Saturday, 3rd April, 2021
There are stories that all seem to resemble one another. It’s always about money and the lack of justice, including social justice. These stories tell of arbitrary actions on the part of state institutions, injustice, a lack of rights and the abuse of power. No, we’re not writing a story about China or the Philippines. Instead, we’re trying to keep our own house in order. This story was told to me by Maria N*, who is 67 years old and has been retired for a year.
Every month she receives just under 400 euros. To earn this right, she paid her social security contributions for over 40 years. And then the unimaginable happened. Maria N received a letter from the Social Security headquarters in Faro, which completely destroyed any trust she had in the state. Before her pension payments could start, the letter stated, she would have to pay around 1,200 euros. Maria went to her local Social Security office, not least to enquire about the authenticity of this letter. It was there that the suggestion was put to her that she could pay off this debt in twelve instalments so as not to endanger the payment of her pension.
Over the twelve months that followed, the Social Security office in Faro took 100 euros out of her 400-euro pension every month to make up the total amount of 1,200 euros over one year. Consequently, in the end, she received a monthly pension of only 300 euros: not enough to live on, yet still too much to die. What is this all about, then? A fine payable in instalments, which the Social Security department is charging for a single unemployment benefit of 40,000 escudos (200 euros in today’s money) that was overpaid once, having been transferred to her by mistake by the government agency in 1989. By then, Maria had already found a new job on her own initiative and had signed off the unemployment register by the correct date. The authority however continued to pay one more unemployment benefit, never asking for it to be repaid.
This overpayment would, however, come back to haunt Maria 30 years later. Those 200 euros, overpaid in 1989, have now turned into these 1,200 euros that the state of Portugal is demanding from its citizen, including the exorbitant interest accrued over time. Many citizens in this country are in a similar situation to Maria N. They allow the bureaucrats from Social Security, the police and Inland Revenue to get away with what they do to them. They don’t defend themselves because they don’t know how to, and the state has only one institution to help informed citizens obtain legal satisfaction, and that institution is located far away in the centre of Lisbon. It is a toothless tiger, known as the Provedoria de Justiça, the Office of the Public Defender or the Ombudsman. Those living in Portugal and paying their taxes and social security here are caught like lambs in a herd of sheep with no real right of redress. The ombudsman, you see, has no executive role, no real power to correct decisions on the part of the authorities.
Business as usual?
Living on the other side of the municipality is the mayor that Maria voted for last time round. By mistake? We won’t mention his name or his party affiliation here. They are of no relevance, as it makes no difference whether he belongs to the Conservative or the Socialist camp. Just like his predecessor from the other party, the mayor has always been a member of the Social Security advisory council, without ever lifting a finger for his “subjects” in this capacity. Together with his salary, the mayor receives an allowance for attending the meetings of this council, drives his Volvo to Faro or Lisbon and has no time to look at what’s going wrong in the county’s administration. Business as usual? Portugal consists of 308 municipalities, where local elections will be held this autumn. One third of those districts have candidates or mayors running for office who already have one foot in prison – or in court at any rate – because they are currently being charged with corruption. At the moment, Portugal is governed by politicians and bureaucrats who are heading for the abyss. It’s just that up till now they hadn’t noticed.
Democracy with no holds barred? Yes, this is our creed as journalists. This is a story we have thought about for a long time, considering whether and, if so, how, when and where to publish it. We are aware of the power and responsibility invested in us as journalists and the fourth estate. And being incorruptible gives us that little bit more courage than most others. For our job is to tell the truth through words, photographs, audio and films, and we won’t be cowed. We love our work and we know our rights and our duties.
In the past century, many of you were forced to live for 48 years – from 1926 to 1974 – under a fascist dictatorship and, of course, you remember this time all too well. We are talking about two generations of citizens without rights: people who were kept in a state of fear and loathing by the GNR (police), the military, the Guarda Fiscal (customs and excise), the PIDE (secret police) and others. At the time, many families chose to emigrate, some returning after 1974, others now living as the next generation in Paris, Dijon, Norfolk, Stuttgart, Dortmund, Hamburg, Luxembourg, Basle and many other places scattered around the globe. Ten million Portuguese live abroad, ten million within the borders of Portugal. There is no state on this earth that is so torn within itself. The dividing lines run through many families. Many of those who stayed behind came to an arrangement with the dictatorship, whilst others left the country. A few went underground. There was a time when cowardice and betrayal were born in Portugal, in the dark days of the dictatorship before 1974. Many are still so intimidated to this day that they will only voice their opinion quietly, in private. Maria N is one of these people. She would never dream of fighting back, rebelling, complaining and taking the Social Security employee in Faro to court. Where would she do that? Using which court exactly? The state has no independent institution where one could register without too much bureaucracy and file a complaint stating that a Social Security demand dating from 1989 has long since passed the statute of limitations in 2020. But what does exist is freedom of opinion and the right of the press to write about such things. We should never forget that.
Portugal is not only a country of sunshine. For two generations, human rights violations, torture and deportations were daily occurrences. Those living in Portugal today experience the real Portugal, a country whose reality is not showcased at any tourism fair. Since 1974, the old system based on the injustices of dictatorship has been abolished and replaced by a parliamentary democracy, with civil laws and what is known as the separation of powers: a legislature, an executive and a judiciary. This is what it says in the constitution, and in subsequent laws. But is it enough for it just to be written there? On paper? How do you live if you don’t really know what democracy is? Since the Carnation Revolution, there has never been any true engagement with righting the wrongs of the dictatorship, nor with ensuring reparations for the victims of fascism. And what does it mean to be educated in the context of democracy? After 1974, many fascists and fellow travellers from the Salazar era were allowed to carry on working for the public authorities, including the police, the Public Prosecution Service, the military, schools, universities and courts of law; and they have shaped the following generations. This could serve as an explanation for the strange excesses on the part of state authorities – the executive – still occurring here and there two generations later, in 2021, even in the midst of a pandemic. This shows that it’s simply not enough to commemorate 25 April each year with events that amount to not much more than a funeral service for democracy. A living democracy needs a lot of fresh air in the corridors of bureaucracy.
ECO123 will carry on reporting on this over the coming weeks of the month of April (note that the anniversary of the Carnation Revolution is on 25 April!) and after. There is a reason for the fact that, at the moment, a fascist party such as Chega is enjoying so much support from those who are unhappy with democracy. This also has to do with the arbitrary actions taken by authorities, corruption and nannyism. And with the fact that many politicians are endowed with little sensitivity and did not enjoy a democratic education themselves. Many of them view the state as a kind of self-service facility, a shopping mall stocked with European Union grants and subsidies. Just take what you need, not forgetting your family and friends, of course. The remainder of the voting public lives in poverty. Don’t be surprised if Chega emerges from the local elections as the strongest force!
Not that anything will change. This is about the executive, the GNR police, the Social Security and the Inland Revenue. Over the past twelve months, these authorities have shown a growing tendency to ignore the existence of the democratic state in large swathes of Portuguese public life, as if democracy has been suspended during lockdown. In many individual cases, civil servants, exempt (through the constitution) from being controlled, abuse their state-invested power, using the trappings of their office not only to suspend civil rights, but also to apply some disproportionately high fines for ridiculously minor infractions. Some have treated citizens badly, making them the victims of their omnipotence and whims. Strange things happen in Social Security and Inland Revenue offices. And because there are such cases, this attitude of lawlessness is reflected in the behaviour of some citizens and companies. Where corruption runs rampant, theft and fraud are not far away. Why is it that the so-called dignitaries put themselves forward for vaccination ahead of ordinary citizens? Why, people wonder, should Lisbon get a second airport costing billions when, at the same time, several thousand TAP employees are on the hit list for losing their jobs and ever fewer planes will be needed – and this is not only taking place during the pandemic, but also against the backdrop of a climate crisis where the foremost political priority should be to create the basis for fewer CO2 emissions. And what is required in the circumstances isn’t exactly a new airport, but rather investing in the ramshackle health system in order to improve it. In times of crisis, politics is often not only counterproductive, but displays little forward thinking in its actions. This damages democracy, discrediting it in the process.
On the one hand, ECO123 reports on the violations of civil rights – but also about the fact that there are better ways to handle things. There are few districts in Portugal where politics is shaped and conducted together with its citizens, successfully. And we keep receiving letters to the editor from everywhere. ECO123 is not only read in Portugal, but beyond its borders too: in Brussels, just as much as in Berlin, London, Dublin and Oslo. ECO123 works in three languages and, through its online editions, has subscribers far beyond the frontiers of Portugal; and not only among the community of Portuguese expats. Let’s now cut to the chase of this story: from today on, dear readers, we are offering you an Anonymous Postbox where you can pass on information, if you want to tell us your story, be it about the police, Social Security, Inland Revenue – or your experience at hospitals and with local government. We are writing real life stories here. ECO123 keeps a close watch on the state. Because the state is made up from all of us, and the public administration lives off our tax contributions. What do we receive in return from the legislative, executive and judiciary powers for financing them with taxpayers’ money?
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The same rights?
All her life, Maria N worked in the kitchens of restaurants in the Algarve, when there was still tourism. For a long time, Maria has kept the correspondence received from the Social Security in Faro and signed with the name of its director Margarida Flores. Margarida Flores? This lady has studied law and is a public figure, a member of the Tavira Socialist Party and her party’s Equal Opportunities Officer in the Algarve. She is also responsible for all the rude letters issued by the Social Security that are sent from the offices in Faro to people in the Algarve. They are signed with her name. In Maria N’s case, she missed the opportunity to place a hard-working woman on an equal footing with a man and to ensure social justice for her, not only at a pensionable age. She has messed up big time. Nothing can be said to soften the edges here. This job, with all the authority vested in it, requires significant competences that mark out a qualified civil servant in her job: technical know-how, care and attention coupled with humility, stamina and patience, a finely-honed sense of the correct way to deal with people, and, most of all, one thing: a self-reflective ability to admit your mistakes. Will she be able to do this?
* Maria N’s real name is known to the editors.