Monthly Archives: January 2009

Aristides de Sousa Mendes: small tribute on Holocaust Memorial Day

Today is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In 2005, the day was declared Holocaust Memorial Day by the United Nations General Assembly (A/RES/60/7, 1 November 2005, adopted by consensus).

I take this day as an opportunity to pay my tribute to Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Consul of Portugal in Bordeaux, who, in 1940, saved the lives of more than 10 000 Jews, who were fleeing the Nazi invasion of France.

aristides20i

On 16 July 1940, he decided to disobey the orders coming directly from António Oliveira Salazar, the Portuguese dictator, who had forbidden the issuance of visas to “foreigners of nationality undefined, contested or under litigation; apatridas, and Jews”.

On that day, he said: “From now on, I will grant Visas to everybody, regardless of nationality, race or religion”. After the Consulate was closed, he still kept issuing Visas, until the moment he entered Spain. He justified his stubborness and defyance with these words: “If I have to disobey, I prefer to disobey an order issued by men than an order issued by God”.

He granted more than 30 ooo visas, of which more than 10 000 to Jews.

He was expelled from the diplomatic service and persecuted by the regime, and died as an indigent in 1954.

I take this example of non-conformism as very inspiring, since it happens that it’s simply so much easier to just follow orders and never take risks.

Update, a video:

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Filed under Duty of memory, Non-conformism, Portugal, War

Duty of Memory: European Parliament declares 11 July “Day of Comemoration of the Srebrenica Genocide”

At 11 July 2009, the commemorative ceremony of the Srebrenica Genocide will be officially celebrated for the first time not only in Bosnia but in all European Union countries.  Today, the European Parliament has declared this date to be the day of Comemoration of the Srebrenica Genocide.

As a citizen of the European Union, I want to welcome this resolution. This is an act that honours the democratic tradition of the European Parliament, the only european institution directly elected by the european citizens themselves. Through this act, the European Parliament is fulfiling its duty of memory and contributing to fight genocide denial and oblivion.

With this decision, the European Parliament is also helping to strengthen the fragile civic-minded civil sector in Serbia, by calling all the countries in the Western Balkans to join the EU countries in this european-wide celebration. dsc_0661

At 11 July 2009, 14 years will have passed since the genocidal massacre of Srebrenica, 17 years since the start of the war in Bosnia and 18 since the start of the break-up of Yugoslavia. During these last three years since I started studying full-time the history, culture and current political situation of the countries of the Former Yugoslavia, I have met a lot of people who shared with me their frustration for the impunity with which the apology of genocide and war crimes was done, and their sense of hopelessness regarding the prevalent state of denial of the majority of the population in Serbia. I have also met people who have expressed their fear that soon all would be forgotten and to those people I have always said the same thing:

The commemoration of traumatic events with political implications, which is one of the ways in which collective memory is established and renewed, obeys to a cycle. Immediately after the events, there is a peak in commemorative acts, but in the subsequent years the need to focus on the future and to face immediate problems provoke a decrease in commemorations. Traumatic evens involve a lot of pain, and it is only natural that people tend, in this phase, to repress those memories. This happens to individuals as well as to societies. The wish to live a normal life and to move forward drives people to neglect their duty of memory.

Anyone who has already experienced the death of a beloved person knows that this corresponds also in a way to the process of mourning. Denial is a mechanism that helps us to cope with our pain for a while. I remember that when my father died, for a while after his funeral it was as if he was travelling, but at a certain moment we had to admit to ourselves that he wasn’t going to come back.

In societies, this phase of decline in the remembrance of traumatic events is much longer than with individuals. The push for a new increase on commemorations and other forms of expression of collective memory, such as through narrative arts like literature and movies depends mainly on a specific group: the generation that lived through the traumatic events in the period of adolescence and early 20s. This is the generation that will most want and need to remember, because it is the one that was most deeply marked by the traumatic events. Older people will try to stick to the memory of how their life was like before it got disrupted and many try to ignore that period as a period when their lives were suspended, and small children were too young to remember more than what they directly experienced, and are more likely to have the most traumatic blocked or to keep only fragmented memories.

The moment when a generation starts getting its voice heard in a society starts when they reach their 30s. This means that, in the case of the genocide in Bosnia, thus moment is now only starting. This is the defining period to establish an enduring collective memory. This period will last more or less 10 years and will reach its peak at 25th anniversary of the events.

Someone who was 16 in 1991 and 20 in 1995 is now reaching his 35. It is thus the generation composed of people of 28-40 year old that most want to get involved and commit themselves in shaping collective memory. Because they are still young people with most of their lives still ahead of them, It is very likely that, if the circumstances so permit, that this generation will try to shape those memories in a way that helps them also move forward, and with them the whole society. In this sense, today’s decision by the European Parliament is a worthy contribution.

I am not citing any source because this is not an academic essay, but those intested should read this book: Collective Memory of Political Events. I am sorry to say that the book is hugely expensive but it’s the best reference in this fiels (other suggestions welcomed). However I didn’t follow the book to write this post, it is the product of  my own impressions observing comemorations of events that happened in my own country and of my experience as a researcher, reading and meeting interesting people.

Bellow you can read the text of the European Parliamente resolution (emphasis added by me to make it easier to go to the point).

P6_TA-PROV(2009)0028
Srebrenica

PE416.145
European Parliament resolution of 15 January 2009 on Srebrenica

The European Parliament,
–    having regard to its resolution of 7 July 2005 on Srebrenica1,
–    having regard to the Stabilisation and Association Agreement between the European Communities and their Member States, of the one part, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, of the other part, signed in Luxembourg on 16 June 2008, and the prospect of EU membership held out to all the countries of the western Balkans at the EU summit in Thessaloniki in 2003,
–    having regard to Rule 103(4) of its Rules of Procedure,
A.    whereas in July 1995 the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, which was at that time an isolated enclave proclaimed a Protected Zone by a United Nations Security Council Resolution of 16 April 1993, fell into the hands of the Serbian militias led by General Ratko Mladić and under the direction of the then President of the Republika Srpska, Radovan Karadžić,
B.    whereas, during several days of carnage after the fall of Srebrenica, more than 8 000 Muslim men and boys, who had sought safety in this area under the protection of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR), were summarily executed by Bosnian Serb forces commanded by General Mladić and by paramilitary units, including Serbian irregular police units which had entered Bosnian territory from Serbia; whereas nearly 25 000 women, children and elderly people were forcibly deported, making this event the biggest war crime to take place in Europe since the end of the Second World War,
C.    whereas this tragedy, declared an act of genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), took place in a UN-proclaimed safe haven, and therefore stands as a symbol of the impotence of the international community to intervene in the conflict and protect the civilian population,
D.    whereas multiple violations of the Geneva Conventions were perpetrated by Bosnian Serb troops against Srebrenica’s civilian population, including deportations of thousands of women, children and elderly people and the rape of a large number of women,
E.    whereas, in spite of the enormous efforts made to date to discover and exhume mass and individual graves and identify the bodies of the victims, the searches conducted until now do not permit a complete reconstruction of the events in and around Srebrenica,
F.    whereas there cannot be real peace without justice and whereas full and unrestricted cooperation with the ICTY remains a basic requirement for further continuation of the process of integration into the EU for the countries of the western Balkans,
G.    whereas General Radislav Krstić of the Bosnian Serb army is the first person found guilty by the ICTY of aiding and abetting the Srebrenica genocide, but whereas the most prominent indicted person, Ratko Mladić, is still at large almost fourteen years after the tragic events, and whereas it is to be welcomed that Radovan Karadžić now has been transferred to the ICTY,
H.    whereas the institutionalisation of a day of remembrance is the best means of paying tribute to the victims of the massacres and sending a clear message to future generations,
1. Commemorates and honours all the victims of the atrocities during the wars in the former Yugoslavia; expresses its condolences to and solidarity with the families of the victims, many of whom are living without final confirmation of the fate of their relatives; recognises that this continuing pain is aggravated by the failure to bring those responsible for these acts to justice;
2.    Calls on the Council and the Commission to commemorate appropriately the anniversary of the Srebrenica-Potočari act of genocide by supporting Parliament’s recognition of 11 July as the day of commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide all over the EU, and to call on all the countries of the western Balkans to do the same;
3.    Calls for further efforts to bring the remaining fugitives to justice, expresses its full support for the valuable and difficult work of the ICTY and stresses that bringing to justice those responsible for the massacres in and around Srebrenica is an important step towards peace and stability in the region; reiterates in that regard that increased attention needs to be paid to war crimes trials at domestic level;
4.    Stresses the importance of reconciliation as part of the European integration process; emphasises the important role of religious communities, the media and the education system in this process, so that civilians of all ethnicities may overcome the tensions of the past and begin a peaceful and sincere coexistence in the interests of enduring peace, stability and economic growth; urges all countries to make further efforts to come to terms with a difficult and troubled past;
5.    Instructs its President to forward this resolution to the Council, the Commission, the governments of the Member States, the Government and Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina and its entities, and the governments and parliaments of the countries of the western Balkans.

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My photos, 11 July 2008.

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Happy birthday Tintin!

Tintin, the famous belgian reporter, celebrates 80 years today.

tintin

I could never miss the chance to congratulate him!!!

I am very attached to Tintin. I had my first contact with the french language through Tintin, trying to read my brothers albums. Then when I was 18 I got my first regular job at a Tintin shop. It was a nice job, where I learned how to overcome my shyness and deal with all kinds of people, which in turned help me a lot to understand human nature, not to judge people for their appearence and to always look on the eyes, smile and be pleasant to the invisible workers who attend me in the shops or at the supermarket.

My favourite character is the Captain Haddock, because, unlike Tint476047691_a8431c161f_o1in who is self-rightous but sometimes too perfect, he is a person with a lot of flaws, but has his heart on the right place. Haddock is not the only alcoholic.  Milou, aka Snowy,  has a particular taste for Whisky, especially the scotch brand ‘Loch Lomond’, and, like Haddock, he also has to face king_ottokars_sceptresome moral dilemmas, as when, in the album King Ottockar Sceptre, when he has to choose between a tasty bone and the famous Sceptre, a decison on which depends the survival of Syldavia, a small nation somewhere in the Balkans.

Syldavia is threatened by its bigger and stronger neighbour Borduria, a contry dominated by a fascist regime with expansionist ambitions. (I was in Montenegro for first time in May 2006, for the referendum for its independence. There were lots of journalists there and I found it very funny that Montenegro was compared by many among them to Syldavia… an imagined Balkan country as a model for a real one!!!)tinb

Published in 1938, this book can be seen as a criticism of fascism and follows the tradition set earlier in The Lotus Bleu. Interestingly, Hergé was allowed to work during the period of Nazi occupation of Belgium, and this book was not censored, although Tintin in America and The Black Island were. Hergé’s political conservatism is well known and lots of pages have been written about it, in debates about the political contents of his books,  the near-total absense of women in his stories, not to mention the mystery of whether Milou was a male or a female dog, etc, etc.

Oliveira da FigueiraNowadays, what fascinates me most in Tintin is the possibility that its books offer us to get an insight of the prevailing prejudices of his time and their evolution. The case of Tintin in Congo is paradigmatic of this, with Tintin shooting and even blowing up wild animals and fulfilling is ‘mission civilizatrice’ by lecturing the local children about Belgium (in a later version Hergé depicts him teaching maths). The evolution is clear in The Blue Lotus, where Hergé actually engages himself to fight prevailing prejudices about the Chinese people and to denounce the japanese expansionist ambitions and the behaviour of the West. I could go on, but time is short and after all there were 24 albums!!!

(Oliveira da Figueira, the only portuguese to appear on Tintin’s albums, is the quintessencial portuguese)

Another sign of how much we have evolved since Tintin was created is the famous phrase that Tintin’s public was everyone from 7 to 77. Now that Tintin himself is 80, I imagine him as one of those old men who love to tell stories about what it was like when they were young.  I am sure he tells them in a very lively way, getting emotional now and then when he remembers his companions of adventures, Haddock, Milou, the famous opera singer Castafiore, his trip to Tibet in search for his friend Chang, not to mention is account of his trip to the Moon, and how stupid those conspiracy theories about the landing on the Moon being a fabrication of Hollywood…tintincast

In a way, Tintin could be the embodiment of the XX Century (which was, by the way, the name of his employer).

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PORTUGAL: Will we hit the bottom? Prospects for 2009.

In the last few months, the international financial crisis has been dominating the news all over the world. The financial crisis, and more recently, the riots in Greece are starting to force the portuguese to open their eyes and face the fact that Portugal’s prospects for the future are not at all bright.

portugal_afunda_seIn December, former President Mario Soares added his voice to those who warn that riots similar to those in Greece can also happen in Portugal:

«Com as desigualdades sociais sempre a crescer, o aumento do desemprego que previsivelmente vai subir imenso, em 2009, a impunidade dos banqueiros delinquentes, o bloqueio na Justiça, e em especial, do Ministério Público e das polícias, estão a criar um clima de desconfiança – e de revolta – que não augura nada de bom»

(…)

«Oiçam-se as pessoas na rua, tome-se o pulso do que se passa nas universidades, nos bairros populares, nos transportes públicos, no pequeno comércio, nas fábricas e empresas que ameaçam falir, por toda a parte do País, e compreender-se-á que estamos perante um ingrediente que tem demasiadas componentes prestes a explodir»

“With rising social inequality, the expected high rise in unemployment in 2009, the impunity of delinquent bankers, the blocade of justice, particularly the public Prosecution and the police, are creating a climate of distrust-and revolt-that does not bode well”

(…)

“Listen to the people in the streets, look at what’s happening in the universities, in the popular neigbourhoods, in the public transports, in the small shops, in the factories and companies threatened with banckrupcy, everywhere in the country, and one will understand that we are upon an ingredient that has too many components ready to explode”

It is not the first time someone says something like this, but, until recently, this kind of statements, that indirectly or directly question the very legitimacy of the political system, were only made by people who are or claim to be outside the system and who have their market niche as anti-system rebels. I am talking about University professors, failed politicians and others who have personal resentments and like to feed their ego and hide their personal flaws by blaming ‘the system’.

I am citing Mario Soares because he is one of the most important, if not the most important founding figure of Portugal’s current political regime. He is one of the founders and the historic leader of the Socialist Party, created in Germany in 1973. In the revolutionary period that followed the military coup of 25th April 1974, the Socialist Party lead the struggle with the Communists, who were trying to impose a communist regime, despite having been outvoted in the elections for the Constitutional Assembly. He was Foreign Minister in the provisional goverments, then Prime-Minister for three times, then President of the Portuguese Republic for ten years (1986-1996). He is a controversial figure whom many deeply respect or even adulate as a national heroe while others absolutely hate and blame all the flaws they identify in the portuguese democracy (not to mention those who hate democracy itself).

There are many differences as well as similarities between the social and political situation in Portugal and Greece.

The biggest difference is that the legitimacy of the current regime in Greece is much more questioned than the legitimacy of the Portuguese democracy. The portuguese revolution is a fantastic example of major changes being introduced and being accepted by the people without provoking major violence. Unfortunately its legacy has been under attack for many years, both by those on the political right that hate its left print, and by those on the left that systematically undermine its achievements by claiming ‘property rights’ over that legacy, and demanding eternal gratitude. There is also the role of the radical left in Greece, which has no counterpart in Portugal, while the regional context of Greece in the Balkans and Portugal in the Iberian peninsula is totally different and this has important implications on the people’s self-image and the behaviour of the political elite.

Then, there are the similarities: nepotism is not so assumed in Portugal, but it is widespread; the level of poverty is the same, around 20 to 25% of the population classified as poor, with the evolving erosion of the Middle class as a serious problem, and the situation of the youth is exactly the same.

To this we add the prevailing pessimism.

Since at least 2001-2002 the country is living in an environment of latent crisis and since then we often hear that our development model has run out and that we need a new one. But there was never a ‘development model’, for the last three decades Portugal has been run on a short-term basis, never with a clear well-defined strategy for development or an idea of future. During the years from 1975 to 1985 the priority was the stabilization of the new regime and the assession to the EEC, now the EU. These were very difficult years, not only because of the internal situation but also due to the international context. By 1986, a phase of stability and a favourable international context allowed for an unprecedented development fueled by EU subsidies and construction.

This period lasted until 2000, when it became obvious that it was reaching its limits. In my opinion, the roots of the current situation of latent crisis has its origins in the lack of strategic vision of those previous 15 years, the best example being the field of education. However, the situation prior to this period was so bad, that most people prefer to simply dismiss the idea of missed oportunities by pointing to the heavy legacy of the past.

During the last ten years, the only ‘development model’ to emerge was based on construction, the acceptance of de-industrialization as an inevitable consequence of globalization and the naive faith on Portugal’s touristic potential. Instead of looking for the missed opportunities provided during the period of economic expansion, people started identifying the Carnation revolution as the cause for the dead end in which the country then found itself. Since then, its legacy started being attacked much more openly, and last November Manuela Ferreira Leite, the leader of the main opposition party (PSD-social democratic party, actually a right wing party composed of an amalgam of conservatives and liberals) declared:

«Eu não acredito em reformas quando se está em democracia, quando não se está em democracia, é outra conversa, eu digo como é que é e faz-se; e até não sei, se a certa altura, não é bom haver seis meses sem democracia, mete-se tudo na ordem e depois então, venha a democracia»

“I don’t believe in reforms when we are in a democracy; when there is no democracy, it’s different, I say how to do it and it’s done, and I don’t really know, whether, at a certain point, it may not be a bad idea to have six months without democracy to put everything in order and then, bring democracy back”

This statement, which the whole country had the opportunity to hear on the news was not followed by her resignation, but merely by a statement of her spokesman saying that she was being ironic (irony and sarcasm is a national sport, but I don’t see any irony in her words)…this is the attachment that the party that traditionally represents the alternative to the ruling socialist party reveals towards the very idea of democracy…

At the social level, a mentality hostile to the concepts of solidarity and social cohesion emerged that contributes to keep divided and compartmented a country that has an otherwise very homogeneous national identity. This compartmentalization of the portuguese society has its roots on the fascist regime, where there was no social mobility, where the classes didn’t mix, and where poverty was portrayed as something of which people should be proud. As I remember my teacher saying in scholl ‘its better to be poor and happy than to be rich and unhappy’ (this ws the early 1980′, but the teacher was old and I was in a conservative school, which functioned as a ‘refrigerator’ where the social order of the previous regime was preserved-I thank my parents for the miserable years I spent there, it was a very useful ‘lab’). Meanwhile many of the poor stopped being poor, and their politicaly induced ‘modesty’ was replaced by an awful arrogance against those who remained poor, something which reflects their fear of having their statues reversed. An individualistic mentality emerged in which individuals who have failed to get rid of poverty are blamed as ‘loosers’. As a result, most people are ashamed of assuming its difficuties, ashamed of the situation of precarity or poverty in which they live, and fight each day to hide their situation.

These statements by Mário Soares do correspond to a widespread feeling among the people who live in Portugal. Pessimism and self-defeatism is part of our national identity, we tend to  be bitter and we love to complain, but we also tend to be conformists and to resign ourselves with what we are given and carry on. Still, even the most conformist people eventually become fed up and then the urge to change becomes irresistible.The problem is that change doesn’t happen spontaneously . If we take a look at Greece, what do we see? The government hasn’t resign and is patiently waiting for the protesters to get tired, while the problems all remain there.

I don’t believe something like Greece is likely to happen in Portugal very soon:

  • Unlike the greek government, the current government, which rules with an absolute majority, is not widely contested and the ruling party sistematically appears first on the pools.
  • The fact that in 2009 there will be european and parliamentary elections will provide a public space for the expression of discontentment that will deter the discontents from expressing themselves in other ways.
  • To this I add our comformist mentality and the social divisions that i have exposed above. The comformist mentality is so widespread among the youth that it becomes despairing to deal with people under 25, most of those I know seem to have no goals in life and have no problem in behaving as a burden on the shoulders of their parents, while the ones who show some dynamism are mostly dominated either by greed and cynism or by discouragement.
  • The fact that emigration is working as an escape valvule to decrease social tensions. Thanks to the fact that we belong to the Schengen Zone (how I love to belong to the Schengen zone), hundreds of thousands of people, both portuguese citizens and immigrants have been leaving  the countries (this is a double edge sourd, as it is mostly the youth that is leaving, with severe implications on our already fragile demografic structure).

So, my guess is, nothing will change, but since the structural problems will remain and, thanks to the financial crisis, will become undeniable and impossible to hide for much longer, instead of a political crisis we will have a sense of decay, with everybody expecting a miracle.

However, there is a potential time bomb ticking. As the economic situation gets worse in the rest of Europe and emigration stops being an option, the escape valve will stop working, while conformism has its limits.

But even if the degradation of the economical situation leads to widespread contestation, the fact is that change will not happen spontaneously, but neither there is a foresseable alternative within the political elite. This is dramatic, because it reveals the ultimate failure of the democratization process in Portugal, the existence of alternatives being at the core of the concept of democracy.

A moment of crisis is always an opportunity for a positive change, but the prospects of positive change are grim. Some weeks ago, in another blog, a friend asked the crucial question. Are we prepared to seize the opportunity?

How should we prepare ourselves to shape this change that most of us agree to be necessary, if not unavoidable.

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