I’ve been to Lisbon before, years ago, twice in fact. The first time was by proxy, an emotional trip of sorts. At the time I was the Chair of the CNN Multichoice African Journalists of the Year Award and in this particular year, the Award was hosted in Mozambique.
During a tour of historic sites in Maputo Bay, we visited an uncompleted high-rise building near the beachfront. Our tour guide explained that the grey concrete truss of the unfinished building with a mass of concrete poured down the elevator shafts by the departing Portuguese, was a constant reminder of a painful colonial legacy of spite. It was incredible and heart wrenching to see.
That image stuck out as indeed stories about vital national records and monuments maliciously destroyed by the departing Portuguese colonialists in 1974. The story, I’m told, is not much different in Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, or Sao Tome and Principe, also Portuguese colonies.
It sounds ridiculous to put colonialism on a scale of benevolence, from zero to 10, as to which colonial power did the most damage in Africa? What I saw in Maputo on that CNN Multichoice tour, my first proxy trip to Portugal, left a very bad taste in my mouth.
Then I visited a few years later – this time not by proxy – for a conference of the World Editors Forum in Lisbon. I nursed mixed feelings before the trip. A well-travelled senior told me to keep an open mind, but not to expect too much from Portugal, which he described at the time as “the backwaters of Europe.”
That trip was an eye opener. I had seen a number of European capitals. What I saw in Lisbon could compare reasonably. The infrastructure in many parts of the city where I visited was clean. While new developments were also springing up around the airport area, the city’s iconic historical buildings and sites were well maintained. The city was in a struggle to rediscover itself.
I can’t exactly say the people were warm but many of them, especially the taxi drivers that I saw on that trip, spoke mostly Portuguese and French and showed no inclination or patience for someone like me who spoke neither Portuguese nor French.
Nearly 10 years after that last visit, I’m here again in Lisbon for the Global Editors Network meeting, a gathering of over 750 journalists from around the world, to muse over how our robots might one day replace us.
The feeling in Lisbon this time is hugely different. I don’t know how it happened, but I felt the difference straight from the airport boarder.
The immigration officer not only responded to my greeting in English, but invited me, quite genuinely, to enjoy my stay in Lisbon! Not so the last time, when the immigration police gave me daggers with his looks and moved his magnifying glass from his left eye to his right, inspecting my passport.
My taxi driver spoke reasonable English and was, surprisingly, chatty. A colleague, who had a similar experience, later explained that it was from his taxi driver that he learnt that the current Portuguese Prime Minister is “Indian”!
That, of course, is an exaggerated reference to Prime Minister Antonio Costa’s roots to Goa, one of the last Portuguese outposts now under western India.
Later at the Lisbon City Hall, I began to understand that the warm reception I got at the airport and in the taxi was not a fluke. It may have been the result of a deliberate attempt to create a new face, and perhaps a new heart, for Portugal since my last visit.
Of course, the visa process is still a nightmare and I was scandalised to get a one-entry, five-day visa after paying for a two-year visa, not to mention the embarrassment experienced by a few other colleagues whose requests were delayed unduly or inexplicably refused.
But Portugal may be changing and the Mayor of Lisbon, Fernando Medina Macial Almeida, explained why when the Board of the Global Editors Network met him before the conference opened in the historic City Hall, near a building in the city centre, which used to be the construction site from where Portuguese ships set sail on their voyage to the New World.
There’s a conscious effort to position Portugal as a country open for business. At a time when xenophobia is driving Britain out of the European Union and far right-wing sentiments appear to be gaining ground in other European capitals, Portugal is rediscovering its multicultural roots.
After years of authoritarian rule, workers’ strikes and left-leaning economic policies that left the country stranded as one of Europe’s backwaters about three decades ago, Portugal is rediscovering itself; one of the oldest seafaring nations is diving deep into its past to find creative energy in openness, diversity and innovation.
Only seven years ago, the country was a basket case, prompting a EU and IMF bailout of 78 billion euros and an austerity programme. By last year, however, the country had not only recovered but grown to become one of the world’s top three tourist destinations.
Apart from tourism, Portugal’s software industry is also growing. The country, according to a Bloomberg report, is growing at more than 20 per cent in exports of some agricultural products and growing above 15 per cent in automobile, aeronautical, mechanical and software products. Companies such as Continental AG, Renault SA and Mercedes Benz AG, are investing big.
Portuguese youths, who were flocking to Britain out of desperation, are returning in their numbers, while UK, French and German companies are looking south.
Interestingly, too, there’s a soft side to all these. Some years ago, the average Portuguese could only speak Portuguese and, maybe, French. Today, more and more of them, especially millennials, not only speak Portuguese and French, they can also speak English and, unlike the French, they’re comfortable showing it off.
As the FIFA World Cup starts in Russia, Portugal may have only an outside chance of winning the cup, but who can argue that Cristiano Ronaldo, the world’s best and the hottest Portuguese soccer export, is a tree that may yet define the forest of the eventual outcome?
Will Portugal’s progress hold? I don’t know. But the mood in the street is upbeat. The last time I visited, the response on the street to the question, how are you, was something like, “So-so”, expressed with inscrutable gloom.
The mood on the street today is noticeably different, with people looking far more relaxed and open. As the Mayor said, “When Portuguese on the streets of Lisbon are saying, fine, in response to the question, “How are you?”, then you know that something has changed, fundamentally,”For good.
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