Rise of the Radical Right in Iberia
Even before the international pandemic which set people against governments and governments against people, 2019 proved to be a pivotal year of critical political incidents and innuendo.
“On the American continent, it seemed easy to understand (Jair) Bolsonaro and (Donald) Trump’s electoral success,” postulated Luís Gouveia Junior in a 5 March 2021 editorial published by DemocraciaAbierta, a global platform that publishes Spanish, Portuguese, and English voices which influence debates on democracy, justice, citizen participation and human rights.
“Brazil and the USA both faced undeniable problems, and the two candidates provided simple, if racist and undemocratic answers. Bolsonaro was a strongman who proposed to crack down on the violence and crime that plagues Rio de Janeiro. Trump was a voice for the part of his country that blamed immigrants for taking their jobs.”
Yet, how does that explain André Ventura in Portugal?
“On the face of it, says Gouveia, “the social context would suggest that there’s little potential for a far-Right surge. Roma people, who are targeted by André Ventura’s rhetoric, represent less than 0.5% of the country’s population.”
The question, then, is how does Ventura manage to make his pitch under such adverse conditions?
“One possible explanation–that the far Right presents itself as the only anti-system voice and appeals to voters who are disillusioned with the system–brings the examples of Brazil, the USA, and Portugal together,” Gouveia proposes. “The anti-system argument is not new, with authors such as Boaventura de Sousa Santos having discussed it at length within the Portuguese context. What is interesting, however, is that the anti-system discourse alone seems to be enough for the far-Right to gain political ground.”
# # # # #
Over the summer of 2019, 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 by 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,” reported UK’s The Guardian newspaper, which lists additional anecdotes and evidence of racism and growth of the far right in Portugal:
After forgetting her child’s bus pass, a black woman and her daughter were assaulted 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. Later, 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 when black actor Bruno Candé was murdered after a man shot him four times in what ENAR 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.”
In 2019, the Portuguese Commission for Equality and Against Discrimination received 436 complaints regarding cases of racism, an increase of 26% over 2018.
Despite the growing number of discrimination complaints, hardly any 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, however, claim that crime in Portugal has decreased steadily by 20% over the past 12 years.
On 17 December 2021, however, rights groups and politicians in Portugal condemned images that allegedly showed police officers abusing and torturing migrant workers and said those responsible must be punished.
The incidents took place in 2019 in the municipality of Odemira, known for its fruit and vegetable greenhouses that rely mainly on migrant labor from Southeast Asia to operate.
The prosecutor’s office said seven police officers in Odemira had been accused of 33 crimes against migrants. The GNR said in a statement that it was aware of the incidents and “promptly reported them” to the public prosecutor office.
Two of the seven officers had already been suspended, it said. Three of the officers were repeat offenders.
The GNR (National Republican Guard) officers are charged with a total of 33 crimes against immigrants, mostly from Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan.
To make matters worse, video evidence, filmed by the accused and broadcast by CNN Portugal and local broadcaster TVI, suggests a group of military police officers engaged in the random harassment of migrants.
“Behavior of this nature is absolutely unacceptable,” said Prime Minister Antonio Costa.
In March 2021, Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, called on Portuguese authorities to address the increasing level of racism more resolutely in the country, as well as to take additional steps to prevent and combat violence against women and domestic violence.
The Commissioner remains concerned about the rise of racially motivated hate crimes and hate speech—especially targeting Roma, people of African descent, and those perceived as foreigners. She recommends implementing a comprehensive action plan against racism and discrimination, urging the authorities to condemn all instances of hate speech and insist that politicians firmly and publicly refrain from using or tolerating racist rhetoric.
Evidently, the Commissioner’s voice carried some weight. Portugal said it will review its anti-racism laws, including those concerning fines and sanctions, the government announced in its National Plan to Combat Racism and Discrimination 2021-2025.
The government committed to “assess the possible revision of the legislation on combating discrimination and hate speech … in the scope of administrative offenses.” The government also announced its goal of “strengthening the system of sanctions for misdemeanors, viewing the framework of fines and sanctioned conducts.”
Article 240 of the criminal code will also be revised in light of the international instruments that bind Portugal “to accommodate all the prohibited discriminations,” Sofia Branco reported in an article released by Lusa, Portugal’s national news service.
Nonetheless, a former TV commentator whose penchant for provocation won her fame and notoriety in Portugal by describing calls for racial justice “traitorous,” and referring to Black Portuguese people by an old-fashioned word that translates to something like “Negro.” Susana García ran for mayor of Amadora, a city adjacent to Lisbon with one of the largest Black populations in Portugal.
Says Nicholas Casey in a 26 September (2021) New York Times piece, “Ms. Garcia’s high profile and her combative persona mean she has tapped into a question far larger than who should be mayor: Namely, how a former colonial power like Portugal should deal with today’s debates about racial justice.”
Ultimately, Garcia lost the mayoral race–handily–to socialist Carla Tavares.
Yet a former prime minister, judges, top bankers, business chiefs and football club presidents have all been ensnared in corruption scandals. But with their cases still mired in a sluggish legal system, “perceived flaws in the fight against graft have become a pressing political issue,” the Financial Times recently reported.
And with this being one of the primary fields where populists prey, given the fact that government has not dealt effectively with the problem, it is expected (at press time) that the extreme right will gain from it in the upcoming legislative election on January 30th. Portugal’s legal system’s handling of white-collar crime has come to fuel greater discontent.
With every new case of corruption in Portugal becoming another “nail in the coffin of democracy,” at least those nails get driven at a turtle’s pace … just like the legal justice systems themselves.
Meanwhile, the white nationalist movement is spreading.
On 8 December 2021, The Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, established in 2002 by the then Commission on Human Rights, noted with concern “the prevalence of systemic racism and racially-motivated violence and ill-treatment, racial profiling, abuse of authority, frequent police brutality towards people of African descent.”
Members of the Working Group visited Lisbon, Setubal, and Porto to gain first-hand knowledge of racism, racial discrimination, Afrophobia, xenophobia, and related intolerance affecting people of African descent in Portugal.
Their statement concluded: “Portuguese identity continues to be defined by its colonial past, as well as enslavement and the trade and trafficking of Africans, and racial equality efforts have not confronted the importance of a broad-based renegotiation of Portuguese identity.”
Racism. Hatred. White supremacy. Police brutality. Extremism. Prejudice. Discrimination. All are symptomatic of the so-called “alt-right” gaining strength in Spain and Portugal.
# # # # #
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 towards women, the marginalization of minorities, the brutal caging and deportation of immigrants, and the overall worship of capitalism, we sold our home … packed our bags … said good-by … and emigrated from the United States to Portugal and Spain.
For 15 years, we had owned a vacation bolt in a small Spanish town (Olvera) in Andalucía, where we spent a number of weeks every year 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 four 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.
Religious discrimination and hate crimes are on the rise in Spain, 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 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.
Amid fears over the country’s far-right movement, protesters demonstrated in June 2020 against racism and fascism in Portugal.
In a 2018 report, the Council of Europe, a European human rights organization, referred to numerous grave accusations of racist violence against Portuguese police, while complaints to the country’s anti-discrimination commission rose by a quarter in 2019.
“The move comes after Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, Portugal’s president, declared 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 a 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,” wrote 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.”
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,” claimed 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 radical renegades can carry out their 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 and fewer in Spain, entrenched racism is still very real.
In a June 2020 article, the 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;
• “Convinced he was a terrorist,” a Spanish Guardia Civil officer killed an innocent Moroccan man in 2019, veering him off the road and shooting him eleven times as he fled on foot. Sentence for his crime was reduced;
• 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, equally important, 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 using the term “maricón” simply because she didn’t know any better.
Others, however, have had different experiences.
Attacks by the 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 pledged to curtail gay pride parades, heaped ridicule on diversity lessons it wants to scrap in schools and even has drawn parallels between homosexuality and bestiality.
Since the 2005 approval of the same-sex marriage bill by the parties of Spain’s left, center-left, and center-right, even the mainly conservative People’s Party (PP), which vehemently opposed it, has changed tack, helping to defend and approve various bills in defense of LGBT rights. Some of its politicians have come out as gay and married their partners.
Yet, in 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, Get Out.”
“We will … fight this type of violent behavior with the goal of continuing to build a society that is more tolerant of diversity,” said a statement issued by Pilar’s council, as the benches were 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 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 2021 ranking, Portugal and Spain rank fourth and eighth, respectively.
Lisbon Gay Pride, officially known as Arraial Lisboa Pride, is the largest LGBTQ event in Portugal (followed by Porto’s). 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.
That said, in a 22 November 2021 article in the daily Journal de Noticias entitled “LGBT Community More Discriminated in the Workplace,” Zulay Costa reported, “Those who deviate from the conventional norms in terms of gender identity and sexual orientation have added difficulties in accessing the labor market and are even more subject to job insecurity.”
The findings are contained in the Council of Europe’s study on diversity in the workplace.
“Candidates who are openly gay are 1.5 times less likely to be asked for an interview, and lesbians are offered a salary 6% lower than heterosexual women. There are cases of insults, harassment, threats, attacks, jokes, and prejudice,” according to the study.
Data from the Fundamental Rights Agency reveal that in 2019, in Portugal, 20% felt discriminated against at work, with the European average being 21%. And Costa’s article goes on to say, “L’Autre Cercie (a French organization working for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the work world) points out that 25% of LGBTQ+ people have suffered at least one attack in their workplace. The situation of transgender people is the most worrying: 43% report having suffered discrimination in their professional life in the last two years, 13% more than lesbian, gay, or bisexual 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 exact 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 Sephardic Jews, a threatened move that Jewish leaders and organizations had charged was anti-Semitic. 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. Although 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.
In 2020, Portuguese cartoon artist Vasco Gargalo was criticized for creating an antisemitic political cartoon published in the weekly news magazine Sábado. Media reports were disseminated showing Gargalo’s cartoon, which depicted former Israeli 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 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 in the same week, after a Belgian town earned a stiff rebuke from the European Commission.
It feels different now, 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 Donald Trump winning reelection in 2024, following a chaotic “Big Lie” post-election period in which he and others continue to dispute the results of the 2020 vote. American Jews, lawyers and advocates say, are chilled by a climate of rising extremism and anti-Semitism, stoked, or condoned by the former 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.”
Hatred and evil, unfortunately, are part of the human condition. Once we shine a light on them, however, they tend to scurry like rats. Thankfully, the incidents mentioned in this article are few and far between. Whether in Portugal or Spain—they’re exceptions, rather than the rule.
Let’s do everything possible to keep it that way!