Sunday, March 20, 2011

Letters from Portugal: A Geração à rasca

Three French men, Louis XVI, Napoleon Bonaparte and Alexandre Dumas, are credited with declaring that ‘Europe ends at the Pyrenees’, or alternatively, that ‘Africa begins at the Pyrenees’. What these wicked, wicked men suggested was that the Iberian peninsula, comprising Spain and Portugal, shared more with Africa, northern Africa at any rate, than it did with Europe. A number of Portuguese too will laughingly use this reference to explain away the laxity that marks this western most part of the European continent.

It is no secret that the Portuguese economy is today in an unholy mess. A good number of Portuguese will lay the blame for this mess squarely on the same laxity. The sins on this list are rather long. They will agree that Portugal is not marked by a meritocracy. If you don’t come with the right name and the right background, moving forward could be substantially difficult for you. Add to this the political graft that marks the country’s operation. Business interests and political leadership are shamelessly twined, official power used to further private interests. Joining the European Union has meant that the directives from Europe regarding the setting up of systems and procedures are met, but in a manner that recalls the spirit of that famous response by the Spanish Viceroys in the Americas, ‘I obey, but do not comply.’ The procedure is followed, but the spirit absent, resulting in applicants being caught in the nightmare of bureaucratic purgatories. But perhaps what makes this worse is the situation where there is no widespread culture of popular dissent in Portugal.

In apparent synchrony with the North African comparisons however, the pot boiled over subsequent to the Afro-Arabic revolutions. Fed up with the situation in the country that includes the cut back of funding for students, the lowering of salaries of public functionaries, the rolling back of the rights of workers, the significant amount of unemployment among the young, a good amount of these under the excuse of dealing with the economic crisis, a group of 4 young persons finally said enough is enough. This group of 4, speaking in the name of the geração à rasca, or the cornered generation called for a demonstration in Lisbon on the 12th of March. They pointed out that their generation was the most qualified generation in Portugal’s long history ever. And yet, large numbers of these youth are unemployed and have to emigrate, to find futures outside of the country.

The response to this call was monumental. Hundreds of thousands of Portuguese congregated to march in the protest scheduled to end at Praça de Restauradores. So large were the numbers that once at the end of the march, they carried on to other parts of the city, continuing to voice their protest at the systems that has pushed the lives, dreams and ambitions of so many in this country into crisis. So large was the demonstration that some have pointed out that this was the single largest protest demonstration in the country subsequent to the collapse of the Estado Novo in 1974. This is perhaps a dubious distinction, pointing once more to the lack of a vibrant culture of political dissent in the country.

As powerful as this demonstration was however, one wonders if it continued to resound with the problems that mark this wonderful but sadly traumatised country. The leaders of the demonstration failed to offer a suggestion to go forward beyond the manifesto that launched the demonstration. The manifesto itself, framed in the broadest possible manner to attract broad support, did not get down to specifics. And here lies the problem, one that we share in Goa. We can demonstrate all we want, but until we are able to mobilise this anger and transform this into a sustained critique of the system, and create agendas for change, we will remain in the rut.

This is not yet the moment for critique though. This is the moment to congratulate the geração à rasca and wish them strength to network and combine to create options for systemic change in their country.

(A version was first published in the Herald March 20 2011)

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