Latest Austerity Plunges Portugal into Deeper Crisis
The past two weeks has been nothing short of a blitzkrieg of austerity. Last Friday, a crushing hike on social security contributions for workers was announced by prime minister Passos Coelho. During this week, finance minister Vitor Gaspar followed up before anyone had a chance to recover from the previous announcement. Mr. Gaspar brought news of a change in the tax code, promising higher income taxes next year as the number of tax brackets are reduced.
The bad news failing to relent, we learned that the budget deficit is wide of its target, the austerity of last year failing to achieve its purpose. Rather than stepping back from this plague advertised as medicine, the government will up the dose, bringing more tax hikes that drive the people into poverty, and cuts to the welfare state that deny them a safety net to break their fall.
It is in this context that upwards of 660,000 protesters took to the streets across all of Portugal. From small towns to the large coastal cities, from Braga in the north to Faro in the south, from Castelo Branco in the east, to Ponta Delgada on the Azores islands out in the Atlantic. These were crowds consisting of workers, pensioners, youths, and entire families, all out on the streets to reject the prime minister’s efforts to condemn the country to total impoverishment, his efforts to carry out a controlled demolition of society, bringing the middle class crashing down into poverty and the working poor into a state of homelessness and hunger.
All of this suffering is passing in the name of competitiveness, as if German politicians and employers aren’t ready to do the same to workers there, negating any “competitiveness” Portugal may achieve. All of this suffering is passing in the name of reducing the deficit, austerity measures that fail to heed the lessons of Greece. With a wide deficit, the last thing a country needs is more unemployment and reduced wages, the wages from which government collects taxes. It is an absurd, irrational and brutal policy, and it is why there is such reason in the chants on Saturday, chants saying that it is time for this government to go.
But there were doubters, those who couldn’t imagine such force of numbers. Such doubters existed in the New York Times for example, the newspaper published an article claiming “Perhaps nowhere… are people quite so acquiescent as in Portugal”. This acquiescence was a myth, but there was something missing in previous protests of the government and the Troika. If it is truly believed that there is great power when the people are in the streets, than it is insufficient for this power to be used on just three days a year on a 365 day calendar.
This is not to argue that there must be a protest everyday of the year, but the government can’t be given the assurance that the resistance to its policies only last the duration of a protest march. Yesterday, such assurances were denied to the Portuguese government. After the march concluded along its predetermined path, thousands of protesters proceeded toward the national assembly with more arriving through the evening, bolstering the initial protest. Less than 24 hours after these nationwide protests, additional protests are being organized on social media. Later this month, CGTP, the biggest trade union confederation in Portugal, joins the protests with a day of struggle that will mobilize its vast membership. A general strike can be expected in the following weeks. There’s no return to the Portugal before the 15th of September. There’s only two directions, to the social collapse made inevitable by the Troika and the prime minister, or a course charted by Saturday’s huge crowds, a course to a more egalitarian Portugal.