Monday, January 9, 2012

Letters from Portugal: Portuguese neo-colonialism?

Some weeks ago, the Universidade Lusofona in Lisbon, under the aegis of the Association of Scientists of the Lusophone space, organized a series of conferences around the theme ‘A Construção da Lusofonia na Era Pós-Colonial’ (The construction of Lusofonia in the Post-colonial era).  One of the round-table discussions, to which I was invited to speak, was on the theme of ‘Lusofonia in Goa: Today, and in the future’.

At this roundtable I argued that Goa, entirely for internal reasons of socio-political equity, ought to become a more Lusophone (that is Portuguese speaking) space. However, prior to this, it was important that we decenter metropolitan Portugal from this Lusophone project, or else this project could turn out to have very serious neo-colonial implications. The argument pointed out that we ought not to forget that Lusofonia existed in the context of the prior establishment of both the Commonwealth and Francophonie. Both of these two concepts and institutions attempted to be post-colonial associations of a former empire, and yet both of these projects contained a tendency to continue the hegemony of the metropolitan center of these two empires. As long as we could decenter metropolitan Portugal and not associate Portuguese exclusively with Portugal, and create a forum for equal interaction among the pluri-statal members of this linguistic group, Lusofonia was a great idea.

The shit hit the fan subsequent to the presentation of this argument. One of the panelists abandoned his own notes to passionately respond to my suggestions, arguing that Portugal did not have the power, nor the will, to be a neo-colonial power. ‘Look at us now’ he argued, pointing to the financial mess that the country was in. Another member of the audience affirmed emphatically that in fact the neo-colonial implications of Lusofonia simply did not exist, since the concept had been actively discussed, and it was agreed that the language was not the marker of imperial ambitions, but merely a symbol that seemed to connect the former empire together. 

The force of these arguments should not have surprised, since there is a strong tendency among some metropolitan Portuguese, even academics, to reject their complicity in anything colonial or neo-colonial.  This affirmation is possible since they make the simplistic assumption that their opposition to the Estado Novo and its rhetoric make them eminently post-colonial. What these individuals forget however, is that because of Portugal’s unique position in the global hierarchy, its forms of possible neo-colonialism will be different from that of other stronger European countries. Thus there is no point indicating that Portugal has no economic or military capacity or desire to engage in colonial takeovers today. This fact is painfully obvious. What is offensively colonial however is the contemporary equivalence that these particular Portuguese seek with other former colonial powers. This attempt at equivalence translates into the imitation of the Commonwealth and Francophonie, in their rejection of post-colonial actions because ‘the British are not asked to do this’, or in the equally horrific suggestions of their current interest only in business (economic diplomacy) and not cultural relations. 

Colonialism is not only in the past, it exists in the contemporary when we attempt to create structures of inequality, rather than equality. The facile rejection of the existence of these possibilities leads us up the road of possible neo-colonialism.

(A version of this post first appeared in the O Heraldo 25 Dec 2011)

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