Portugal: Crisis, Bread and Football…

As every living being in Europe will have understood, last week the world cup started in Germany.

The football virus is spreading over the world, especially through the countries of southern Europe and South America. Although for many people this is an occasion to appreciate quality sport on a world stage and to party, for every football supporter, myself included, it is also interesting to look behind the spectacle, and observe this event from a more political context. This is particularly the case when we look at the effect of the tournament on a country like Portugal which appears to dissolve completely whenever the national team plays a game.

Just as in most Mediterranean countries, Portugal has not caught up with the rest of the European Union, neither socially or politically. The economic crisis is devastating, with the European Central Bank maintaining its perspective of zero growth for Portugal while unemployment has spiralled over the last few years. With an average salary of €400 per month, it is difficult for the bosses to put forward the idea in Portugal, as they do in other Western European countries that the main problem with the economy is lack of competitiveness and high wages.

But this doesn’t hold back the bosses from taking their production and capital to other countries with even lower salary levels. This is particularly the case for Portugal’s most important industry; textiles. Factories are relocating to the east in their quest for even higher profits. But the textile sector isn’t an exception. Last week, General Motors decided to close its production in Portugal and as a result 1800 workers will lose their jobs.

On top of this, Portugal is led by a social democratic government that shows no sign of breaking with the neoliberal policies of their colleagues in the rest of Europe. The government of the ‘Partido Socialista’, in power for only one year, is already widely known as the most anti-working class government since the Portuguese revolution of 1974. It seems like no social conquest is safe from its right wing attacks: Decreasing pensions, cut backs in the public sector, on education, in social security, in the health service…

This government has gone so far that the right-wing capitalist Partido Social Democrata (PSD) at its yearly congress stated that they had problems in differentiating themselves from the PS-government since the latter were implementing all their policies and programme. This government has taken the road of the most open neo-liberal policies to an extent never done before in the history of the Portuguese republic.

Last month the government announced the closure of one third of all maternity clinics, especially the ones in the centre of the country. From now on, a lot of pregnant mothers will have to travel more than 80 kilometres to give birth to their child. The list of government decisions continues with a frontal attack on the teachers – now those teachers who don’t have more than five years teaching experience will lose the opportunity of ever having a fixed contract. And finally, Portugal doesn’t escape the Bologna reforms in education either.

Of course this doesn’t pass without protest. May and the beginning of July were marked by tens of demonstrations. Last Tuesday, for example, there was a national day of struggle of FenProf, the largest education union, bringing 10 000 people together in Lisbon calling for the resignation education minister. There were also many protests against the closure of maternity clinics, demonstrations of public sector workers and of textile workers against the closure of their factories. This will conclude in a national strike called for 15 of July, supported by both UGT and CGTP, Portuguese two largest union federations.

History teaches us what methods the ruling class uses in these situations. As a result of the huge danger which the revolution posed in Portugal in 1974 when capitalism the skin of its teeth, reforms were granted to the working class. However, capitalism can no longer afford these and the ruling class has launched brutal neo-liberal attacks to protect its profits. This has gone hand in hand with an increasing monopolisation of the economy partially comparable with the situation of that existed here in the 1920s and 30s.

The favourite method of the bosses to try to control the situation, is to whip up nationalism, and try to portray the Portugal as united and without any internal frictions let alone class antagonisms. As if the whole future of the country depends on every Portuguese person uniting behind the green and red national flag.

The president of the republic for example, standing shoulder to shoulder with the national coach, called on all “patriots” to put flags everywhere. Every home, even nearly every window, every lantern or tree, every antenna or car has been decorated with the national flag over the last month. Besides the fact that the national government is trying to spread nationalism, it seems that they’ve got good relations with a few flag-making companies.

And so it goes on; it seems that even parliamentary democracy must bow down to this government-supported “football-nationalism”. Parliamentary activities are cancelled on the day Portugal is playing. All games of the national team are attended by the prime minister, the president and Portugal’s president of European Commission Barrosso… As ‘heads of the nation’, they are asked every game for comments in the national press.

Besides the promotion of nationalism, football is also used to keep peoples attention away from the real problems in the country. Left intellectuals used to say that football in Portugal has replaced religion as the opium of the people. This idea is basically true – The bosses try to hide reality behind the results of the Portuguese football team.

It is more than 2000 years old, but as it was in Roman times, the most accurate recipe against protest still remains: Bread and Circus…

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June 2006