Portugal may by now, in 2016, be one of the few countries on earth where the people are still quite content and happy with their democracy.

No wonder. It is less than fifty years since the Portuguese managed to get rid of their fascist dictator, Salazar, who for forty years had kept them poor, dumb, fighting senseless colonial wars in Africa, and under the cruel whip of his secret police PIDE, a precise copy of Hitler’s Gestapo and the USSR’s KGB. Before Salazar showed his bookkeeper’s face on center stage –proving like Eichmann that signing papers can be murder–, the Portuguese had not enjoyed much freedom either. I may forget a few of their miseries and pangs, but stay with me, there’s no cause for tired sighs, for I am not trying to write a history of Portugal. Next time I will feed you trivia again, okay?

Before Salazar, the Portuguese suffered (I am counting roughly backward) under a military regime; a few dynasties of more or, often, less benevolent kings; Napoleon’s occupation force; Spanish invaders; a tough large-landowning, homegrown nobility; the Moors (who added a substantial part of the country to their Muslim caliphate during an occupation that lasted for more than 450 years); the Visigoths invading from what is now Germany; and the Roman Empire (some 250 years). So, threats from many directions are historically recognized; this includes religious ones such as from Muslim fanatics and the Roman Catholic Church. Rome put its mark on the poor Portuguese during most of their country’s history during all times, whether governed by nobility, fascism, royalty, colonels, the lot — except of course in the time of the Moors.

Oh, I almost forgot, the English for more than 600 years were occupiers in the sense of important landowners, wine growers, industrialists, investors, advisers, bankers, profiteers, slave traders, you name it. Portugal was one of Britain’s economic dependencies, a “client state”. A from 1373 dating mutual support treaty is still in force, and the English continue to be heavily involved with Portugal since they took over most of the country’s Mediterranean-resembling south coast to establish their retirement homes and vacation colonies. They even thieved the afternoon tea drinking ceremony from the Portuguese and proudly told the world that this was their greatest invention; while it was Catarina de Braganza, who introduced the habit to the Brits after she’d married Charles II, the King of England of whom was said, not that it is relevant: “Restless he rolls from whore to whore / A merry monarch, scandalous and poor”. In Portugal, as everywhere when you see their gatherings, the Brits continue to form a plague. Maybe Brexit makes Portugal fiscally less attractive and less affordable for the English folks and they’ll be forced to sell out to the Chinese, who know something about tea themselves… I will miss picking up The Guardian at the kiosk but I expect reading the South China Morning Post will make up for the loss.

During many of the different regimes I mentioned, Portugal was in fact governed by the same group of extremely wealthy families. For instance, four of the historically leading families in the country, Posser de Andrade, Santos Jorge, Cadaval and Palmela, between them own 235,000 acres, more than 1% of Portugal’s land mass, and the same acreage that even beyond the late 20th century was held by 50,400 small farmers. The Portuguese people therefore recognized their “one-percent” long before the term got worldwide usage. These families’ sons were leading the country’s economy from the obscure background under the kings, before the fascists, and during the fascist regime. Under democracy, gained only after the one-percent had recognized that the Salazar regime was past its date and it was time for them to switch allegiances, not much changed either, unless it was under the influence of globalization; the same family names continue to dominate most of Portugal. The rich are rich, the poor are still poor; and although the middle class has gained lots of territory, the costs of living in Portugal remain as surprisingly low as I find them right now because the incomes are in general just as low. Portugal is one of the poorer countries of Western Europe. The great discovery is: they do not show this, they do not fret (much), they seem to lose not too many nights of sleep; they live a happy, warm-hearted life. And they are professional café-terrace sitters, they practically live in cafés, which explains why I love the Portuguese much. Add the remarkable combination of Latin, Moorish, oriental and African influences and you know what makes Portugal such an extraordinary and enchanting country.

The country is truly beautiful in most districts. The old architecture is magnificent everywhere, unbelievably rich of detail, and so prominent in cities, towns and even some villages that you are never let to forget where for centuries the poverty of the larger population came from. Anything bad has its good side, as spoke Johan Cruijff, the famous Dutch soccer star who, alas, recently died. The embarrassing riches of the past keep the Portuguese economy going in the 21st century; they are the driving reason for tourists to visit, for expats to buy property, and for both groups to spend money like crazy from income made elsewhere. The weather isn’t too bad either, of course, and the beaches are just as inviting. It is not only a peace and old culture loving crowd that is attracted to Portugal; on its west coast, the Atlantic Ocean creates monster waves that draw dynamite surfers from all over the world.

My biggest disappointment, so far, is with the architecture of the homes built under Salazar’s fascist leadership. He deposited the slowly, hesitantly growing middle class and the large poorer groups of urban Portuguese into Lisbon and Porto’s new suburbs, which are essentially ugly of composition, showcases of poor city planning, unattractive of design (with too much inferior concrete and other lousy materials used during the construction of the tall apartment complexes), and all-in-all ready-made sites for ghettos to grow. That not many became revolting ghettos is something to be thankful of. It proves what is in general said of the Portuguese and what I myself discovered and confirmed already, that they are a sweet, sunny people, forward-looking, and capable of maintaining a joyful life. Amazing for a country of which, in 1960, two travelers wrote: “Why is Portugal, the first modern empire-building nation, now so backward, so poor, so illiterate, so stagnant – and why has she submitted to a reactionary dictatorship for an entire generation?” A traveler would find “a people with the lowest standard of living (…), who are hungry, whose intake of calories is the lowest in Europe. He will find the only children in Europe who suffer from pellagra (…), farm laborers who can get only two months’ work in a whole year (…). He will find that almost half the people are illiterate.”

That was said in 1960, fourteen years before, in 1974, the fascists were kicked out and social democracy finally arrived. In 1979, when I visited Portugal for the one and only time before I resettled here just a few months ago, the Algarve had just started to attract beach tourism and the first resorts were being built. On a drive inland, I still met ox carts, donkeys suffering under tall loads of bark from trees for cork, women from top to toe dressed in rough black garb balancing fruit baskets on their heads, and rural one-room homes that were mere hovels without glass in their singular small window. 1979. Few Portuguese had recuperated yet from years of social stagnancy and life in poverty under political repression, a compulsory colonial war, and emigration (flight, rather) on a grand scale. They had a long way to go before they would catch up with the rest of Western Europe. Now, in 2016, they have come far, although inconsiderate “Brussels” keeps pestering them to adjust to higher EU standards fast. And you know what? I may have expected to find a somewhat backward society after reading EU criticism. But now that I am slowly exploring central Portugal, I am astounded by the quality of living, housing, the way the Portuguese dress, eat and drink, how they educate their children; how their old (19th-century), very old (15th-, 16th– or 17th-century) buildings are renovated in style yet given a daring contemporary interior design. I am impressed by their quality of life.

Maybe it is not so amazing, this sweetness and joy I am sensing. The Portuguese, different from some other nations I know, must have learned from their past what is seriously worth cherishing today and into the future.

Ton Haak, September 2016

Quotes from ‘Oldest Ally – A Portrait of Salazar’s Portugal’, Peter Fryer & Patricia McGowan Pinheiro, 1961

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