Society

Portugal: My neighbour, the Prime Minister

17 November 2011
Expresso Lisbon

Francisco and Bernadette Sesinando, Pedro Passos Coelho's neighbours.
Francisco and Bernadette Sesinando, Pedro Passos Coelho's neighbours.

In the suburban street in Lisbon that is home to Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho, the crisis has come knocking. Expresso reports on the manner in which austerity measures imposed by their high-profile neighbour have affected the lives of middle-class Portuguese who live in the area.

If Pedro Passos Coelho were to leave his building by the main entrance (and not via the discreet garage exit to the rear, which he has been using since he became Prime Minister), he would see the real impact of the crisis in the street where he lives in Massamá. The country is angry.

So too are most of the local residents – on the day when a new tax on holiday and Christmas bonuses was announced, some of the locals turned up outside the home of their illustrious neighbour to shout insults.

Just opposite, a hair salon and a restaurant at number 27 Rua da Milharada have closed down. The restaurant, which was unable to attract enough customers, had already changed hands three times over the last two years.

And on this traffic artery bordered by high buildings that look like they might have been made of Lego, so typical of suburban Lisbon, you only have to drop in on some of the local traders to see the scale of the crisis that is threatening the entire street.

“Nice and well-brought-up”

With every passing month, businesses are going bankrupt, and more and more locals are losing their jobs or having to accept pay cuts. Here, like everywhere in the country, the new austerity measures that are announced every two months have punctuated the mournful news of economic decline.

A few doors down from the defunct restaurant and hairdresser’s, Rute Ramos, age 35, sits before an enormous map of the world, waiting for someone to come in and buy a winter holiday in Lapland (Santa’s homeland) or a sunny destination like the Caribbean. But the people who can travel abroad are the ones who are doing well in Portugal, “and they are few and far between. Over the last year, we have lost 50% of our customers. They are mainly civil servants, often teachers, who have no more money for holidays.”

Rute Ramos is happy that she is still working: all the more so, because she has a one-year-old daughter and an unemployed husband who receives no help from the state. “I have the impression that half of Portugal is unemployed,” she says. And those that do have jobs are being forced to accept lower wages and increasingly precarious working conditions, which is Rute’s case.

The owner of a local hair salon tells us that her business has shrunk by 30% over the past year. “I have been thinking of going up to the fifth floor to hand over my salary: that way I could see if Mister Prime Minister is better able to manage my money than I am. Something had to be done,” she remarks, “but the measures didn’t have to be so harsh and brutal.” Of course, it’s nothing personal. Like many of her neighbours, the hairdresser considers Pedro Passos Coelho to be “nice and well-brought-up”.

Selling off gold

Not far from the Prime Minister’s building, the one change that stands out is a shop which opened four months ago: “We buy gold and jewelry for cash” says the sign. And in Massamá, like virtually everywhere else in Portugal, this is a thriving business. A box of tissues, a weighing scales and a laptop are the three tools of Liliana Coelho’s trade.

Nearly everyday, someone comes in to sell their jewelry. Most of the time, the customers are divorced women aged from 30 to 50, who are struggling to cope with difficult economic context. Here they can expect to sell their gold  for around 18 euros a gram, which is considerably less than the market price of 42 euros.

“You can tell that they are worried about their children,” remarks Liliana Coelho, “and that they are up to their necks in debt.” At the end of their rope, the women sell everything they have: engagement rings, gold chains, watches...

“I see some really desperate cases. Many of them have held on to their gold for years, maybe even for a lifetime. It’s hard to give it up like that, in just a few minutes.” Liliana is not convinced that the 600 euros she is paid per month is a sufficient reward for striking bargains with her misfortunate customers.

On the other side of the street, white-haired João Alves, age 70, is on his way to the pharmacy: he will not be able to strike a deal for the drugs he needs, his plan is to simply find out which ones he can afford with what is left of his 450 euros pension.

Having recently undergone a shoulder replacement operation, he has got it into his head to only buy the drugs he really needs. And he is counting days until he can get back behind the wheel of his taxi, which he drives for 12 hours a day: “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to pay my debts or my wife’s debts, nor would I be able to help out my children who are dependent on me again.”

“He has to obey orders from the troika”

João Alves is appalled by what has happened to Portugal: “There is no justice in this country. If you steal a kilo of apples they will throw you in jail, but you can steal millions and get off scot-free. I am talking about the politicians and the big bosses, they are the ones that have us tightening our belts today...”

Inside the building where our “dear” neighbour “Pedro” lives on the fifth floor, the tone of remarks tends to be gentler, even as the TV continues to blast out news of more panic on financial markets. Sitting on the couch, Francisco and Bernardete Sesinando, aged 78 and 76, make room for their dog Princesa, while they explain how the news is unbearable: crisis… crisis… and more crisis.

In their 200 square metre apartment, which is exactly like the one occupied by the Prime Minister, Francisco calls “Bernie” whenever their neighbour appears on the tube. For them, his predecessor, José Sócrates, is the one to blame for the current situation. Passos is completely innocent.

“He has to obey orders from the troika [the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the European Commission] or the country will go under,” explains the military reserve force lieutenant-colonel. His wife, a former music teacher, is annoyed by the incessant telephone calls from friends asking them to pass on messages or even insults to their neighbour. She would not dream of it: “Pedro is like a son to me.”

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