18 Nov 2023  |   03:43am IST



Vivek Menezes

It’s not something to take very seriously as yet, but the distinct uptick in racism in Portugal has begun to target Goans in that country, as seen in the poster alongside this column, which began circulating widely on social media after the shock resignation of António Costa last week. This cartoonishly bigoted meme evidently originated before the political upheaval, from an ethno-nationalist Telegram network advertising itself as “identity channel for Portuguese by blood (“para Portugueses de sangue”), and interestingly illustrates what is usually strenuously denied. It is an unusual paradox which needs to be understood in detail: on the one hand, 21st century Portugal is certifiably less racist than most European countries – and especially so with regards to Indians – but at the same time, the country and its citizens both stubbornly resist any feedback or commentary that suggests racism is any kind of problem at all, as well as the suggestion there is more work to be done in order to become more accepting of its own citizens of different ethnicities.

There are many factors in play here, including the dramatic surge of support for the far-right political party Chega (the name means “Enough” in Portuguese), which started its political innings in the 2019 polls with just one seat in parliament, but then catapulted into third-place overall in last year’s snap elections (when Costa led his Socialists to an extraordinary outright majority) with 7.2 percent of overall votes and 12 members of parliament. Its worrisome rise also neatly encapsulates the Portuguese conundrum: this overtly xenophobic party is continually racist in its messaging – for just one example, its president André Ventura called for a fellow MP to “be returned to her own country” – but even its most fervent opponents bend over backwards to parse the hate as “populist” instead of admitting the obvious. In 2020, entirely ludicrously, Chega even led a parade through Lisbon, in which the avowed racists kept chanting that “Portugal is not racist.”

Such surreal politics are patently absurd to any outside observer, and derive directly from Portugal’s schizophrenic relationship to its colonial past. In this regard, I appreciate the analysis of Cláudia Castelo, historian from the University of Coimbra, in her paper ‘Portuguese Non-Racism: On the historicity of an invented tradition’, which delineates how the myth of “better colonialism” was foisted on the Portuguese people. This patently silly notion was born in the 18th and 19th centuries, she writes, and then became the official position of the government when “the Estado Novo – the Portuguese authoritarian and colonialist regime that ruled in Portugal between 1933 and 1974 – appropriated the ideas of the Brazilian social scientist Gilberto Freyre about a supposedly special relation of the Portuguese with the tropics. Luso-Tropicalism argued that the Portuguese, in contrast with other colonisers, possessed a special ability for adapting to life in the tropics, through miscegenation and cultural interpenetration. This tropical vocation was not the product of political or economic self-interest, but rather resulted from an absence of colour prejudice and a creative empathy that, for Freyre, was innate to the Portuguese people.”

Under the myopic, out-of-touch Salazar – his own secretary of state Jorge Jardim reports the dictator called his Mozambican subjects “little black folk” – Castelo says “the Estado Novo produced and disseminated a nationalistic version of Freyre’s luso-tropicalism to negate that Portugal had non-self-governing territories under the Article 73 of the United Nations Charter. The Portuguese “overseas provinces” (the new designation for the colonies in the 1951 revision of the Portuguese Constitution) and the provinces in Europe formed a multicontinental and multiracial nation where everyone lived in harmony.”

In a distinct echo of the farce, we see being enacted today, “in 1955, Adriano Moreira, at the time professor of the High Institute of Overseas Studies and Portuguese delegate to the Inter-African Conference on Social Sciences, considered that there was no need to teach racial tolerance at Portuguese schools as UNESCO had suggested, since there was no racial discrimination among the Portuguese people; instead, it could be of great interest to highlight “Portuguese antiracist tradition” in primary and secondary education in Portugal.”

These are the roots of Portugal’s bizarre denial of what everyone else can easily see: “notwithstanding the internal logic of the colonial system, based on racial inequality and exploitation, the state political and ideological apparatus, through the education system, media, propaganda and censorship conveyed a Luso-tropicalist message out of step with the political and social reality in the colonies and instilled in the Portuguese the idea that they were not nor had ever been racists. Everything that constituted prejudice or racial discrimination was referred as ‘deviation’ from the fraternal, plastic, tolerant and ecumenical ‘Portuguese tradition’.”

This is very much “through the looking glass” – as in Lewis Carroll’s fantasy wonderland – where we are enjoined to believe the opposite of the evidence of our own eyes, because it challenges someone else’s cherished falsehoods. Here, it is absolutely fascinating to note the presence of Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho – chief strategist of the Carnation Revolution that finally liberated Portugal in 1974 from the dictatorship which Nehru’s troops expelled from Goa over a decade earlier – at the heart of the racist poster decrying an imagined Goan “assault on [Portuguese] mental life”. Over the past 50 years, this great hero’s ancestral roots were never widely acknowledged, but here they have been made central to his identity, with an Indian flag attached to his name. It an excellent indication of where the racist surge in Portugal is coming from: precisely the fascists who yearn for “the good old days” of the Estado Novo. Those seeking to combat them must realize it is inherently pointless to cling to identically Salazarist tropes claiming an entirely unfounded Portuguese exceptionalism about race. To do so is to lose the battle before it even begins,

Here is Castelo’s conclusion, which has my hearty endorsement from Goa, for whatever that is worth: “The illusion of Portuguese non-racism has prevented structural racism from being faced and combated in Portuguese society, and perpetuates racism and the fake imaginary that denies its existence. It is a vicious cycle that needs to be broken. How to put an end to it? Knowing the historical process of racism is a first step, but in parallel, implementing anti-racist policies in all areas of collective life, in the political, justice, police, and education systems. It is up to the state and the civil society to take up the challenge of breaking that self-assuring and immobile image and promoting racial equality in Portugal. It is also up to all citizens to embrace this task of radical social transformation in their daily lives.”


Idhar Udhar