June 10 and other global challenges

Dear Editor,

Today, on June 10, Portugal and the Portuguese around the world celebrate Portugal Day, officially the Day of Portugal, Camões and the Portuguese Communities.

It is celebrated every June 10, the anniversary of the death of Portugal’s famous poet, Luís de Camões, in 1580.

Camões’ most famous work, the epic poem “The Lusiads”, describes Portugal’s discoveries during the middle ages. The poet himself, whose date of birth is uncertain (1524 or 1525), was a seafaring adventurer. His death, in 1580, coincided with the Portuguese succession crisis, which resulted in Spain’s Phillip II claiming the Portuguese throne. Spanish kings ruled the country until 1640.

Today’s celebrations are low-key and largely symbolic, without parades and assemblies, due to the restrictions required by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Although Portugal has managed to contain the virus problem better than many other countries (not least its neighbour Spain – Portugal is keeping its border with Spain closed for the time being), the pandemic is still a challenge, mainly in the poorer suburbs of Lisbon.

Strict rules of hygiene and distancing still apply, for example in shops, care homes, on beaches… Generally, people are careful and disciplined in following them.

Notwithstanding Covid-19 and other global challenges, another pandemic – as it has been called – has erupted as a result of the brutal killing by police offers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, 2020, of George Floyd, a 46-year old black man, during an arrest for an alleged counterfeit offence.

The incident highlighted systemic racism in America and elsewhere, with police brutality in the US, especially against black people, and continuing racial discrimination.

In the US, Floyd’s murder generated nation-wide demonstrations and protests, additionally fuelled by President Trump’s insensitive reactions and behaviour. Some commentators recalled US history, reminding us that Thomas Jefferson, who kept black slaves, has been used by southern states’ Confederates as an intellectual basis, while Alexander Hamilton, who was born in the Antilles and opposed slavery, was instrumental in creating the separation of powers.

Subsequent expressions of sympathy and anti-racist demonstrations around the world reflected the realization that prejudice, bigotry and racism, whether against Jews, Muslims, Africans and other “others”, was still prevalent globally.

In Antwerp, a statue of King Leopold II, who treated the Belgian Congo as his personal fiefdom and whose actions caused millions of African deaths, was destroyed. In the English city of Bristol, a statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader in the 18th century, who became a benefactor to the city, was pulled down and thrown into the harbour. Other cities in the UK are reviewing monuments of historic figures connected with colonialism and slave trading.

Portugal’s record of slave trading, to satisfy demand for cheap labour both at home and in its south American possessions, is equally atrocious.

During the Estado Novo (1926-1974), the dictatorial government of Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar used Camões for nationalist purposes. Interestingly, in 1944, Salazar spoke of Portugal Day as the “Dia da Raça”, the Day of (the Portuguese) Race, obviously white. This kind of language was not dissimilar to Hitler’s and Mussolini’s “racial” ideologies.

On a more positive note, the Portuguese parliament unanimously approved a motion to transfer the remains of Aristides de Sousa Mendes (see article on page 40) to the National Pantheon, as a special honour to him. He was the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux during the Second World War, who saved thousands of Jewish lives by issuing visas and passports to refugees from Nazi Germany and occupied Europe on his own initiative, until he was dismissed by the Salazar regime.

The National Assembly passed the respective vote based on a motion by the independent deputy Joacine Katar Moreira, who came to Portugal as a child from her native African state of Guinea Bissau.

I should like to close with following the words of Mia Couto, the Mozambican writer: “We are born to be chosen, we live to choose.”

Stay safe and healthy and remember that we are all human beings.

Jurgen H. Racherbaumer