In 2011, the Portuguese government accepted a €78 billion bailout from the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund (jointly known as the troika). The conditions set by the troika proved onerous enough, while the right-wing PSD-CDS coalition government led by Pedro Passos Coelho and Paulo Portas introduced measures that went further than required.
The government introduced new taxes, cut wages, cut jobs, increased working hours and ripped up employment protections, all of which led to a series of demonstrations like this one on 29 September 2012, the March Against Unemployment organised by the national trade union federation.
I just happened to be in Lisbon when this protest took place, so I decided to join in. I arrived at Praça do Comércio just as it began to fill up. I remember it was a beautiful warm and colourful day. The bright blue of the sky combined with the bright yellow of the buildings surrounding the square and the bright red banners carried by so many protesters.
There was a carnival atmosphere. Of course, the people were angry; otherwise, why would they be there? But it was good-natured anger. Many of the banners on display were humorous if not downright funny; there was singing and dancing and, certainly, a lot of abuse aimed at the politicians of all parties – but especially at the governing parties.
I hung about the square for a while and listened to the various trade unionists on the stage denounce austerity, the government, politicians in general, the troika, the bankers, the bosses and the European Union, blaming everyone and anyone for the state of affairs. There were the mandatory chants to get the crowd worked up, including o povo unido, jamais será vencido, a luta continua nas empresas e na rua and more, then, of course, the almost obligatory singing of Grândola, Vila Morena.
I waited in the square for the concert to start, with music from Portugal’s 2011 Eurovision contestants, Homens da Luta, with A Luta É Alegria, which almost became an anthem of the anti-austerity protests that continued in one form or another from 2011 until the Socialist Party was able to form a minority government in November 2015 (the Geringonça). However, it was hot, there was no shade and I needed to hydrate.
I walked up Rua Augusta and watched the protesters making their way down from Rossio to Praça do Comércio. Trade unionists, political groups, protest movements, community groups, anti-poverty campaigners. Nurses, bus drivers, stevedores, shipbuilders, teachers, civil servants, students, farmers, firefighters, pilots, shop workers, care workers, even police officers. They all marched down Rua Augusta carrying their banners, singing their songs and posing for photos.
This member of the National Union of Journalists spotted the Portuguese journalists union in the procession, so I decided to join them as we made our way back down to a Praça do Comércio that was now very much more crowded. I stayed, sang Grândola, joined in the chants, listened to some of the speeches and then danced with Homen da Luta and several thousands of Portuguese who had had enough.
I left with a spring in my step. Of course, I knew it probably would not make any difference and that the government would not be brought to its knees and austerity ended. But it was good to be among people who were prepared to give up their Saturday, many of whom travelled to Lisbon from as far afield as Viana do Castelo in the north, Tavira in the south and Beja in the east. It also made a very pleasant change to take part in a protest march in the warm sunshine.