This quarter, I am studying abroad in Madrid. We only have class Mon-Thurs, so the majority of us use our time over the weekends to travel, myself included. This past weekend, I decided to travel to Lisbon with some friends. It is a beautiful city with great food (I highly recommend it), and its friendly people and low prices, at least in comparison to Madrid, quickly won our group over. We had a jam-packed schedule, as we were only in Lisbon from Thursday afternoon to Saturday afternoon. As Saturday winded to a close and we were walking to our hostel to get our bags and head to the airport, our group gave ourselves a solid pat on the back. In a mere 3 days, we had seen all that we set out to see, ate some fantastic food, and met some incredible people. We had planned so well…. or so we thought.
As we were walking to our hostel, we noticed a fair amount of people in the streets, a pleasant contrast to the relative emptiness of Madrid’s streets on the weekend, and in particular, a small group of protesters in Terreiro do Paço square. We figured this was normal, especially since the Portuguese economy is not doing any better than the Spanish economy (to learn about that, go read some of George’s old posts). In fact, Lisbon’s walls and streets are filled with graffiti and posters, proclaiming things like, “Money is taken from the poor and given to the bankers. More hours. Less pay. Less life!”
As we exited the hostel and got ready to head to Terreiro do Paço square, a hub for buses and the nearest bus stop for the bus to the airport, we realized that there were an increasing number of people in the street…and an increased police presence. In fact, Terreiro do Paço square had been blocked off by the police and streets were being closed for the incoming masses of protesters.
We were in the middle of a manifestação, or protest. Not prepared for the chaos about to ensue, we figured we would head to the closest square, where we hopefully could catch a bus or take the train or metro to the airport.
Rolling suitcases in hand, we ran through the crowded streets in the opposite direction of the march of protesters that was headed from the outskirts to Terreiro do Paço square. All ages of people were in the streets, shouting, holding signs. Some wore masks, impersonating Guy Fawkes, who has become a symbol of anti-greed.
The manifestação had been called by the CGPT, or Confederação Geral dos Trabalhadores Portugueses, to protest the austerity measures that had been taken on by the Portuguese government last May in exchange for a 78 billion dollar loan from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. These austerity measures included an increase in sales taxes and increase in public transportation fares, and salary reductions. More controversially, the government has lengthened workday hours without additional compensation, cut holidays, and reduced compensations for fired workers. Since these measures, the economy has only worsened, with employment hitting around 13%.
The CGPT, which has strong ties to the Portuguese communist party, called on Portuguese citizens to come out and protest these measures and the general direction of the Portuguese government. This is especially poignant since the Troika, comprised of the EU, the IMF, and the European Central Bank, is scheduled to arrive in Lisbon this week to evaluate the bailout.
As some of my peers stared at a metro map, desperately hoping that it would stop at the airport (it didn’t), I watched the masses of people passing us on the street. I was in awe of just the sheer number of people, the size of it all. It was inspiring to see so many people, politically active, voicing their opinion. CGPT reports that 300,000 people attended, the largest protest in 30 years, but as labor unions have a motive for over-reporting numbers and the Portuguese police is refusing to release an estimate, most news sources are estimating at over 100,000 in attendance. Some marched with their workers’ unions, others with political groups, and still more just joined along. Some people were holding signs protesting ACTA, some about cuts to their pension. They were all unified in their disagreement with current government policy and unhappiness with the state of the economy. Their passion was awe-inspiring and heart-wrenching.
As we questioned the attendant at the train station about how to get to the airport (“We need to go the airport.” “There is a bus station right outside…” “There is a protest.” “Uhhh ohhh, that makes it…complicated.” ) and stressed about making our plane, I couldn’t help wishing that I could just blow off the plane, go outside, take pictures, talk to the people, hear their stories, and immerse myself in political activism.
In case you were wondering, we did make our plane, after taking the metro far enough away from the center of Lisbon and waiting anxiously for the bus, hoping it didn’t get caught in the manifestação, surrounded by protesters. There were many things I loved about our trip to Lisbon – the fresh seafood, our incredible hostel (Yes! Hostel, Lisbon…trust me, it is excellent), the yummy pastries, the beautiful palaces – but the manifestação was by far my favorite. Hopefully I will get to go back one day to see all the things I missed and spend more time with the people of Lisbon, a people passionate enough to show up en masse to protest their government and kind enough to stop and make room for a group of harried American tourists, desperately trying to cross the street.