The Two Faces of Portugal

As one of the great former European empires, Portugal is a country that wears its history proudly, with many monuments and museums to its age of discovery and examples of its imperial wealth littered across the country. This history, combined with its many stunning beaches, has helped make Portugal a magnet for tourism in recent years, with the country selected as the world’s leading destination in 2017.

Yet, six centuries after the founding of the Portuguese empire, Portugal is experiencing an increasingly divisive debate about how to remember its imperial past: with the historic period of exploration came the enslavement of the “discovered” lands’ native populations; with the glorious reign of Catholic kings came the Inquisition and the forced conversion and expulsion of Jews and Muslims. Portugal has pursued a number of initiatives to address the sins of the past, such as plans for a memorial in Lisbon to the millions of Africans captured and sold in the country’s slave markets. The current Socialist-led government presents an inclusive and tolerant “face” of Portuguese society in its attempts to rectify the past. But to what extent does this translate into meaningful policies aimed at creating and promoting a more inclusive society today? Is it more than mere eyewash?

In recognition of the historic wrongs committed against its Jewish population, Portugal recently passed the right of return law that allows for Sephardic Jews descended from those forcibly converted to Christianity and then expelled in the early 16th century to apply for Portuguese nationality. Jose Ribeiro e Castro, a former Portuguese MP, told me that he sponsored the law “to solve an injustice.” Given historical sympathies with the Jewish people within Portugal, Ribeiro e Castro stated, “this law was very well received” and passed unanimously in Parliament in 2015. The Jewish community, numbering only 3,000-5,000 today, is supportive of the new law, seeing it as “restoring justice with the Jewish people” in the words of one community member. It’s also active in its administration, holding the responsibility of certifying the validity of applicants’ lineage.

Esther Mucznik is a scholar of Jewish studies who is in charge of the community’s commission for the certification process. We met in the main synagogue in Lisbon, which when built in 1904 was the first synagogue in the city since the expulsion. She told me that over the past three years approximately 2,700 people have been approved by the commission to receive Portuguese nationality, 80 percent of them from Israel. Justice Minister Paula Teixeira da Cruz stated the new law came at a time when anti-Semitism is “raging in Europe” and far-right, anti-immigrant movements are becoming increasingly vocal and influential. The rise of the far right is a phenomenon Portugal, a country known for its tolerant and mixed culture, thus far has avoided.

The right of return law has become part of a narrative of Portuguese identity that emphasizes its openness and minimizes the presence of racism in society. In July 2017, the Portuguese academic and founder of the International Lusophone Movement Renato Epifanio wrote, “Anyone who has any knowledge about Europe has to agree: Portugal is probably, if not definitely, the least racist country in Europe.” The Portuguese High Commissioner for Migration Pedro Calado, similarly argued, “We don’t have this big problem of racism in our society.” As evidence, he pointed to the 2015 Migration Integration Policy Index, in which Portugal was ranked second among advanced nations for successfully integrating migrants. One evening following a performance in Lisbon’s Alfama neighborhood, a Fado singer (Fado being Portugal’s traditional folk music dating back to the early 19th century) told me that the greatest strength of the Portuguese character was its multiculturalism and ability to draw from and integrate aspects of many different cultures into music, food, dress, and language. Portugal has been described as “a nation at ease with difference,” and many of the Portuguese with whom I spoke repeated this conception of the national character.

Scholars have argued that this tendency towards openness is, in many ways, a legacy of Luso-tropicalism, a term first coined by the Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freye in the 1930s. This concept finds the Portuguese to be more tolerant of cultural difference within their empire given the experience of many different ethnic and religious groups inhabiting Portugal throughout history. This ideology was eventually adopted and promoted by the fascist regime of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar (1933-1974) to project a softer form of imperialism as he further integrated the colonies into his Estado Novo (“New State”) as overseas provinces in an effort to resist mounting international pressure for decolonization. Following the Estado Novo regime’s collapse in 1974, political elites continued to cultivate this idea of a mixed culture to support national unity, especially as immigrants began to arrive from the former colonies. As anti-immigrant and far-right nationalist political parties emerge across Europe, Portugal, on the surface, appears to be holding onto this cultural legacy with a visible absence of any such influential political movement.

Yet, this openness to different cultures does not always translate to an openness to minorities themselves. As one Portuguese politician explained to me, prejudice is found “if you scratch a little bit on the surface.” This has been particularly difficult for African communities from former Portuguese colonies, such as Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau who began to settle in Portugal following the 1974 democratic revolution. While Portuguese society reckons with its imperial past, in particular the issue of slavery, it too often fails to confront imperialism’s living legacy. Beatriz Gomes Sias, the President of Djass — the Association of Afro-Descendants in Lisbon, argues “Portugal needs to recognize that slavery is not something that was cleared up in the past. There is a clear line between slavery, the forced labor that continued afterwards, and the racism that is now going through society … There is no place in the Portuguese imagination for blacks. People of African descent are not recognized as part of Portuguese society.”

Discrimination and isolation drove a wedge between the broader Portuguese society and the African communities. Adolfo Mesquita Nunes, a former MP and Secretary of State for Tourism, told me, “You don’t see black people in law firms, in politics, in TV shows. So that shows that even though we are an open society, maybe we didn’t build a model of social climbing, social mobility for the ones who came here to find better conditions. We have racism in the fact that they don’t have the same opportunities as white people. We are white-ish when our society is not that white-ish.” Researchers have found that young Afro-descendants have a higher rate of unemployment and a 50 percent lower chance of attending university as their white Portuguese counterparts. The incarceration rate for Afro-descendants is also 15 times higher. And the police have been accused of racism and excessive violence within Afro-descendant communities. A 2012 report by the UN Human Rights Council found “the rate at which people of African descent were killed by the police in Portugal was higher than any other country of the European Union.” Patterns of police brutality are symbolized for many within the Afro-descendant communities by the 2009 murder of an unarmed 14-year-old boy, Elson “Kuku” Sanches, by a police officer who was not charged for the incident.

Afro-descendant communities in the impoverished suburbs of Lisbon, such as Cova da Moura and Quinta do Mocho, often face barriers to even being considered Portuguese. I traveled to Quinta do Mocho and met with Kally Meru, who came to Portugal as a child when he and his mother fled the Angolan civil war in the 1980s. The neighborhood was established in the mid-1970s for newly arrived African migrants and 90 percent of its residents today are of Afro-descendants. With poor public transportation and problems with crime and poverty, Quinta do Mocho has been neglected for many years. The area bears this neglect with its pock-marked concrete buildings showing extreme signs of wear and tear. As we walked through the neighborhood streets, he described it as Portugal’s version of a Brazilian favela with many people afraid to enter. To change perceptions of Quinta do Mocho, Kally has been working with a public art project that invites renowned artists from around the world to work on public murals, with 108 having been painted so far. Kally offers tours of the art installations to open up and help transform the mentality around the neighborhood.

Despite the open friendliness the residents I met showed me, issues of race, he told me, still magnify the negative perception of the impoverished neighborhood. While a white Portuguese person can leave poverty behind, the Afro-descendants’ “black skin” means they always carry the stigma of poverty and crime associated with Quinta do Mocho and other similar areas. When I asked him about the narrative of Portugal’s openness, Kally rejected it. The knowledge of the Portuguese language and culture that many African immigrants possessed did not help the broader society integrate and accept them. After living in Portugal for 24 years and despite speaking perfect Portuguese, people still see him as Angolan. He lamented, “If you are black, you are always African.”

Contributing to the problem, the government does not recognize or collect official statistics on ethnic or racial categories, a practice that has led to a notable absence of specific policies aimed at addressing the economic, political, and social marginalization faced by these communities. The 2012 UNHRC report argued that this lack of official recognition and data helped to perpetuate structural discrimination. The Portuguese journalist Joana Gorjao Henriques equates this to “burying our heads in the sand” when confronted with the problem of racism. Amidst the ongoing debate about Portugal’s past, Hugo Palma, a Portuguese diplomat in Washington, DC, admitted to me, “At the same time that we are nowadays conscious of the mistakes we made in the past and try to now correct them, we seem to be repeating them on other fronts.”

The impact of this omission remains an open question. Portugal’s culture of openness ignores the prevailing racism against Afro-descendants: it appears to be a luxury of the current conditions. The country has not faced a heavy immigrant presence despite its open immigration policies, with migrant communities remaining small. As I discovered in conversations with newly arrived migrants and refugees at the Central Mosque in Lisbon, many of them have little interest in coming to or staying in Portugal, choosing instead to travel to wealthier northern European countries. In 2015, for example, Portugal only received 872 refugees, despite its willingness to take more by increasing the annual number of refugees they would accept from the EU-mandated 4,500 to 10,000. Immigration is simply an issue that few Portuguese are confronted with on a daily basis, allowing them to prioritize other policy issues such as the economy or problems with tourism.

The country’s immigration policies, as well as the Right of Return Law, are also tied to Portugal’s struggling economy. Pedro Calado has pushed for a more active migration policy in order to encourage immigrants to come in order to boost the country’s workforce, knowing that foreign workers “continue to be channeled to less attractive areas, or to 3D jobs, that is difficult, dirty and dangerous jobs,” especially agricultural work, despite being “more skilled than Portuguese citizens.” A 2018 report by the Portuguese government found that Portugal needs to attract at least 75,000 new residents each year in order to maintain its current workforce, due to emigration abroad during the recent financial crisis. Portugal also saw the need to attract people who could spend money and invest in the economy. As one African immigrant put it to me, the government wanted “investors, not immigrants.” Esther Muncznik told me, “The [right of return] law came at a time when tourism in Portugal started to grow up. It was very important not only for the historic part but also we hope that we can approach those people who want to come, to invest.” The vast majority of people who attain Portuguese nationality under the law have not moved to Portugal, she explained, but instead come as tourists or use it as an opportunity to invest. She also cited the Jewish compulsion to have two or three different passports for security reasons, with a number of applicants from the United States and the United Kingdom fearing recent increases in anti-Semitism. Mesquita Nunes, who was in charge of promoting the law, told me, “We were trying to target Jewish communities all over the world to come as tourists to Portugal. I was promoting the law as part of the idea that we are an open country. What I wanted was for tourists to come. I was not promoting the law in order to have more people applying. It was successful in regard to tourism because we started to have three direct flights from Israel to Portugal during the summer [of 2015] and Jewish tourism boosted a lot in Portugal.”

The Right of Return Law and other initiatives, such as welcoming the billionaire Aga Khan in 2015 to establish Lisbon as the global seat of the Ismaili Imamate, have been held up as evidence of Portuguese tolerance. The lived experience of minorities within Portugal challenges this narrative. These positive efforts by the government were never expected to generate any significant levels of immigration or have much impact beyond increasing investment and tourism in the country. Given the difficulty in proving a 500-year-old lineage and the small size of the Sephardic community, the Right of Return Law was not expected to produce large numbers of successful applicants. Esther Mucznik told me a similar law for Muslims descended from those expelled in the 15th century, a law conspicuously absent within Portugal, would be “quite impossible” given the large numbers it would attract. If conditions within Portugal change, such as an overwhelming response to open immigration policies, there is a potential for a backlash despite Portugal’s general discomfort with organized extremist movements given its long history of brutal fascist rule. Given the prohibition on fascist parties under the 1976 constitution, Ribeiro e Castro explained to me, most people that would support an extremist party have been diluted into other parties. With the ability to influence the agenda of mainstream parties, this “might become dangerous if certain circumstances arise.” He continued, “Relations between peoples is a matter of chemistry. It takes the right doses. We can integrate and absorb if it’s not a very sudden and brutal and frightening movement. If we have an overdose suddenly, people react.” Those praising Portugal’s openness should take pause to consider the roots of the current attitude and, given existing patterns of racism in the country, the potential for future problems.

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