated to the back ends of my memory.

In another Transition Towns initiative the Portuguese way, two Municipalities in the region of Alentejo Elvas and Évora have sliced public properties into family gardens, available for very low rates to poor families. This is something that has for long existed in Luxembourg, for instance. But while here these family gardens are means for folk to be in contact with nature and produce healthy food, in Portugal they are a reflex of an ailing State. These new family gardens are the last thing institutions can offer to families that lost their jobs and ran out of unemployment support; subsistence agriculture is now all the State can offer to them. As an aside, the real Transition Towns movement is expanding faster than ever, presently with 6 initiatives in as many cities. Now more than ever folk look for community solutions to a desperate situation. It may not provide much hope on a high-tech future, but at least it can build or re-build local socio-economic networks that are a wealth of their own.

There other consequences of the austerity policy that are not so visible. Public servants have seen their salaries cut in 25% since 2010, but the government has been insisting that such cuts would never spread to the private sector. In practice things have been somewhat different, many companies and business are facing serious reductions of income and the money to pay salaries simply isn't there. Some employers have seen the number of yearly salaries reduced from 14 to 13 or 12; in extreme cases salaries have simply been suspended. This is something much worse than unemployment, officially the individual has a job and goes to work every day, but doesn't get paid; it is an agony between sticking to an ailing business or facing unemployment and by the end of the month choosing between food and mortgage. Obviously there are no statistics on these cases, though it implies that the official 14% unemployment rate is far from revealing the real dimension of the crisis.

Among my circle of friends I have known further scary stories, businesses are simply closing overnight. More than once I heard of a small business owners gathering employees just to tell them to stay at home from the next day onwards. Small enterprises can swiftly become a liability when the cash flow founders below certain levels and investors have no other way than to close shop. The services sector seems to be the most affected by these flash bankruptcies, but the slowdown is rather general. This is reflected in record reductions in energy consumption, both on electricity, as I previously reported, but also on road fuels. The latter have already fell 20% from 2006 to 2011, and are on track to reduce further 7% this year.

Larger companies are also facing difficulties though dealing with them in a different fashion. The reform of the labour market has visibly simplified things but at this stage it is especially useful to fire employees. Someone needed today maybe sent to unemployment three months from now, just to be re-hired somewhat later, likely for a lower salary. The stagnation of the labour market was one of the factors that lead me to leave Portugal, hence I welcome the reforms, but somehow the government and the triumvirate firmly believe it will help Portugal to overcome the crisis. I would like to know exactly how.

There is an overall felling of despair in the eyes and faces of those I talked to, most folk simply lost any hope of a better life. Someone with high-school education cannot aspire to more than 700 € per month, or 8 400 € per year. Buying a house and starting a family with such salary simply isn't an option. The folk that were wise enough to enrol on a good university course are those with better perspectives today. Most Engineering fields still provide jobs, if not in Portugal maybe elsewhere, in Africa or Brasil. The problem is that enrolling on college is not for everyone any more. The annual fee is now well clear twice the minimum wage, with the recent salary reductions this means that a good size of the population is now cut off from superior education. I happen to have a few cousins finishing high school and not all of them can afford to apply for college; the luckiest ones will try a nearby Faculty, instead of trying a big University in Lisbon or Oporto. This is one of the most visible effects of the social inequity being imposed by the institutions that were supposed to be helping.

Talking with friends and family and I noted a growing conscience that neither the Government, nor the Council (represented by the Commission and the ECB) are interested in solving the crisis. The set of measures imposed on Portugal by the EU institutions are many times contradictory and in some cases openly expand the sovereign debt to GDP ratio. The recent forced sale of the national grid and EDP (the largest utility in Portugal) to the Chinese government has made many folk realise that the objectives of the so called Troika may in fact be something completely different of what they state. I'm not delusional, the paradigm on which the EU underpinned Portugal's economy has crumbled and can't be rebuild. Unfortunately, has I've been reporting these past months, the present strategy is completely missing the underlying issues of this crisis. With the largest parties blindly backing the Austerity folly, the ground is becoming fertile for some sort of political convulsion.

Sadly, we have been here before. Portugal, like Greece and Ireland, is enduring a genre of Economic sanctions that quite resemble those applied on Germany after the I World War. When hope is stolen way from the people it is certain that institutions and installed interested will be shaken. It won't be easy for Portugal to take the same path that Hungary has taken, 50 years of Fascism during the XX century were more than enough. But on the current tack the Democracy instituted with the Carnation Revolution will eventually be put at cause. It is just a matter of time.

Germany getting ready to face the sanctions laid on her by the Troika of Versailles. This shocking cartoon featured in one of the Universal History encyclopedias available at my home when I was a child. Today the actors are different but the plot is essentially the same.