Diaspora

I flew out of Portugal a few hours after the socialist government fell, leaving the country wide open to a courtesy visit from the IMF. I remember the last time they came to call, because I ate spaghetti every day for five months. The year was 1984, with whatever symbolism might be attached to that. At the time I had a temporary job and a six week old son. I received my first salary payment that year sometime in the month of July.

The job is long gone, the son will turn twenty-seven next month.

The Portuguese prime minister laid a political trap for the opposition, forcing the social democrat party to its right into voting against the latest austerity package; the minority socialists were left no option but to resign. The current PM is politically finished, although his intent was to lay the blame for the crisis on the opposition, and stand before the country in a general election as the man who would have saved the nation.

The notion of a bankrupt country is nonsensical, an extrapolation of company law to an altogether different paradigm. Nations such as Ireland or Portugal have a proud history that has seen off invaders, natural catastrophes, and lean decades, if not centuries. Iceland went bankrupt in 2008, but as far as I’m aware Eyjafjallajökull is not up for (fire)sale, neither is Reykjavik. And Icelanders are not yet auctioning their offspring on eBay.

The only circumstances when nations do not endure is when they are artifically created. Even then, as can (at least for now) be seen in Iraq and Libya, “false” countries, built around the model of Joseph’s technicolor dreamcoat, many by Britain, many by Churchill, endure.

Britain itself is a model of this approach, with England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland locked in an uneasy ménage à quatre. Why else would it be necessary to call these four countries, which field independent teams for both soccer and rugby, the United Kingdom? The same logic applied to the USSR. After Gorbachev and glasnost, the “soyuz”, or union, quickly broke up into true nations such as the Ukraine and Georgia, and into myriad central Asian republics.

It does not apply to the U.S., or to the European Union, where states or nations were invited to join, or expressed an interest in doing so. Mário Soares, Portuguese prime minister (and later president) was the architect of Portugal’s integration into the (then) European Community. There was landslide national support for this, with the exception of the far left parties, which would have preferred a Soviet satellite instead. The Portuguese people, who are paradoxically both sensible and ungovernable, didn’t wish to change the country’s name to Sputnik, and told the communists to bugger off.

World mapped onto the US. Mapping by GDP. An interesting take on the global economic geography. Trivial pursuit question: Are there more cities called Lisbon or London in the United States?

In lean years, Portugal has coped in one form or another. It did so eight hundred years ago under Arab occupation, liberating the country two centuries before the Catholic Kings of Spain conquered the last bastion of Al Andaluz, the stunningly beautiful city of Granada.

It did so when the Spanish occupation of 1580-1640 finally ended with the defenestration of the puppet regent from an upper story window in Black Horse Square, in downtown Lisbon.

And it did so during the peninsular wars of Napoleon, bidding goodbye to Junot, Soult, and Massena, the latter a particular favorite of the diminutive Corsican megalomaniac. The English helped considerably, through the good offices of General Sir Arthur Wellesley. Famous for beef, boots, and battles, the Duke of Wellington also kept his troops in country a little too long. In time he too was “asked” to leave.

As I went through London yesterday, where I was honored to give a talk at the Anglo-Portuguese Society on The India Road, I heard reports that Britain may well provide funds to help bail out Portugal. Our sovereign debt is no worse percentually than that of many other countries, and on a par with the situation in France and the UK. The United States now has 2.5 wars on its hands, and Syria and Yemen are coming. There is a tsunami in the desert, and these earth-shaking waves tend to shatter the best planned defences. Hello Iran and Saudi Arabia, I believe some sand is coming your way.

Crisis? We ain’t seen nothing yet.

If Britain contributes to a “Portugal” fund, once again the UK taxpayers are being thoroughly screwed by the UK bankers, since the pressure on interest rates for Portuguese government bonds is largely due to speculators in the Square Mile. And no amount of measures will appease the market. Churchill said it best, in an early (and controversial) wartime speech about the “neutrals”:

Each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough the crocodile will eat him last. All of them hope that the storm will pass before their turn comes to be devoured. But the storm will not pass. It will rage and roar ever more loudly, ever more widely. It will spread to the South. It will spread to the North. There is no chance of a speedy end except through united action.

Ironically, a good many Portuguese are in England, doing the jobs that English people will not do, so they are net contributors to that bailout. I had breakfast this morning in Marylebone High Street, after dropping off another copy of my book at Daunt. After a book gets sold, Daunt accept a new consignment, but only one book at a time. Quite right, since shelf space is valuable.

A faux-frog café in central London. All the wine, beer, and spirits are from the Terra Santa. No café in Portugal would fail to have alcohol on display.

All the cafés have trendy French names, as if that would make the food any better. Today I was in La Bonne Bouche―a well known Portuguese expression, boa boca, meaning: I’ll eat anything. Behind the counter, Portuguese staff. Coming in for their coffee, Portuguese workers. It’s the same all the way down the high street. When times get tough, the country has less carrying capacity. People leave. Not just France, Germany, or the UK. Angola, Brazil, the old haunts of the empire.

When I left, I said obrigado. The guy didn’t know me from Adam, and he didn’t look up. All he said was: até amanhã. Just a couple of wandering Jews in the Iberian diaspora.

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