This interview was originally published on July 17, 2015. On Reality Asserts Itself, Ms. Principe talks about growing up in Portugal expecting the promise of the social state to be fulfilled and becoming an activist in the fight against forces dismantling the achievements of the Portuguese revolution.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. If there’s one question that activists from Ferguson to Baltimore and beyond are asking, it’s what comes next, how do we sustain this movement. Well, we thought it’d be interesting to hear from an activist who’s active in Europe, where there has been upsurges and downsurges, I guess–I’m not sure that’s a word–downsurges in the movement, and have also built broad united fronts, and in some places have had breakthrough electoral victories and other places not. So now joining us to talk about the left movement in Europe is Catarina Príncipe. Thanks for joining us.
CATARINA PRÍNCIPE, SOCIAL ACTIVIST: Thanks for having me.
JAY: Catarina is a social activist from Portugal. She’s an organizer with Left Bloc in Portugal, Die Linke in Germany, which means The Left. She’s written for Jacobin magazine and contributed to an anthology titled Portugal, 40 Years After the Revolution. She’s currently studying and living in Germany. Thanks for joining us. So, as everybody knows that watches Reality Asserts Itself, we always start with sort of a personal back story and then get into some of the issues. And that’s what we’re going to do today. So you’re born in Porto in Portugal.
JAY: And so in 1974 there is a revolution in Portugal. The Salazar dictatorship is overthrown. And that was a very big deal at that time, to have that kind of a breakthrough in Portugal. You grow up sort of with that as–I should ask you the question: how much does that imbue who you are and the culture, atmosphere you grew up in, that you were living in revolutionary Portugal?
PRÍNCIPE: I wasn’t living properly in revolutionary Portugal anymore. The revolutionary process ended in ’75. But I think it is important to say that although the revolutionary process ended in ’75, the structures of the state and of the Portuguese democracy are much influenced by it. So we come from 50 years, almost, of fascist dictatorship, a very, very impoverished country, into a country with a functional social state, free education, free health system, a free health system, universal health system.
JAY: Well, and compare that to the United States and that’s revolutionary.
PRÍNCIPE: Okay, if you want to put it in those terms, yes, that’s true.
JAY: And compared to what was before under Salazar.
PRÍNCIPE: Yes. So, yeah, we, I mean, my generation, we normally call my generation the generation expectations, because we grew up with the idea–or in a full-developed social state and with the idea that we could study anything, do anything, had any kind of job, and, like, the future was there, open for us.
JAY: And when you’re a kid, university is free; when you’re growing up–not when you reach University, but when you’re a kid, the expectation is, I can go to university for free.
PRÍNCIPE: For free, study anything.
JAY: Which was one of the products of the revolution.
PRÍNCIPE: Precisely. Like, there were universities and Portugal before the revolution, but they were mainly for a very, very small elite. And after the revolutionary process, higher education opens up for everyone. So there is a–like, class composition in university changes completely from the end of the ’70s on.
JAY: So if you’re generation expectations, so as a kid, what are your expectations?
PRÍNCIPE: I think, like, what I grew up hearing from my parents–who both studied, by the way, in university–is that I would live a better life than they do. I would have more choices. I could study whatever I wanted. I would get a job in whatever I wanted. You know, I could–the way that my life would be formed would be more to my choice and better. And this is not true, because then the problem comes is or the problem that arises is that when we actually come to the moment where these things are supposed to start happening, the material conditions for these things to happen, although we are the most prepared and the most educated generation in Europe ever, the material conditions for us to develop what we have studied and learned and so on are not there. So the rates of unemployment among younger people are 40 to 60 percent in Southern Europe.
JAY: Yeah, something like Baltimore.
JAY: What were the politics of your parents? They were young when the revolution took place, but they must have been influenced one way or the other.
PRÍNCIPE: Yeah, they were young. My dad was 16. My mom was 14. My parents were never organized in a political party, at least not for a longer term. But I say–like, there’s an expression in Germany, in German, that I like very much. It’s called /ˈbaoʊlɪŋs/. It’s people who are left from their stomach. So they are left from their–so they’re clearly left-wing people, maybe not left in the sort of, like, having a defined ideological tradition, but left in the sense of, like, principles, values, ideas. And also it is true that of course all the culture that arises or the left culture that arises and that spreads itself during the revolution in Portugal did influence my parents very much. They were teenagers, so that’s a very important moment of forming your identity. So that, of course, influences my parents very much. So I consider my parents left-wing in this sense, but not organized.
JAY: Yeah, how much did they pass that on to you? I mean, some parents just never talk politics with their kids at all. They just go on with their life. And others, they kind of have it in them and they talk about it. How much is your household talking about these kinds of things?
PRÍNCIPE: I think my household is talking a lot about it. Like, a lot of things were discussed at home since I was a kid. For example, I have a strong memory of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was three and a half years. But I remember it. I remember watching it on TV and my parents being home and being very happy about it, for example. So those are the kind of things. And also there is maybe an important thing that cultural artistic production in Portugal bloomed during the revolutionary times. And so there is a lot of songs and theater plays and books that are passed from generation to generation that kind of keep the memory and the feeling of the revolutionary process alive. So both my parents play the guitar. Both my parents sing. So these were also the songs that I would hear at home. Like, my lullaby is, was the song from the most important revolutionary singer in Portugal.
JAY: How does it go? Alright, if you don’t want to sing, what are the words? But you could sing, too.
PRÍNCIPE: It’s a lullaby, so it’s not–.
JAY: I’ve got kids. I need lullabies.
PRÍNCIPE: Yeah, specifically political, but–oh, no, I’m not going to sing.
JAY: A few words. You don’t have to sing.
PRÍNCIPE: In Portuguese?
JAY: Oh, no. Give us a few of the words in Portuguese and then–. What’s the gist of it?
PRÍNCIPE: It’s just like, sleep, my little kid–and it’s just a lullaby song. But anyway, it’s–and that the morning star will be here tomorrow, and I will be here with you, and so on. It’s just a really a lullaby song. But, anyway–.
JAY: But it has some of that optimism of the revolution.
PRÍNCIPE: Yes, precisely. Or another example that I normally–when people ask me, my friends or people that I got to know, like, how did I became political, so to say, I always give the example–I don’t know if you know it, but I always give the example of Mafalda. Mafalda is a character from Quino. Quino is an Argentinian cartoonist, and he has this character who is a young–she’s a five-year-old girl that is, like, always questioning the world. And it’s actually–it’s comic books that are for kids but actually are not for kids. They’re actually for adults, but kids can also read it. And I’ve been reading Mafalda since I remember myself. And it’s very interesting, because I go back. So it’s, like, everything is there–like, poverty critique, critique to injustice, to war, and so on. That’s all very present. And even if I didn’t fully get the meaning of all of what was there, it sort of grew in me. And when I go back to reading those comic books today, I still find new meanings that I didn’t understand when I was a child.
JAY: Well, everyone now is going to go look them up on the web.
PRÍNCIPE: Yes, do. It’s really good. It’s amazing.
JAY: So you grow up full of expectations. The revolution’s going to deliver a whole new better life. You’ve grown up, obviously, with the narrative that this fascist regime–which it was–was overthrown and this was a good thing. And then what happens? ‘Cause when I read your biography, I see you became a social activist at 15 years old.
PRÍNCIPE: So what happens? I mean, many things happened. So the Portuguese revolution, although, as I said before, leaves, like, a genetic mark on what is the Portuguese democracy, the social state, and so on, and the structures of the state and the structures of the Portuguese democracy–.
JAY: Maybe just for a minute or two,–
JAY: –a lot of people watching this don’t even know who Salazar was or what the Portuguese dictatorship was like. So just give a sense of that.
PRÍNCIPE: So we normally–okay. So the Portuguese dictatorship lasted for 50 years. It was, we say, a soft type of fascism, because it was not, like in Italy or Germany, a sort of fascism that was sustained by a very strong militia, neither by a very strong party. So in a way it’s a kind of soft form of fascism, where there’s, I would say, maybe three important things. First, the church as the ideological arm of the state. So the church is, like, a very important pillar for the sustaining of fascism for 50 years in Portugal. The second is the political police that was everywhere. So, like, a lot of, like, very constrained–like, freedom of expression did not exist. There’s really a saying, and it was true, like, more than three people on the street were considered a multitude. So we couldn’t–people could not gather on the street and talk. And a third thing–.
JAY: And you did–if someone did, they would be arrested.
PRÍNCIPE: Yeah, exactly, or if the political police was around and they saw it, they would be arrested. And a third thing is economically it’s based on an overdependency on the former Portuguese colonies, so Angola, Mozambique, and so on. And the way it functions is an import-export economy. So Portugal imports the raw products, materials from the colonies, transforms it, manufactures it in Portugal. That’s what keeps the Portuguese economy going.
JAY: So the plunder of Africa is an integral part of the whole police state.
PRÍNCIPE: Exactly. It would not have–it–so fascism, in the way–and in the way that the economy was structured in Portugal during 50 years of fascism, it would not have worked without the existence of the colonies. And this is why I think–so there was a 13 year colonial war fought in the colonies, in several of the colonies. And the Portuguese revolution starts to be a kind of a coup organized in the military to end the wars. So as soon as you end the wars and you give independence to the colonies, of course the structure of Portuguese economy has to shift completely, because it was overdependent on the markets of import and export. So that’s kind of what it looks like. So Portugal in ’74, before April 25, which was the day of the revolution, is the poorest country in Western Europe.
JAY: But the revolution itself, while it has all kinds of democratic characteristics, at its heart it’s kind of–at least from the elites’ point of view, we want to–the elites want a modern form of capitalism.
PRÍNCIPE: Precisely. That’s then why I can be active when I’m 15.
JAY: ‘Cause that asserts itself.
PRÍNCIPE: Exactly, because that’s what asserts itself after when the revolution is shut down is a sort of, like, more modern, open, democratic, with a parliament democracy that actually intends to open the Portuguese market to the West and not back to the colonies. So that’s one of the things that is very important, like, for Portugal to enter the European Union, which was considered at the time the club of the rich. Right?
JAY: Which for quite a while it was.
PRÍNCIPE: Which for quite a while it was, which we’re not anymore, but which for quite a while it was. One of the things that you needed to do was to kind of, like, get rid of the imperialist sort of standard that Portugal still had in the ’70s. So that’s also–that’s one of the components, though, during the revolutionary process. A lot of different forces are playing and trying to win the social majorities, of course, as usual. And the one that actually–so the traditional social democracy that asserts itself is a traditional social democracy that, yes, has very good social state and, as I said, free education, free health care, and so on and so forth, and a lot of labor rights, a lot, that were actually fought for and conquered by this process. But also it’s an opening of Portuguese economy to the West. So, yeah, it’s an opening to modern Western capitalism, so to say.
JAY: So they needed the working classes to be involved in this revolution, and you have all the democratic demands and concessions. And then, over time, it’s whittling them away. So by the time you’re 15, they’re fairly whittled away, are they?
PRÍNCIPE: Well, yes and no, right? I think what is interesting about Portugal–and this is–I’m not the only person saying this. There’s actually–I read, like, maybe around two years ago, a report from JPMorgan, and they were saying, like, what’s going on. There was a report about what’s going on in Europe. And they were saying everything is going very well, like, the austerity cuts, this is all perfect, this is exactly how we’re going to solve the crisis. The problem is that Southern Europe, in particular Portugal, still has the structures of a socialist country, so to say. So this is what we need to get rid of. And this means get rid of–so any kind of social spending.
JAY: And this is what austerity’s all about.
PRÍNCIPE: Exactly. And that is what austerity is all about. It’s to get–it’s to lower down as much as possible all social and labor rights, because there’s also a lot of labor rights. And this was, for example, what JPMorgan was also saying was, like, trade unions have way too much influence and they have way too much power in Portugal. Like, there is a minimum wage. There is the right–there are political strikes. People can do general strikes. You know, this is exactly where we have to go. This is what we need to tear down. So it’s clear that these structure still exist. They still resist a little bit.
JAY: So you’re 15 years old. What sparks you to hit the streets?
PRÍNCIPE: When I was 15, we had governments of the traditional social democracy, so, like your Democrats here, so to say, if you would be–well, they’re left to the Democrats. But still–.
JAY: They’re only–I wouldn’t even call them social democrats, but they only kind of even appear that way because the politics here are so far right that the Republicans are–.
PRÍNCIPE: Exactly. Precisely. But if you’re–.
JAY: I mean, the Democratic Party in most industrialized country would be considered right-wing parties.
PRÍNCIPE: That is true. But I think that is also kind of what is starting to happen in Europe. But anyway, that’s another question. But we also have kind of a two-party system, right? So our parties in Portugal, they have very left-wing names, because they were all formed during the revolutionary process. So no one would call themself the conservative party, right, because people would never vote for them; like, in a moment of uprising, of left-wing uprising, they wouldn’t have gotten any votes. So our Democrats, so to say, are called the Socialist Party, and our Republicans, so to say, are called the Social Democratic Party. And so it’s kind of confusing. But, anyway, we had the government of the Socialist Party, so the traditional European social democracy, that was going to start to cut a lot in spending in high schools.
JAY: What year are we in?
PRÍNCIPE: Two thousand, 2000, 2001.
JAY: You’re 15 in 2000.
PRÍNCIPE: Precisely. And they were going to start cutting, and they were going to start doing something that they ended up doing, which is basically to restructure the ways in which high schools were organized. So this is also something–this is also in heritage from the revolution: the structures of the schools were very democratic. So students would also have seats in the boards to decide, together with the teachers and the people that work in the school but are not teachers, they would all together, like–.
JAY: Support staff.
PRÍNCIPE: Yeah. They would all have seats in, like, a kind of, like, small school parliament, so to say, and they would define, like, the rules of the school, also have–the students would also have a seat on, like, pedagogical issues and also scientific issues, so also what had to do with the programs and so on. And, basically, this was their main target was to basically restructure high school, the high school structures.
JAY: So this is something democratic that had come out of the revolution,–
JAY: –and another part of let’s whittle away, let’s get rid of this stuff.
PRÍNCIPE: Exactly. And this is the reason why–and very specifically, there was also a very specific thing that people my age at the time did not like, which was they were–the idea was to start having 90 minutes classes instead of 50, so, like, put students in a room when you’re young, 90 minutes on a row with no breaks is too much. Everyone was very unhappy about this, together with this, like, process of the de-democratization of the structures of high schools. This was what brought the movement into the streets. It was a very, very big movement. That’s where I became politically active.
JAY: Very big meaning how many people?
PRÍNCIPE: I don’t know in terms of number of people, but it was countrywide. In my school, in 2001, we organized three strikes, and no one went to classes and everyone went to the demonstrations. So it was very successful in that sense, in terms of mobilizing. At the same time, there’s also other things happening, right? So there’s the formation of a broad left party, of a new left party, which is the party that I belong to, Bloco.
JAY: This is Left Bloc.
PRÍNCIPE: The Left Bloc. There had been, like, a successful antiwar movement in Portugal in the 2000, 2001 because of the split between Timor and Indonesia, because Timor was a former Portuguese colony. So there was–and there was also some kind of the mood of the alter globalization movement from Seattle ’99 and so on that also, of course, reached Europe in its own way. But there was some kind of political moment there. And so the high school students in Portugal were part of this moment in their own way. Unfortunately, we lost, but not because we were not strong enough, but because the government fell, and then we got, like, a right-wing government that said before the elections that they would support the demands of the students, but then after it just applied exactly the same.
JAY: Okay. In the next segment of our interview, we’re going to continue Catarina’s story, because much of her growing up is all part of the ebbs and flows of the mass movement in Portugal, at some times reaching protest movements in the hundreds and hundreds of thousands, and other times not much. So we’re going to see what we can learn from all of this. Please join us for the continuation of Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.
Never miss another story
Subscribe to theAnalysis.news – Newsletter
“Catarina Príncipe is a social movement activist from Portugal and a Jacobin contributing editor.”