Saturday 25th September 2021.
About three years ago, a Portuguese journalist asked me to appear on her television program, Guided Tour (Visita Guiada in Portuguese), which aims at introducing viewers to destinations of historical and cultural interest in the country. She wanted to interview me inside St. Dominic’s Church in Lisbon because it was there that the anti-Semitic pogrom began in 1506 that I describe in my bestselling novel The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon. During the pogrom, which lasted for three days, some 2,000 New Christians – Jews forcibly converted to Christianity nine years earlier – were murdered and burnt in the Rossio, the city’s main square. According to contemporaneous accounts of the riot, priests from St. Dominic’s Church led a vicious mob through the streets of the Lisbon, shouting, “Death to the Jews!” and “Death to the heretics!”
Until my novel was published in 1996, this crime against humanity – generally referred to as the Lisbon Massacre of 1506 – was almost completely forgotten in Portugal. One American reviewer noted that The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon had forced an entire nation – Portugal – to re-evaluate its history with regard to Jewish presence in the country.
I agreed to appear on Guided Tour to discuss Jewish history in Portugal but two weeks before filming, the journalist who’d invited me telephoned me to cancel the interview. Why? The Church diocese of Lisbon refused to allow me to enter St. Dominic’s and be filmed discussing the Lisbon Massacre of 1506. Yes, 500 years after the anti-Semitic pogrom, Lisbon’s Catholic hierarchy was able to censor my appearance on a television program. These officials obviously wished to hide the truth about the Church’s involvement in the massacre.
I mention this story because Portugal’s evolution into a stable and progressive democracy over the past twenty years has been so successful that a great many Portuguese have tended to forget that such reactionary objectives are still common here – that ultra-conservative, far-right and even fascistic groups within the country are well organized and, in some cases, still have a great deal of power and economic clout. And these same rather ingenuous people – myself included – have often failed to realize, as well, that such groups will do all they can to hide or distort the truth to further their goals.
Since 2019, a far-right party founded by a former sports commentator has attempted to unite these disparate groups behind a platform that features xenophobic, racist and ultra-nationalistic policies. The party’s name is “Chega!” (meaning “Enough”!). The idea behind this name is that party leadership has had enough the current state of affairs in Portugal and wishes to do away with the country’s progressive social and economic policies.
Chega started as a personality cult dedicated to its founder, André Ventura, and largely remains so. But that doesn’t seem to have significantly hindered its rise. Ventura was elected to Parliament in 2019, which has given him a highly visible platform with which to put forward his regressive and radical agenda and aim insults at government officials and others who disagree with him. In the most recent national test of Chega’s popularity, the presidential election of January of 2021, the far-right leader received 11.9 percent of the vote. In all, 496,773 Portuguese voters cast their ballots for him.
A great deal of Ventura’s policies hinge on rhetoric intended to be controversial and thereby attract clicks on the internet and raise his television profile and marketability. For instance, he constantly characterizes Portugal’s current Socialist government as deeply corrupt – without presenting any relevant factual evidence – and blames Prime Minister António Costa and his supporters for all the country’s woes.
Like Donald Trump and other populist leaders, Ventura also taps into a lingering nostalgia amongst right-wing voters for a supposedly more glorious past. Of course, this requires his supporters to be wilfully blind to a history that includes the brutal colonization of Brazil and Africa and a long and profitable slave trade. And to forget, as well, that Portugal lagged far behind the rest of Europe for hundreds of years in all measures of economic and educational development.
Examples of Portugal’s history of backwardness? During Salazar’s right-wing dictatorship, which lasted from the early 1930s until 1974, women were unable to open bank accounts or take their children outside the country without the written permission of their husbands. The country’s secret police – the PIDE – regularly arrested dissidents, imprisoned them and tortured them in prisons that they alone monitored and controlled. The poverty was so crushing – and repression so severe – that an estimated one million Portuguese emigrated to France and other European countries in the 1960s. Illiteracy was estimated to be at 35 percent and only about 4 percent of Portuguese students were able to obtain a university degree. In short, it was a country where a significant part of the population had no hope of ever being able to achieve a better future – or of even being able to exercise fundamental liberties like freedom of speech.
How such an era could be regarded by Chega voters or anyone else as a Golden Age to which they would wish to return seems baffling to those of us who are able to think rationally. And terrifying.
As for Ventura’s proposals, here are a few examples:
At the height of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, in May of 2020, he called for the Roma community – estimated to be between 20,000 and 50,000 individuals – to be put in special camps and segregated from the rest of the population. (Yes, you read that last sentence correctly; Ventura campaigned for the Roma – formerly known as Gypsies – to be imprisoned in concentration camps.) His clear implication was that a community of less than 1 percent of the population was to blame for the rise in Covid-19 infections in Portugal, which was, of course, a complete lie.
In the party’s program for the 2019 legislative elections, Chega defended the total defunding and dismantlement of the country’s public education program and national health care system. (Yes, you read that correctly; Chega seeks to close all public schools, as well as all public clinics and hospitals.) During the Covid-19 pandemic, Ventura has continually insulted the Minister of Health and other top health officials, citing their supposed mismanagement of the crisis. The truth is quite the opposite; Portugal has managed the pandemic with admirable efficiency after getting off to the same slow start that plagued all the member nations of the European Community. By now, the health care system has vaccinated a higher percentage of its population than all but two countries in the world (Malta and Iceland). Chega’s leaders refuse to recognize this success, however, and have continually criticized government guidelines, including the wearing of masks and social distancing. Its voters apparently fail to understand that without a robust National Health Care system and strong centralized planning, Covid-19 would have run rampant through the population, as it has in countries with inefficient health care systems and those with widely varying local policies (such as the United States).
In the same electoral program from 2019, Chega called for a ban on abortions performed at public hospitals and clinics.
At the party’s convention in 2020, a delegate submitted a proposal calling for women who end their pregnancies to have their ovaries surgically removed. Although this proposal was ultimately rejected, 38 party representatives voted in favor of it. In other words, 38 delegates voted to arrest women who have had an abortion and subject them to the forced surgical removal of their ovaries.
Like his fellow right-wing populists Trump and Bolsonaro, Chega also pushes hard to disseminate lunatic conspiracy theories. For instance, when Ventura tested positive for Covid-19 during the summer of 2021, members of the party from the city of Vila Real spread the news on Facebook that healthcare workers at the country’s vaccination centers were trying to poison their leader and other Chega members.
Through his formal proposals and posts on social media, Ventura and his allies have made it clear to potential voters that they will not shy away from ideas that have been proven to be counter-productive and highly dangerous (destroying the country’s public healthcare system) or dictatorial and immoral (putting Roma in concentration camps and forcibly removing women’s ovaries) or meant to spread false news and increase their leader’s visibility (alleging that vaccination center workers have attempted to poison Ventura). In this way, he has copied the tactics of other far-right leaders, including Marine le Pen, and he has courted these leaders support on various occasions. Ventura invited Le Pen to speak at a Chega rally in January of 2021, for instance. There, she called Ventura, “A great political leader” and took turns with him in fulminating against immigration into Europe from developing nations.
Who, besides Ventura, constitutes the leadership of Chega?
A notorious example would be Hugo Ernano, a former member of the Republican Guard (a national police force) who was convicted in 2008 of murdering a 13-year-old Roma boy subsequent to a car chase. Ernano was sentenced to nine years in prison and ordered to pay the family of the young man 80,000 euros. Despite that, he became Chega’s lead candidate for the city of Porto in the legislative elections in 2019, proving, one could logically conclude, that a convicted child-killer is just the kind of candidate that the party hopes to put forward in order to attract voters and new members.
It would be too easy to dismiss such candidates – and Chega’s entire platform – as too radical and dangerous to win him any real power, but by obtaining 11.9 percent of the last presidential election Ventura proved that racist, misogynistic and dictatorial proposals appeal to a minority of the population and that his party might one day become a force able to influence government policy. A perilous precedent was set in November of 2020, in fact, when the country’s second most powerful political party, the Social Democrats (PSD), formed a coalition with Chega to govern the autonomous region of the Azores. In this way, the PSD and its leader, former Porto mayor Rui Rio, legitimized Chega’s immoral proposals and populist tactics.
Alarmingly, Chega has managed on occasion to turn media coverage in Portugal away from the important issues, such as climate change, the gap between the rich and poor and the need to reinforce Portugal’s public education system. It has also worked hard to create doubt in the minds of people as to whether such measures as wearing masks, social distancing and vaccinations are necessary to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. In so doing, Ventura and his friends have helped create a political atmosphere in which the truth and what is essential are increasingly irrelevant, in which what counts is getting the attention of voters through the dissemination of false news, lies and controversial proposals.
How popular Chega will become in years to come is anyone’s guess. After all, six or seven years ago it would have been impossible to predict the success of Donald Trump. And if logistical and financial help come from Marine Le Pen and other far-right allies, then the Portuguese could very well find themselves living in a country as polarized as Brazil or the United States. And even worse, find their government destroying the progressive policies that have created successive generations of well-educated young people, lifted the country out of crushing poverty and developed a more egalitarian, healthy and fair society.