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Lessons from Portugal's debt crisis

As soon as I stepped out of the Lisbon Portela Airport, the crisp air of this European country greeted me. It’s a refreshing feeling after enduring 14 hours of plane travel, crossing from one continent to another and passing from one time zone to another.

As one of the winners of the TH!NK5 global blogging competition on water and climate change, organized by the Netherlands-based European Journalism Centre, I arrived in Portugal on 17 April. The fresh evening breeze jolted me out of my jetlagged state as soon as I stepped out of the airport.

I was excited about the reporting trip, but I was equally curious on what I would see in one of Europe’s poorest countries. And it was only recently when debt-stricken Portugal sought for a bailout from its bigger siblings in the European Union.

As an Asian from a Majority World country like the Philippines, I was curious to see how a country from the global North dealt with a debt crisis. As an effect of the government collapse, did it now have beggars on its streets? Or did it have long queues in soup kitchens and social halls? Did it have street children sleeping on the cold pavement at night or populated slum areas that are tear-gassed by authorities during demolition activities?

Whether in Portugal or in the Philippines, what is certain is that the financial crisis now spreading across the globe is indeed a reflection of the deeper crisis gripping the capitalist system.

I saw construction of buildings left unfinished and shops with marked down sales. One morning, there was a small group of people demonstrating against the ‘imperialist policies’ of the International Monetary Fund.

Construction on holiday and sales on. Photos by the author.

European Commission press officer Rui Cavaleiro Azevedo said in an interview that construction companies can no longer access bank financing, which is why the construction of many buildings has stopped. This means job losses and a significant drop in consumption.

‘It’s a construction-driven economy so it is likely that there will be a recession for at least a year,’ Azevedo said.

Consumption spending is down, said a Portuguese bus driver I met. There is no other recourse but a bailout from the bigger European countries, he added. But this, he is certain, would lead to higher taxes for the Portuguese people later on.

‘Nothing is free,’ said the driver, bracing himself for more difficult times ahead.

Already, his fellow citizens are trying to be more creative in making a living. When it rains, some hard-working Portuguese flock to tourist spots to sell umbrellas for a few Euros.

As I walked around the cobbled-stone streets of Portugal, I couldn’t help recall the words of radical sociologist David Harvey. In a video called ‘Crises of Capitalism’, produced by RSA, Harvey says that it’s time to look beyond capitalism.

He provides no concrete alternative but poses the question: ‘Is it time to look beyond capitalism towards a new social order that would allow us to live within a system that really could be responsible, just, and humane?’

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