Portugal: no country for young men?

A comic duo in the Eurovision, a new hymn against high-qualified slave labour and a Facebook protest on March 12, brought back the dormant spirit of revolution to the streets of Lisbon.
Susana Moreira Marques
26 March 2011

It’s hard to translate the word “camarada”. It literally should be translated as “comrade”, but “comrade” seems like a word only possible to be spoken by a bad guy in a James Bond movie. It’s too Russian, too authoritarian, too organized. The Portuguese “camarada” is spoken between enthusiastic hugs. It’s followed by “pá”, an interjection that in Portugal can be added to almost any word, and makes “camarada” feel uncomplicated. A “camarada” is usually someone older who wears a moustache and uses unfashionable words, but does so in an endearing way. A “camarada” sits outside the café with a beer and snacks, looking at the world passing by, sometimes shaking his head with disbelief. The more the world lets him down the more he believes in his own, closer, “camaradas”.

The “camarada” was born in the fight against dictatorship, in exile in Paris and in the cells of PIDE, the Portuguese political police.  It fully blossomed when the regime came down in 1974 with the bloodless, inspirational, revolution known as the April Revolution or Carnation Revolution. With democracy, membership of the European Union in the 80s, and the arrival of McDonald’s and Zara, the “camaradas” were not needed anymore. For the 70s generation, the “camaradas” were now embarrassing friends or colleagues stuck in time. People who kept saying “camarada, pá” started to look like caricatures of themselves. The younger generation could not become a “camarada” without being accused of going through a phase, usually the hippie phase that could be preceded by a punk phase and maybe followed by a gothic phase. With access to the university and the European Erasmus exchange programme, with shopping malls and multiplex popcorn movie theatres, why even try to be a “camarada”?

And, suddenly, in the year 2011, two new “camaradas” appear, of all places, in the Portuguese competition for Eurovision. On national television, in the middle of the well-dressed and hopeful singers, with their too-sad or too-happy songs, came on stage a member of the proletariat, a peasant, a good-looking revolutionary woman in red, a soldier with a carnation (like one of the captains who had overthrown the dictatorship), led by Homens da Luta – two brothers, one of them wearing a long mustache, tight shirt, loudspeaker in his hand, the other with an acoustic guitar and hippie trousers – who have been highjacking political speeches and election campaigns for comic sketches for some years now. Homens da Luta sang “The fight is a joy”, finishing with the classic Portuguese words of protest: “a luta continua” – “the fight goes on”. Homens da Luta were not expecting to win. The TV presenter was not expecting them to win. Nor were the other singers, particularly the one who had been voted first on the chart by the national jury.  But then the votes from the public at home were announced on live television. “How are you feeling?”, asked the presenter, unsure of how to react when it was clear that Homens da Luta would represent Portugal in the Eurovision competition in Germany. “We thank the people who voted for us. Come to the protest on March 12, camarada, pá!”, answered Homens da Luta.

The March 12th protest had been called by four young people on Facebook. In a few days, the “Generation in Trouble” Facebook page had had tens of thousands of “likes”. They didn’t have a political organization behind them. They didn’t have money. They had goodwill and the help of another song, recently sung by the Portuguese band Deolinda, and an instant hit, expressing the frustration of young people: “What a stupid world, where to be a slave one needs to study.”

Half of the unemployed in Portugal are under 35. Thousands and thousands of young people, no one knows exactly how many, go from temporary contract to temporary contract, are forced into working as self-employed, and make barely the minimum wage. And yet they are the most educated generation ever.
They took to the streets with posters asking for respect, asking not to be forced into leaving the country, asking for the conditions to be able to raise families. March 12th became the protest of the “Generation in Trouble”, but was joined by several generations upset at the recent austerity measures and a crisis that in Portugal had started long before the international one. People took to the streets in eleven cities. In Lisbon, 200,000 people attended the protest and filled the main avenue, Avenida da Liberdade (meaning Freedom Avenue), exclaiming that there can’t be freedom without employment. I have been to many protests before and the annual march to commemorate the April 25th Revolution, and I had never seen the avenue that full. There hadn’t been such a crowd in the streets of Lisbon, joining without the support of parties or unions, since 1974, the year of the revolution.

Homens da Luta, having invited singers, old and young, to their open car with speakers, led the march down the avenue. They sang their main hit, which is so simple that it works perfectly as a protest slogan: “fight, fight, camarada, fight”. Events had forced Homens da Luta, a comic duo, into being the face of the protest and they didn’t shy away. Neto (the comedian Nuno Duarte), one of the duo, had his loudspeaker as always, but he didn’t say much besides: “camarada, pá”. He didn’t need to. It was like a password to another state of affairs.

With too many references, information, social networking, and a good dose of self irony, we are perhaps post-modern “camaradas.” But nonetheless, there is no doubt that the “camaradas” are back in Portugal. It was about time. Several posters in the streets of Lisbon said: “We are the future”. Are we, the young people of Portugal, the future? We will only be the future if we work on it. Of course, as says the Eurovision song of Homens da Luta, we will do it with joy.

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