A Portuguese Visitor
Since this past Monday, my husband and I have hosted a visitor from Portugal, Luís Capucha, who teaches sociology at ISCTE, the graduate school where my husband taught as a Fulbright Scholar last fall. In fact, it is fitting that Luis is here exactly one year after Richard and I left for Lisbon, a city with which we fell in love on a visit more than three years earlier. (See my post “The Place Where I Fell in Love” for more on this subject.)
Luís has led a remarkable life, and had three distinguished careers. In his teens and unable to afford university because his family was large and not wealthy during the time of the dictatorship, when higher education was a luxury reserved for the most privileged, he became a machinist in his town of Vila Franca de Xira. His area was a hotbed of political activity before the 1974 Revolution, and reading books in clandestine libraries kindled his interest in sociology. After the revolution, he was able to return to the university and receive his Ph.D., after which he worked for the government in the field of adult education, a job that took him throughout Portugal, to international conferences, and after the fall of the Soviet Union, to consulting work with countries in Eastern Europe. With the new conservative government, which has cut education funding at all levels, he has returned to teaching and research, and it was a research project that brought him to us in upstate New York, courtesy of the Fundação Luso-Americana.
In his lecture to professors and graduate students at UAlbany, Luís spoke about the current economic crisis in Europe and the neoliberal policies of privatization, government austerity, and weakening of labor rights that threaten to turn back the progress that Southern European countries have made since emerging from dictatorship. Portugal, in particular, has achieved stunning results in education, going from the least educated country in Europe at the end of the dictatorship to one where students’ test scores and university attendance matches that of Northern Europe. The stigmatizing of Southern European countries — Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece — as the PIGS, whose governments spent more money than they took in and gave workers, pensioners, and persons with disabilities more rights than they deserved, represents a concerted effort at propaganda among neoliberal politicians, business leaders, and the media on both sides of the Atlantic. In fact–and Luís’s presentation was an enlightening contrast between the propaganda and the truth–workers in the Southern European countries work more hours, make less, and on the whole have fewer protections than their Northern European counterparts. Pensions are lower and persons with disabilities are pushed to integrate into the workforce rather than paid not to work. Over three decades of democracy, Portugal, Spain, and Greece addressed the glaring inequality that stunted the potential of so many of their citizens and, especially in the case of Portugal, led many of those citizens to leave for better opportunities elsewhere. Luís expressed concern about the reversal of this progress and a new wave of emigration. When Portugal’s current Prime Minister, Pedro Passos Coehlo, said that the unemployed — now about 17 percent of the adult population — should emigrate, it brought back painful memories of the mass emigration, over 20 percent of the population, during the infamous Salazar dictatorship.
Luís concluded with a call to solidarity among countries of Europe. If the Southern European countries, stigmatized as PIGS, withdraw government support for education, health care, and worker protections, these tactics can be used to strip away these benefits in France, the UK, Germany, and all the other countries of Northern and Western Europe.
Luís’s research in Albany will compare the European situation to that in the U.S. And he came bearing an invitation for Richard to go to Lisbon in April to work with the Portuguese scholars on these topics. Of course, I can’t let Richard go alone, so it looks like both of us will be making a return trip. What a wonderful way to celebrate the first anniversary of our time in Portugal!