Pain bites into Portuguese life as crisis deepens
By BARRY HATTON
The Associated Press | April 09,2013
Elena Baptista, left, serves a meal to her daughter Vania, 12, left, son Joao, 7, and husband Pedro, partially seen on the right, in their house’s kitchen/living room in Loures, outside Lisbon.
LISBON, Portugal — Serving a frugal lunch in their kitchen not much bigger than a bathroom, Pedro and Elena Baptista spoon stewed chicken feet onto their boiled potatoes and leave the slightly meatier wings for their 12-year-old daughter, Vania, and 7-year-old son, Joao.
Pedro Baptista, a stocky 37-year-old, has found work as a part-time window cleaner but his wife Elena, 35, has been on welfare for almost a year after losing her job in a school canteen. Scraping by on a monthly household income of $840 and constantly going cap-in-hand to charities and family members has sapped their confidence.
It seems that every time Europe’s leaders appear to have contained the continent’s three-year-old crisis over too much government debt, it erupts again — witness the recent woes in Cyprus. Across Europe, the long-held belief that the state will always provide for its citizens’ well-being is vanishing.
In return for rescue loans, governments across the region are slashing spending and raising taxes. However, the austerity has a knock-on effect of choking the growth needed to pull countries out of their nosedive. Despite the acute hardship, Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho said Sunday that his government must cut even deeper. That’s because the Constitutional Court last week struck down some austerity measures aimed at government workers and pensioners, denying the government more than 1.3 billion euros in anticipated savings.
Meanwhile, the debt crisis risks jumping from Cyprus to Portugal. The creditors who lent Portugal 78 billion euros in a bailout two years ago are demanding that the government prune spending by another 4 billion euros in 2014 and 2015. If Portugal doesn’t comply, it could be denied the next installment of its bailout.
Portugal’s ordeal has begun to send shivers across Europe, even as the pain becomes hard to bear at home. Checking over her bank statement showing her monthly pension payment, Maria Luisa Cabral stared silently at the slip of paper. When she finally spoke, the 66-year-old former librarian’s voice shook and tears welled.
“That’s about 10 percent less each month,” she said. “I just feel really angry.”
Portugal’s elderly have been hit hard by austerity. Taxes and cuts in previous years had already cut Cabral’s income by 20 percent. This year, the government will take another bite out of pensions over 1,350 euros a month.
The Portuguese charity AMI — International Medical Assistance — was set up almost three decades ago as a rapid response organization for catastrophes abroad. Now the emergency is at home.
Before 2008, up to 8,000 people a year sought AMI’s help in Portugal. In 2012, it was almost 16,000.
Ana Martins, AMI’s national director for the past 18 years, says people seeking aid used to ask for help finding a job or resolving social or family problems.
These days, they ask for food.
Margarida Mendes, who has run the center since it was set up in 1994 to help homeless people, says her work has changed a lot in recent years. Now it’s mostly families seeking support.
Her work, she says, can be distressing, and the most poignant episodes involve young children. Recently, a small child jumped up and down and screamed in delight when he saw a packet of cheap, plain cookies sticking out of the top of the family’s monthly parcel of food aid. That small scene got to Mendes: “You think to yourself, What kind of country is this where that sort of thing happens?”
The Baptista family comes to Olaias to pick up food parcels. They contain cooking oil, cans of sausages, flour. They also get second-hand clothes and school books.
The financial crisis capsized their lives. Just five years ago they were together pulling in (euro) 1,600 a month — close to the average income for a couple in Portugal. Today they live on little over a third of that.
Finance Minister Vitor Gaspar recently conceded that straightening out Portugal’s finances will take decades and will require the sacrifices of a generation.
The Baptista family belongs to that generation.