When Portugal almost became Europe’s Cuba

The other night I was at Sofia’s Red House for Culture and Debate – a discussion venue which doubles as a shelter from the cold. The ostensible occasion was Portuguese Film Lab Day, a day of screening for Portuguese documentaries and arty movies with political themes. First up was a movie about the revolution of 25 April 1974. For the uninitiated, this was the big event in the post-war history of this sleepy western outpost whereby, for a short time, Portugal looked set to become Europe’s Cuba.

I lived in Portugal for five years. I always groaned when the annual 25 de Abril anniversary loomed even though, it’s true, the uprising signalled the end of Portugal’s long fascist dictatorship. 40 years on, Portuguese lefties lovingly repaint fading socialist graffiti on walls. And the funeral, in 2005, of hardline communist Alvaro Cunhal, brought Lisbon to a standstill.

Similarly London’s annual Marxism Today conference always had a seminar on the Portuguese Revolution. Bearded university lecturers with wooly brown jumpers and ponytails would lament that Portugal missed its big chance to trigger a domino-like collapse of European capitalism. Cue crackling tapes of revolutionary songs from the era, perhaps mixed in with fishwives screeching fado, and slideshows of hairy hippies in brown flared trousers and soldiers with red carnations. Tony Cliff and Paul Foot would be on the sidelines, punching the air.

The film we sat at Sofia’s Red House was of the same ilk in that it was produced by nostalgic radicals. Camera crews stalked sun-baked secluded villages for erstwhile sympathisers in the communist stronghold of the Alentejo. Wrinkled, moustached grannies, bedecked in brown shawls, emerged from dark cottages to talk about this supposedly hopeful period in the country’s history before it all went wrong. At this point, even now, a year after his death, I expected to hear Tony Benn interrupt the narration to bemoan the fact that ‘the military indushtrial complex and global capitalishm’ triumphed over Portugal’s dream. Common sense prevailed and the social democratic left defeated the Stalinists.

Next up was a Portuguese drama* – based on a real story – about a Ukrainian woman who had flown on a charter flight from Kiev in 1997 to Faro (an airport familiar to many Brits who visit the Algarve) to reunite with her Senegalese husband, formerly a doctor in his own country, now working on a construction worker on Lisbon’s Expo ’98 to earn extra money.

The Ukrainian lady, depicted by Portuguese actress Maria de Medeiros, looked a bit tarty. Anyway she lacked the appropriate papers and the Portuguese authorities suspected she harboured criminal motives. The film showed her spending the night at the airport. The following day she was ordered to buy a return ticket to Moscow because no flight was leaving for Kiev. Meanwhile, she’d been strip searched and had her possessions ransacked.

It was a low-budget black-and-white (“atmospheric”) melodrama, essentially involving unfortunate Ukrainian, bewildered husband and hard-faced interrogator. The film had a recurrent note of dark humour; she was always referred to as a Russian even though she was Ukrainian. It was filmed in the Portuguese style, lingering closeups of anguished features of the Ukrainian woman at Faro airport and her husband crying over his espresso at a bus station. It was a quality production nonetheless.

The film was designed to elicit sympathy for our unfortunate couple. The message was supposed to be that they were victims of stereotyping. She could not persuade anyone she was not a prostitute. Needless to say, her African husband could never convince anyone he was a doctor.

Just before she was dispatched on to the flight, an interpreter told her: ‘Just go back home and re-enter by car; that’s what everyone else does.’ So the message was not only that they were discriminated against but that her expulsion was pointless.

When the lights were turned on, a Portuguese representative on the panel, the head of the Portuguese Cultural Institute in Sofia as well as being a professor at Sofia University, stressed that the events depicted happened seventeen years ago. Portugal, he was keen to point out, had quite liberal policies towards immigrants compared to other EU countries.

Perhaps he expected the audience to criticise the Portuguese authorities for their harsh measures. The opposite was the case. As always, the man in the street is more conservative than the liberal intelligentsia. Almost immediately a middle-aged Bulgarian lady raised her voice. ‘The Portuguese were right to throw that Russian woman (sic) back to where she came from. These people have caused so much trouble over here. I’ve only ever seen trouble from them.’ The Portuguese professor blushed and said that the authorities had not thrown her out just because she was Russian … or Ukrainian for that matter, which was clearly the implication of her comment.

Another Bulgarian lady, who looked as though she was auditioning for a part on the BBC’s Question Time, agreed that the Portuguese had acted correctly and wagged her finger at the panel. ‘Immigration is the greatest threat to Bulgaria. We should close down the borders and stop all foreigners coming in. Otherwise we’ll become the entry point for all Middle East refugees.’

A journalist with liberal leanings tried to make a joke of it. ‘I don’t think Bulgarian will become the entry point of crazed, bearded Muslim fanatics en route to Sweden … I think what we’re witnessing here is a strong element of fear.’ Our lady was having none of it. The EU was a disaster, she believed in fortress Europe, we should stick to our own places, multiculturalism had failed, we should … It became difficult to shut her up. Her arguments were the mirror image of the Brits complaining about the Bulgarians and the Romanians in the UK. She was stumped for an answer when someone pointed out to her that many of her nationality were now in London.

I surveyed the room. The Portuguese man based in Sofia, his Bulgarian interpreter who had lived in Lisbon, an Italian journalist in Sofia, and, yes, me, an Englishman who had met his Bulgarian wife in Portugal and had now moved to ‘Eastern Europe’ – as my mother likes to call it. Europeans have now shuttled back and forth so much between each other’s countries that the idea of erecting borders between them is indeed becoming outdated. Call me a liberal in that respect if you like.

* The film was called Journey to Portugal, directed by Sergio Trefaut http://www.viagemaportugal.net/index_en.html

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