Portugal’s mood is dark as nation seeks European aid

Stephen Beard May 16, 2011

Portugal’s mood is dark as nation seeks European aid

Stephen Beard May 16, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: Let’s circle back to the European debt crisis for a minute here. Even without Dominique Strauss-Kahn running the International Monetary Fund, there are bailouts to be arranged. European finance ministers met in Brussels today and approved yet another rescue package. This time it’s Portugal, which will get more than $100 billion in loans to tide ’em over. In return, the Portuguese government has promised to raise taxes and make deep cuts in public spending.

Marketplace’s Stephen Beard has been in Lisbon, assessing the national mood.

Stephen Beard: Among its many other misfortunes, Portugal did not win the Eurovision Song Contest at the weekend. Critics dismissed its entry as “bland” and “boring.” But the song did set pulses racing at the International Monetary Fund and the European Commission — among the architects of Portugal’s bailout. The lyrics include the line: “Belt tightening is futile.” Could this be Portugal’s national anti-austerity anthem?

There is some resistance to the conditions attached to Portugal’s bailout. I’m at a picket outside a garbage collection center in Lisbon. Striking public-sector workers are protesting against the planned cuts in pensions, health care and other public spending.

Luis Dias: We are defending the service — the public service — we are defending the rights of these workers.

Union organizer Luis Dias. He says even though all the main political parties have endorsed the bailout plan, thousands of government workers will carry on staging one-day strikes in protest.

Dias: Because we can’t accept these measures because they are not good for anyone. So of course we’ll still fight.

And joining him on this picket line — offering some moral support — is an Irish Socialist member of the European Parliament, Paul Murphy.

Paul Murphy: I think it’s vital now that Irish workers, Portuguese workers, Greek workers, Spanish workers — they’re all involved in the same struggle against the IMF, the European Commission, the European Central Bank, which essentially in all these different countries, in slightly different ways, is about making workers pay for the price of the economic crisis, a crisis that was caused by bankers and speculators.

But the Portuguese workers have not taken to the streets with anything like the same fiery opposition to austerity as the Greeks. And the key to this somewhat muted reaction may lie in Portugal’s melancholic folk music. It’s called fado.

Luis Jorges: Fado means fate. And accepting fate is probably an important thing in our culture.

Marketing consultant and blogger Luis Jorges says Portugal’s long and tortuous history from empire to economic decline has prepared the people for hardship.

Jorges: I think that we have seen it all. We were one of the richest countries in the world. And we were one of the poorer countries in the world. So what more can happen to us in economic terms?

And anyway, says former Finance Minister Antonio Nogueiro Leite, Portugal has little choice. It must accept the terms of the bailout and get its public finances in order if it wants to stay in the eurozone.

Antonio Nogueiro Leite: I mean I think that if we don’t do what we need to do, we’re not going to be part of a strong currency area. I’m very sad to say so. It’s still up to us. But I think it’s our last chance.

The Portuguese remain enthusiastic about membership of the EU and the eurozone. But the crisis has left a bitter taste. A threat by Finland to block the bailout has infuriated many here and prompted this video’d riposte…

Video: What do the Finns need to know about Portugal?

This catalog of the highs and lows of Portuguese history climaxes with a curious list: the items that Portugal donated to Finland when that country was on its knees after war with Russia in 1940.

Video: 19,902 crates of sardines, 956 crates of onions, a crate of rubber hot water bottles, and a crate of skis.

That was Portugal’s bailout of Finland… 70 years ago.

In Lisbon, I’m Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: Tomorrow on the broadcast, the controversy in Germany over recent EU bailouts. They’re the ones payin’ the bills, you know.

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