Over the summer, Mamadou Ba, the head of an anti-racist organization in Lisbon, received a letter. “Our goal is to kill every foreigner and anti-fascist – and you are among our targets,” it read. A few weeks later, it was followed up with a message telling him to leave Portugal or let his family face the consequences. That message was accompanied by a bullet casing.
Ba’s experience is “one of a growing number of racist incidents perpetrated across Portugal that have led the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) to call for an urgent institutional response,” reports UK’s The Guardian newspaper, which lists additional anecdotes and evidence of racism and growth of the far right in Portugal:
A black woman and her daughter were assaulted in January this year because they didn’t have a bus ticket. Angolan-Portuguese Claudia Simoes was kicked by a policeman and placed in a chokehold outside a bus station in front of her daughter, after forgetting her child’s bus pass. In February, two Brazilian women were attacked by the police outside a Cape-Verdean club, and in the same month, Porto football player Moussa Marega, born in Mali, abandoned a game after fans shouted racial slurs.
A worse attack took place on a Saturday afternoon in July, when black actor Bruno Candé was murdered after a man shot him four times in what ENAR has described as “an explicitly racially motivated crime.”
In early 2019, police officers in Lisbon, called to intervene on an issue between two residents in the Bairro da Jamaica neighborhood, were captured on video beating and pushing several residents. The following day, young Black Portuguese held a demonstration against police brutality. Police forces intervened and responded by firing rubber bullets. This then sparked accusations of institutional racism within police forces.
“In recent months, there has been a very concerning rise in far-right racist attacks in Portugal, confirming that the hate messages are fueling more aggressive tactics that target human rights defenders from racial minorities,” the organization (ENAR) said.
Endorsed by 16 members of the European Parliament and 72 civil social organizations in a letter condemning recent cases of police brutality and racist attacks, the European Network Against Racism also sought action from authorities,
Ba, who heads the NGO SOS Racismo, agreed: “There has been an obvious escalation in violence – a clear result of the growth of far-right terrorism in Portugal over the past few years.” Last year, the Portuguese commission for equality and against discrimination received 436 complaints regarding cases of racism, an increase of 26% on 2018.
Despite the growing number of discrimination complaints, hardly any have resulted in a conviction. Between 2014 and 2018, the number of convictions for “crimes of discrimination and incitement to hate and violence … is less than three,” according to police statistics provided to the Guardian.
Government data show that crime in Portugal has actually decreased steadily by 20% over the past 12 years.
Racism. Hatred. White supremacy. Police brutality. Extremism. Prejudice. Discrimination.
All symptomatic of the so-called “alt-right.”
According to Wikipedia, alt-right is “an abbreviation of alternative right, a loosely connected far-right, white nationalist movement based in the United States.”
Except that the white nationalist movement is spreading.
Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?
We left the USA for Portugal and Spain in March 2017 because of the alt-right’s growth. Disgusted by the politics, the police brutality, the discriminatory treatment of Black people, the anti-Semitic swastikas, the finger-pointing and curses hissed at LGBTs, the misogynistic attitudes against women, the marginalization of minorities, the brutal caging and deportation of immigrants, and the overall worship of capitalism, we packed our bags … said good-by … and emigrated from the United States to Spain and Portugal.
For 15 years, we had owned a vacation “bolt” in a small Spanish town (Olvera) in Andalucía, where we spent a number of weeks getting a foothold as expats in a “foreign” country. We decided to make our permanent residence in Portugal, however, so we could keep one foot in Spain and the other in Portugal.
Our status changed from expats to immigrants.
It’s been about three years now since we began dividing the days of our lives between Portugal and Spain. Throughout that time, we never have had cause to suspect or doubt the progressive attitudes in Iberia. For us, ultra-conservative-instigated hate crimes were a thing of the past.
Until recently …
Religious discrimination and hate crimes are on the rise in Spain, and are being pushed by rhetoric from far-right political movements. The country’s interior ministry sounded the alarm in its most recent report, which revealed a 120 percent increase in incidents connected to crimes of religious intolerance in 2017, with 103 cases registered compared to 47 the previous year. Elsewhere in Iberia, police from Portugal’s National Anti-Terrorism Unit arrested 20 ultra-nationalists in an operation that involved searches across the country as part of an investigation into attempted murder and other hate crimes.
“Portuguese police officers told to remove racist tattoos within six months amid concerns over rising far-right,” asserted a recent headline in the Independent, a UK newspaper. The ban refers to “racist, extremist or violence-promoting symbols, words or drawings” and also covers earrings, bracelets and rings, Portugal’s police force said in a statement.
Police gave no estimate for how many officers might be affected by the ban, which coincides, according to the Independent, with increasing racist violence in the country.
After moments of disbelief, I couldn’t help but wonder why the government had targeted the racist tattoos of these Portuguese police, rather than the racism under their skins.
Earlier this year, protesters demonstrated against racism and fascism in Portugal, amid fears over the country’s far-right movement.
The Council of Europe, a European human rights organization, referred in a 2018 report to numerous grave accusations of racist violence against Portuguese police, while complaints to the country’s anti-discrimination commission rose by a quarter last year.
“The move comes after Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, Portugal’s president, declared in August that there would be ‘zero tolerance’ of racism in the country as authorities launched an investigation over a number of email threats, allegedly sent by a far-right group,” according to the news report. “The threats targeted several people, including two black lawmakers who were told to leave the country and threatened with murder.”
In early September, the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe and American intellectual Cornel West joined dozens of activists and academics around the world in signing an open letter calling for solidarity with the Black movement in Portugal, demanding accountability and concrete change to transform the “reality of structural racism and its manifestation in police brutality, racist violence and racial harassment in Portugal,” writes Beatriz Ramaldo da Silva in a September 2020 article for Aljazeera.
Turns out that Portugal has become a target of alt-right ideology.
Boaventura de Sousa Santos, professor of Sociology and director emeritus of the Centre for Social Studies at the University of Coimbra, frames the rise of Portugal’s far right within the context of wider global movement:
“There has always been a far-right base as is the case in Spain, Italy, Greece – the far-right was in power for 50 years in Portugal – and this basis never disappeared.”
This series of recent events described at the beginning of this post has unveiled increasingly disturbing signs that far-right internationalism is turning Portugal into a strategic target. “Clear illustrations of such signs include the recent attempt, by some intellectuals, to play the card of racial hatred in order to test existing divisions both on the right and the left and thereby influence the political agenda, the international meeting of far-right parties in Lisbon in August, and the strike called by the newly created National Union of Dangerous Goods Drivers, to take place at the same time as the Lisbon meeting,” claims openDemocracy, a self-described “independent global media organization.”
Is Portugal so important as to deserve such strategic attention?
Portugal is vitally important because, from the point of view of the international far right, it is the weak link through which it can carry out its attack on the European Union.
People like to imagine Spain as a liberal paradise with sun, sea, and sangría, but its racism continues to be an open secret, according to the Olive Press.
With approximately one million black people living in Spain, that represents about 2% of the population–much lower than the 13-14% of African-Americans in the USA. While chances of seeing acts of racism are less in Spain, entrenched racism is still very much real.
In a June 2020 article, the Olive Press, an English language Spanish newspaper noted that:
• Every Christmas, locals around the country use black face as they dress up as King Balthazar for the Three Kings Parade, a tradition that goes back to 1885;
• In 2017, a black British stage actor was refused entry to a Málaga nightclub. A worker at the club later told the Olive Press that it had a “no blacks” policy;
• Just last year (2019), a Spanish Guardia Civil officer, who killed an innocent Moroccan man after veering him off the road and shooting him eleven times as he fled on foot because he was “convinced he was a terrorist,” had his sentence for the crime reduced;
• Elsewhere, a Honduras woman selling sweets on the beaches of the Costa del Sol was allegedly strangled and dragged along the floor by police, who told her that she “was not human”;
• Increasingly worrisome is the flagrant racism that continues to be shown by young people in Spain, particularly in the world of football (soccer), where racial slurs are printed on the back of jerseys worn by members of immigrant teams.
It’s impossible for white people to know how gut-wrenching such discrimination feels, but it means that we must rally around and support the likes of Black Lives Matter and similar movements fighting for justice in the USA and around the world.
“So, while we may not be in the US, don’t disregard the fight (against racism) as an American problem,” the Olive Press urged. “Tragically, both in Spain and around the world, the fight to end racism will not be over anytime soon.”
Same-sex marriages have been allowed in Portugal since 2010 and offer equal rights to the couple regarding property, taxes, and inheritance … since 2016, married couples of the same sex can adopt and foster children. (Spain legalized same-sex marriage in 2005, along with its adoption rights.)
People often ask us about homophobia: do we feel it or are we aware of it in either Spain or Portugal. Not really, I’d respond. Except for an elderly (90+) woman talking to her equally old widowed neighbor in Portugal referring to me with the word “maricon” because she didn’t know any better, we have never felt ridiculed or denigrated anywhere in Iberia. We’re accepted, just as we are.
Others, however, have had different experiences.
Attacks by far-right Vox party on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights are testing years of political consensus on the issue in Spain, which in 2005 became the third country in the world to allow same-sex marriage. Vox has pledged to curtail gay pride parades, heaped ridicule on diversity lessons it wants to scrap in schools and has even drawn parallels between homosexuality and bestiality.
Since the 2005 approval of the same-sex marriage bill by the parties of the left, center-left and center-right even the main conservative People’s Party (PP) which vehemently opposed it has changed tack, various bills in defense of LGBT rights have been approved. Some of its politicians have come out as gay and married their partners.
Yet, this month — October 2020 — homophobic “slogans” were painted on rainbow benches in Spain’s Costa del Sol.
Bigots in Pilar de la Honrada, a city-town-district of Alicante, smeared ugly graffiti on rainbow colored benches installed by Pilar’s council to celebrate June’s World Pride Day as an acknowledgement of local LGBTQ residents. Two of the benches were emblazoned with the words “Gays Out.”
“We will continue to fight this type of violent behavior with the goal of continuing to build a society that is more tolerant of diversity,” a statement issued by Pilar’s council said, as the benches were being restored to their original rainbow state.
ILGA-Europe, an LGBTQ advocacy group, released its annual Rainbow Europe Country Ranking, funded by the European Union, which ranks 49 European countries from most to least LGBTQ-friendly. The ranking is based on how the laws and policies of each country affect the lives of LGBTQ people, and the nongovernmental organization uses a number of indicators, including nondiscrimination policies, hate speech laws and asylum rights to create its list.
Of Europe’s ten most LGBTQ-friendly countries, according to ILGA-Europe’s 2020 ranking, Spain and Portugal rank sixth and seventh, respectively.
Lisbon Gay Pride, officially known as Arraial Lisboa Pride, is the largest LGBTQ event in Portugal. It’s an important event that aims to shine a light on the various issues of injustice that still affect the LGBTQ community. A much loved and celebrated event, it attracts huge crowds each year – with over 70,000 visitors attending in 2018. Since 1997, Lisbon’s Gay Pride has aimed to bring visibility to the ‘queer’ community. Pride is equal parts celebration and political demonstration of achieving equal rights for LGBTQ people.
Attempting to atone for a 500-year-old sin, both Spain and Portugal are offering citizenship to Sephardic Jews whose families were expelled in the 15th century. Historians debate the number of Jews expelled; some estimate 40,000, others say 100,000 or more.
Yet Portugal’s government found itself reconsidering the plan to change its ‘law of return’ for Jewish people. The ruling party of Portugal stepped back from an attempt to severely limit applications for citizenship from descendants of Sephardi Jews, a threatened move that Jewish leaders and organizations had charged was anti-Semitic. In mid-May, members of the Socialist Party submitted a draft amendment to change the 2015 law that grants citizenship to people who can prove they are descended from Jews whose families fled the Iberian Peninsula following the Inquisition, a 15th-century campaign of anti-Semitic persecution in Portugal and Spain. Under the proposed change, beginning in 2022, only people who had lived in Portugal for two years would be eligible for citizenship. This change would have sharply restricted the number of people who could apply. Currently, there are no requirements for applicants to live in Portugal or learn the language. Experts brought by the Socialist Party testified that within 100 years, a few thousand returning Jews could swell to 250,000 people and pose a demographic threat to Portugal’s identity.
“I felt like I was in a room in the inquisition in Lisbon and they were asking me to prove my Judaism,” said Leon Amiras, a lawyer in Israel who works closely with the Porto Jewish community on applications for citizenship. Though he was not present at the hearing, his personal family story was mentioned. “Suddenly these two members of parliament are testing me and trying to figure out if I’m ‘Jewish enough,’ [to deserve citizenship],” he recalled, as reported by the Times of Israel.
Earlier this year, Portuguese cartoon artist Vasco Gargalo was criticized for creating an antisemitic political cartoon published in the weekly Portuguese news magazine Sábado. Media reports were disseminated showing Gargalo’s cartoon, which depicts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wearing an armband like that of the Nazis but with a Star of David rather than a swastika on it.
Meanwhile, Spain’s foreign minister condemned a carnival parade featuring gun-toting Nazis and lines of dancing Jewish victims in June this year, a day after Israel’s ambassador expressed outrage over the spectacle. The display, which also featured a parade float designed like a gas chamber, was the second such incident this week after a Belgian town earned a stiff rebuke from the European Commission.
This year feels different, say immigration lawyers and others who work in the cottage industry of Jews permanently crossing borders. Much of the drive to leave has to do with the prospect of President Trump winning reelection, potentially after a chaotic post-election period in which he or others dispute the results of the vote. American Jews, lawyers and advocates say, are also chilled by a climate of rising extremism and anti-Semitism, some of it stoked or condoned by the president.
The history of bigots linking disease and depressing news with Jews, immigrants, people of color, or other minorities is a long and ugly one. The Holocaust teaches us that in times of instability and fear, people who didn’t previously express or tolerate racist views may find them less offensive … or even appealing.
In one of his most famous sermons, Loving Your Enemies, Dr. Martin Luther King preached: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Whether in the USA or Spain and Portugal, enough is enough is enough.
Shared here are personal observations, experiences, and happenstance that actually occurred to us as we moved from the USA to begin a new life in Portugal and Spain. Collected and compiled in EXPAT: Leaving the USA for Good, the book is available in hardcover, paperback, and eBook editions from Amazon and most online booksellers.