Portuguese government to unemployed: “There’s the door!”

Portugal’s prime minister, Pedro Passos Coelho, of the right-wing Social Democratic Party, shocked many on Dec. 18, when he suggested publicly that one solution for his country’s growing unemployment problem, especially for schoolteachers and youth, is to leave the country and go find work in Portugal’s former colonies, especially prosperous Brazil and oil-rich Angola. This was not a frustrated blurt-out; several ministers in Passos Coelho’s cabinet have made the same explicit invitation.

Passos Coelho came to power in June of last year when the governing Socialist Party essentially committed political suicide by agreeing to brutal austerity measures dictated to it by the European Union, the Central Bank of Europe, and the International Monetary Fund. Voters punished the socialists by ousting them, but unemployment has continued to rise as the economy shrinks. It now stands at 14 percent, and is especially high among young people, including college educated ones who had hoped to go into important fields like teaching.

Passos Coelho should know about life in Angola, as he was raised there (though born in Portugal).

Angola was one of the first of Portugal’s colonies in Africa, starting with slave, gold, and ivory trading posts on the coast in the 1400s. Comparisons among European colonial policies in Africa are difficult, as they were all pretty terrible. But Portugal’s colonial regimes in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, the Cape Verde Islands and São Tome and Principe have got have been somewhere near the bottom (Belgian colonialism under the “Congo Free State” of King Leopold II would take the prize). Plunder and exploitation was brutal, and impoverished Portugal did nothing to develop the human capital of colonies whatsoever, leaving them without doctors, engineers, scientists, or a sufficient number of teachers of African background.

In April 1974, the “Estado Novo” (New State) of fascist dictator Antonio de Oilveira Salazar and his successor, Marcelo Caetano, was ended by the “Carnation Revolution.”  Young military officers tired of being used as cannon fodder in unwinnable counterinsurgency wars in Guinea Bissau, Angola, and Mozambique joined with workers, students, and others to oust Caetano and introduce a democratic regime. For a while, the Carnation Revolution took a decidedly left-wing course, with an important role for the Portuguese Communist Party.

One of the first things the new government did was to grant immediate independence to almost all remaining Portuguese colonies. But the war between the Portuguese Military and rebels in Angola and Mozambique was quickly transformed, with the aid of the CIA and the apartheid era South African government, into two bloody civil wars.

There followed quickly a massive return of Portuguese settlers from the colonies to Portugal, between a half million and a million by most accounts. The Passos Coelho family was one of the first “retornados.” As the Whites had monopolized skill in the colonies, this was a blow to the economic development of these countries. Cuba, the Soviet Union, China, and other socialist countries worked to fill the gap with various aid programs.

When the “retornados” arrived in Portugal, many of them were destitute and boiling with resentment against the left-wing politicians who, they thought, had ended their sweet life in the tropics. The arrival of this mass of people contributed to a rightward movement in the Portuguese body politic. Over successive election periods, support for the Left dropped.

The irony! Not only does Passos Coelho, the retornado, whose policies are contributing mightily to his country’s economic problems, tell unemployed Portuguese youth and schoolteachers that they should go back to where he came from, he was in Angola in November to sign business deals whereby the oil rich African country could “help” Portugal in its difficulties by, among other things, buying up privatized Portuguese national resources, including power generation stations, banks, and other important things.

And evidently, before blurting out his invitation to the unemployed to leave, he did not discuss the idea with either the Angolans or the Brazilians: Both countries replied frostily that they had no need of teachers from Portugal right now. In fact, in recent years there has already been massive Portuguese immigration to Brazil and Angola, in the hundreds of thousands, coming from a country of only 11 million people.

Nor was Passos Coelho’s suggestion greeted warmly in Portugal. Demonstrating teachers shouted at him that he is the one who should leave. Jeronimo de Sousa, the Secretary General of the Portuguese Communist Party, which has vehemently opposed the austerity policies of Passos Coelho and his Socialist Party predecessor, Jose Socrates, summed it up, as quoted in the “Publico” news website:

“How is it that they are worried when all the measures they undertake go in the direction of more unemployment, with this wandering idea that Passos Coelho now has put forward, that the alternative would be emigration to Brazil or Angola. It’s unacceptable…[our] young people have the right to remain in their country, to build their futures, their lives and their own autonomy here.”

Photo: Portugese Prime Minister Coelho arrives at Lisbon Technical University.   Francisco Seco/AP


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.