Sunday, June 12, 2011

Letters from Portugal X: Ego Sum Panis Vivus

To view the Portuguese Parliament, the Assembleia da República is a wondrous thing. This building emerges, like a huge ant-hill, from right within the middle of a regular residential neighborhood. There are no high walls, no barricades, battalions of guards restricting your experience of the exterior of the building. One minute you are ambling through the streets of the São Bento neighborhood, and the next minute you are smack in front of this national edifice. Indeed, one can walk right up to the main façade of the building and not be interfered with by the largely ceremonial guards standing at the entrance.

For a South Asian, this is a unique experience. For not only is the procedural seat of democracy, however flawed it may be, located right among the people it represents, but it is also unmediated by unnecessary security. Security in South Asia, is unfortunately a testament to the certain lack of trust in the citizenry by the government, a sign that something is not quite right. As a Goan, this arrangement is actually a reminder of happier days, when our Legislative Assembly was similarly located in Panjim, amongst the people it represented.

A Portuguese friend once grumbled that the location of the Parliament saying it allowed people no space to protest against the Government. The roads around the Parliament restricted the space and amount of protestors. While this may be true, a recent incident demonstrated how innovative protest can in fact make its point in such a situation.

Some months ago, faced with the looming financial crisis, the Portuguese government raised the VAT on a number of products, including bread – the most basic of all foods. Simultaneously however, it reduced the VAT on golfing drastically. While seemingly bizarre and insensitive this action was possessed of an internal logic. Golfing holidays brought in 500 million euros to the Portuguese economy in the year 2009, persuading the Government that reducing the VAT would encourage more golfers to holiday in Portugal.

This act however, drew the ire of a number; resulting in a rather innovative protest. Apparently designed so it could be recorded and transmitted to a larger audience, the protest is available online at Choreographed to the music from the motetEgo Sum Panis Vivus’ (I am the Bread of Life) by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, the video shows a young man attired for golf, walk up the steps to the front of the Parliament, place a loaf of bread in front of it, and then swing his club, shooting the bread toward the Parliament. Having done so, he calmly collects his bag of golf clubs and leaves the scene of protest.

Returning to this focus on security, what is so interesting is that the guards at the entrance did not stop the man, calling their supervisors only after they saw this man shoot the bread toward the building. By the time the supervisors arrived it was too late, and the video shows them standing there, being briefed about the action. The video seems to mock the security apparatus around the Parliament. But perhaps these young Portuguese protestors seem to miss the point. The drama of their protest was enabled precisely by the relaxed security around the building. To mock this situation is to demand for the suffocating security that marks official buildings, and thus their democracies across much of the world. But then, we never know, until much later, what to be thankful for.

(A version of this post was first published in the Oheraldo 12 June 2011)

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