The Ongoing Counter-Revolution in Portugal

The economic crisis continues on in Portugal with rising unemployment, a mounting number of bankruptcies, and an increasing trend in emigration sending educated youths overseas. It’s the worst crisis in the country since the ’70s when the country was transitioning to democracy following the Carnation Revolution that toppled the colonial and fascist regime. While this current crisis had its own origin through the financial crisis of 2008,  the struggle since 1974 to chart Portugal’s post-empire future is still being fought today with the current economic crisis as the latest and most intense confrontation in that conflict.

In a recent speech, Portugal’s prime minister Pedro Passoas Coelho called his austerity program a quiet revolution. He was close to accuracy in his declaration. His government is transforming the country in a radical direction, a transformation being done by domestic political elites, by foreign officials of the European Union and International Monetary Fund demanding austerity and privatizations, and by the wealthy Portuguese no doubt content to see the financial cost of the crisis weighed on the backs of Portuguese workers. But instead of this process as a quiet revolution, this is the design of a counter-revolution by a handful of political and economic interests, a design dissimilar to the Carnation Revolution that had many tens of thousands of people participating in the dismantling of the fascist and colonial state.

In this counter-revolutionary process led by Passoas Coelho, relics of the old fascist regime are casting ever darker shadows over the country. Five journalists recently had their radio program terminated after one of them voiced criticism of the Portuguese government.  In the last two general strikes in the country, police were deployed to dismantle picket-lines by workers, eroding the fundamental right to strike.

November 2011 General Strike:

March 2012 General Strike:

The inevitable chant by the workers is “Fascism Never Again” as the police bust their picket-lines. It’s a chant of anxiety by people who see their government abandoning any notion of ensuring their rights and livelihoods. The government’s objective is anything but defending the rights and social security of the people. It’s a government committed to worsening the working conditions of Portuguese, a government committed to privatizing public services for the enrichment of the very few and to deny access to the poor or unemployed.

The conservative government’s efforts are not limited to media censorship and assaults on labor rights. People across Portugal are finding themselves priced out of the healthcare system by imposed fees as part of the austerity program. Healthcare service is distributed not by need but by the privilege of wealth that pays for access. This runs against the constitutionally stated right of universal healthcare. It is but one of the rights won by the 1974 revolution made casualty by the current right-wing government.

Faced with such brutal austerity policies, protests have attempted to stall if not reverse this radical austerity drive. These protests have instead found a police force mobilized to stall and reverse their dissent by bludgeoning protesters with police batons. On March 22nd, a section of a protest march was charged by police without provocation. The images that emerged were ones of youths bleeding from the head and journalists targeted for assault by belligerent officers.

This process, a process I argue is a counter-revolutionary process to the ideals of the Carnation Revolution, is driving Portugal into greater social and economic poverty, an economic and social poverty where people aren’t afforded their rights or their rightly earned living-wage. This conservative and reactionary force wasn’t unleashed with the so-called bailout package overseen by the Troika (IMF, European Commission, European Central Bank), but it’s a force that has been enhanced by the strength and might of undemocratic European and international financial institutions. From Ireland to Greece, Italy to Spain, the same austerity program is being imposed to spare the banks of the price of their financial crisis, a price they’ve avoided since 2008.

Making a common front of resistance to austerity is critical to the defeat of Pedro Passoas Coelho and his allies in Madrid, Dublin, Athens, Rome and elsewhere. At regional, national, European, and international levels, governments and institutions have aligned together to achieve the collective impoverishment of the public. Cuts and privatizations in Greece embolden further cuts and privatizations in Portugal. It’s a single battle underway but the same rules that strengthen austerity governments work against it. Defeating prime minister Coelho’s so called “quiet-revolution” will strike a defeat for the Troika everywhere. Such a victory isn’t unimaginable. Politics is fundamentally about choices. The choice left for the Portuguese people is to submit to poverty and emigration as promised by prime minister Coelho or to live up to the Carnation Revolution’s egalitarian promise. It’s a choice to win back recently lost rights and to establish new ones.

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