Sunday, February 27, 2011

Beware the Ides of March!

March is shaping up to be a key month politically, economically and socially in Portugal.

If the Portuguese went to the polls tomorrow, the present Socialist government would be humiliated. The latest opinion poll shows that the centre-right Social Democratic Party (PSD) would win an absolute majority of nearly 48 percent. The Socialists (PS) would be left trailing in second place with just 29 percent.

Although a general election is not scheduled until 2013, the recently re-elected President Aníbal Cavaco Silva has the power to dismiss the prime minister and dissolve parliament if he feels the situation is serious enough to warrant such a measure. The President, although in theory above party politics, is a former leader of the PSD and it was the PSD who backed his re-election campaign.

The small left-wing Left Bloc in parliament has proposed a vote of no confidence in the government in March. Of greater importance is that for many weeks now, PSD members have been calling for the resignation of Prime Minister José Sócrates if Portugal is forced to go cap in hand and ask for a bailout. Most analysts now agree that it is not 'if' but 'when'. It is likely to happen in March - or April at the latest.

Despite Portugal's stubborn efforts to avoid it, ever-spiralling debt levels will almost certainly force the government to concede and ask for help from the European stability fund. It is already under pressure from EU countries, especially Germany, to follow Greece and Ireland in seeking a bailout. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has asked Sócrates to go to Berlin for a meeting to discuss the issue on Wednesday, 2nd March. This is believed to be by way of preparation for further discussions on the same subject during EU summit meetings scheduled for 11th March and 24th March.

The economic and political tightrope walking is going on amid growing social unrest about pay-cuts, job losses, dwindling employment prospects, increasing unemployment rates and higher prices.. A huge turn out is expected in the streets of Lisbon on March 12th to vent public anger and make demands, such as cuts in senior civil servant benefits.

There is disquiet throughout the country, not just Lisbon, and not just among the young. In the Algarve, the major economic activity, the region's 'life-blood' -  tourism - is struggling. On top of everything else, Easter, the traditional start of the summer season, is late this year.

Tourism is not going to be helped by the introduction of tolls on the A22 trans-Algarve motorway. The tolls have been denounced by just about everyone in the Algarve - but the government seems determined to impose them anyway – starting on 15th April, exactly a week before Good Friday.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Minister downplays demands
for change in nearby Morocco

At a meeting in Lisbon today, the foreign ministers of Portugal and its nearest Arab neighbour, Morocco, expressed concern about the revolutionary violence sweeping across North Africa.

Portugal's Luís Amado said the "extremely dangerous" situation in Arab countries such as Libya may be one of the most difficult for Europe since World War Two.

The people's demands in Libya were legitimate and the violence against protesters extremely worrying, said Morocco's Taieb Fassi-Fihri.

Their remarks came in a week when thousands of Moroccans took to the streets to demand constitutional reforms, including King Mohammed VI giving up some of his powers to a newly-elected government. The King still holds absolute authority.
"Morocco is extremely worried about the violence that we have seen in the last days. We are also worried about security in the region. This violence is inadmissible, particularly for the neighbouring countries," Fihri said.

He noted however that in his own country there had been no security crackdown against protesters. "Protest rallies are part of daily life. The ones in recent days have been normal rallies. There is no repression from the government and the protests have been peaceful.”

He said Morocco does not have the degree of tension exhibited in other Arab nations. But last weekend thousands of Moroccans turned out to demand economic, social and political improvements. Five people died in scattered violence.

'Maddie is in America'
claims have led nowhere

Claims by Algarve nightclub doorman and amateur sleuth Macelino Jorge Italiano that he knows who abducted Madeleine McCann and that she may have been taken to the United States have thrown no new light on the case.

Private investigators for Drs Kate and Gerry McCann were talking with Italiano and his lawyer in Huelva this week but would only say that their inquiries were “continuing.”

That no startling new evidence has been announced will not come as any surprise to most of those who have been following the case. Italiano's story was widely dismissed as soon as it was reported. It looks like ending up as yet another footnote in the litany of false 'leads' and spurious 'sightings' since Madeleine 'disappeared' in May 2007.

Still, the claims were so brazen they had to be checked out. There were grounds for thinking there may have been substance to his assertions. The lawyer who accompanied him to hand over his 'dossier' to the Spanish police in Huelva said he sounded plausible. So did a journalist who interviewed him.

This impression was strengthened by the fact that he was jeopardising himself by going to the police, but did not appear to be doing so for money or fame. He expressed determination to expose a purported Algarve paedophile ring with international connections. So far, however, no solid evidence has emerged that he has any real knowledge of what happened to Madeleine.

Sources say the Spanish police have shown little interest in his dossier. The Portuguese police have not questioned him. Italiano says he did not go to the Portuguese police because he distrusts them. There is speculation that personal issues may be at the root of Italiano's allegations.

An internet comment from George Laird of the Campaign for Human Rights at Glasgow University sums up the feelings of many about Italiano's story: “This is complete tripe. He should be arrested for wasting police time.”

Sunday, February 20, 2011

At last, a vital breakthrough -
or just more Maddie madness?

Great interest has been aroused by the news that the hitherto little-known man pictured on the right has recently given police in Spain information about the 'abduction' of Madeleine McCann.

He is 36-year-old Marcelino Jorge Italiano, an Angolan national, who worked in the Algarve for 10 years as a nightclub doorman or 'bouncer'. He has also been described as an 'amateur investigator'.

He claims to know key figures in an Algarve-based group of paedophiles who organised Madeleine's abduction from a holiday apartment in Praia da Luz in May 2007. They supposedly include two Algarve businessmen with high-level links to the Portuguese judiciary and a legal practice in London. Individuals in Faro and Albufeira are said to be secretly involved.

Italiano says he thinks Madeleine may now be in the United States. He is positive the group have taken other children from the Algarve. “I think at least a dozen have been kidnapped,” he said.

He has told police that he has seen photographs of group members and obtained information about them from the ex-wife of one of the businessmen involved.

Italiano also said he was “terrified” by the group and that he had been attacked for threatening to expose them. “They are ruthless. I have been attacked twice for trying to investigate, and even lost my front tooth.”

All this has been reported by the international media. Assuming it has been reported accurately, is it fact or fantasy? Has Italiano provided vital clues, or is it just yet more moronic conjecture based on half-truths or no truths at all? Intriguingly, that remains to be seen.

Italiano reportedly fled across the Algarve-Andalusian border and turned up with a lawyer in Huelva last week to hand over a 'dossier' to Spanish police. An Andalusian newspaper, the Olive Press, reported that his lawyer was present during an hour-long interview with police in the city. His lawyer told the Olive Press: “He seems credible and believable. He does not trust the Portuguese police.”

The lawyer continued: “He also seems pretty convinced that Maddie may have been taken from Portugal to the US.”

Spanish and Portuguese police are investigating these new claims. Madeleine's parents, Drs Kate and Gerry McCann have welcomed the news. Their spokesman, Clarence Mitchell said Italiano had done "absolutely the right thing" by going to police with his suspicions.

Many people who have closely followed the on-going Maddie saga have long ago ruled out all abduction theories. Reaction to the latest claims has been highly sceptical, or downright dismissive. Even Clarence Mitchell expressed reservations.

America is a long way from Portugal. Smuggling a child into America through traditional channels would be virtually impossible. That’s not to say it’s not feasible; it possibly could be done; it’s something that investigators have considered. There have been other tip-offs that America may have been a destination, but so far nothing has come of those.”

Mr Mitchell said that as Italiano had not approached the media first, seeking money for his story, and because he was naming names, he may be a “slightly more serious informant than some”.

However, he added: “That is not to say it is not fantasy, we just don’t know at this stage.”

Hopefully, we soon will.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Working mother-of-two chosen as Britain's next Lisbon Ambassador

She may seem much too young and full of fun for the job. Simply that she is a woman makes her appointment unusual. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office in London has appointed Ms Jill Gallard as Britain's next Ambassador to Portugal.

The announcement was made yesterday (Wednesday) although Ms Gallard is not expected to take up her appointment until July. She will be only the second woman to serve as Britain's ambassador to Portugal in the long diplomatic history of the two nations. In a way that is not so surprising considering that politically and diplomatically Portugal is still steeped in male dominance.

The only woman in the post before her was the formidable Dame Glynne Evans, who was in Lisbon between 2004 and 2007. Not only a diplomat but an academic with a special interest in military history, Dame Glynne since her retirement has been a research associate at the Royal United Services Institute and an Advisor to the Director of the Defence Academy in the UK.

Dame Glynne is a spinster. The newly appointed ambassador is married to Dominic Gallard and they have two young sons. Yesterday's announcement did not reveal Ms Gallard's age but it noted that she joined the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in 1991.

She quickly became Desk Officer for Spain and Portugal in the Consular Department. In the summer of 1992 she was Consular Attaché in Barcelona during the Olympic Games. Since then she has spent much of her career working on European Union and EU enlargement matters. Apart from London, Ms Gallard has worked in Prague, Madrid and Brussels.

Pending her arrival, another married mother with two sons, Ms Joanna Kuenssberg O’Sullivan, is holding the fort. Formerly Deputy Head of Mission, she has been Charge d’Affaires at the Embassy since the departure of the previous ambassador, Alex Ellis.

Senior female involvement at the Embassy does not end there either. The head of the UK Trade & Investment Section is a woman; the Consul in Lisbon is a woman; and the head of the Corporate Services (Management) Section is also a woman.  So is the Director of the British Council in Portugal.

The youthful Mr Ellis obviously not only approved of women occupying high places, he was also one of Britain's first 'digital diplomats' and regular wrote a blog in Portuguese. He was an example of how a younger generation seem to be shedding the stuffy image that once shrouded ambassadors. It is a trend that Ms Gallard looks like continuing.

Still, centuries-old tradition cannot just be thrown to the wind. Commenting on her new job, Ms Gallard said: “I am honoured and delighted to be appointed HM Ambassador to Portugal. I look forward to further developing the deep relationship between the UK and Portugal, the oldest alliance in the world, and to promoting our close partnership, both in the bilateral political and commercial context and in multilateral fora such as the EU, the UN and NATO. Our people and businesses help to maintain these ties in every aspect of life in our two countries.”

Sunday, February 13, 2011

An environmental battle
looms in the Monchique hills

A proposed mineral mining project in an unspoilt and supposedly protected section of the Serra de Monchique has aroused suspicions and serious concerns among local residents after a similar project was rejected 15 years ago.

News of the latest project first appeared, not in the government's Diário de República as one would have expected, but in a paid-for notice in the local monthly newspaper, Jornal de Monchique.

The notice was placed by the Energy and Geology General Directorate (DGEG). It was dated 10 January, but the paper did not come out until 31 January. The notice said objections to the proposal should be lodged within 30 days of it appearing in the Diário de República. It still has not appeared there so the deadline for objections remains in doubt.

The president of the Monchique municipal council is said to have had no forewarning about the announcement. Apparently he only heard about it last week, on 8 February. The municipal council, like just about everyone who lives in the Monchique area, is believed to be opposed to the plan.

The project would be carried out by FELMICA-Minerais Industriais S.A, a major company based in Viseu in central Portugal, which extracts and processes raw materials for the ceramic industry. The company is part of the MOTA group.

It will be up to the government to examine the proposal and listen to any objections before giving or refusing permission. Veterans of other campaigns against projects in environmentally sensitive areas fear approval is virtually certain as big money is involved. “Big money equals power,” said one sceptic yesterday.

The parameters of the proposed site have been disclosed, but it is not publicly known what form the mine would take. No details have been revealed about how it would be operated.

MOTA ceramic solutions was created to offer raw materials, prepared bodies, and professional services to the ceramic world at the highest standards of quality,” according to the group's website.

A MOTA spokesman told the Algarve Resident last week that the project will not affect the environment because “all impact studies possible are being carried out.”

According to the Resident, the spokesman said: “The project will only progress if the government considers it economically viable. We are studying what is viable within the Natura 2000 regulations and all adjustments will be made in accordance with this network in order to minimise any damage to the environment of the area.”

He said there was no reason for alarm among local residents. “People should not be alarmed because this project will only go ahead with the approval of all parties - residents, Câmara and parish councils - and our obligation is to hear people’s opinions and not affect land owners and the environment."

But there is alarm in the area because of what seems like a lack of transparency. People there are worried that a mining operation could radically affect thousands of households as well as causing untold damage to flora and fauna.

A principle concern is that aquifers, for which the Monchique region has been famous for centuries, may be fundamentally disturbed. Many households with no access to mains or borehole supplies depend on aquifers as their only source of water.

Fifteen years ago, a plan for a mine in exactly the same spot was rejected because of the danger it posed to underground aquifers.

No information has been released yet on whether minerals are to be extracted from an open cast mine / quarry or a closed underground mine. It is not known if they will be processed on-site or transported elsewhere. So it is impossible for the public to make sound judgements yet about possible air or sound pollution, or access road and traffic considerations.

Will property prices be affected? Will burgeoning small-scale, sutainable tourism businesses be stopped in their tracks? Will elderly, hillside farmers already operating on the breadline be denied water for their crops? Questions are hanging in the air because of a hitherto lack of transparency.

The people living in the area – expatriates of various nationalities as well as Portuguese of all ages, some working, some retired - can see no local benefits whatever accruing from this proposed project.

MOTA may insist that “people should not be alarmed” - but they have good reason to be alarmed because so far they have been kept largely in the dark.
A small but vibrant group of protesters have held preliminary meetings and are due to discuss strategy in another meeting, this time in the Junta de Freguesia de Alferce, starting at 2pm on Saturday 19 February.

Meanwhile, they have invited objectors to sign a petition available online at

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Classified information:
More people are moving out

The classified ads' columns in newpapers can provide an accurate barometer of trends in a community. A major trend currently on display in the Algarve is that more and more people – Portuguese and foreign nationals – are leaving the country because of the economic climate.

The publishers of the weekly Algarve 123 recently analysed the classifieds in their paper over the past 64 issues. They found that the phrase “for sale due to leaving the country/ moving abroad” is becoming increasingly frequent.

Algarve 123 is a tri-lingual paper with Portuguese and German readers, as well as English. The most common profile of those placing ads indicating they are moving out is a Portuguese, in their 30s. He or she is looking for work, but simply cannot find it here.

An article headed “Who'll be left?” in the current issue of the paper said of many advertisers: “They put the contents of their homes up for sale (furniture, household appliances, children’s toys even), as well as their cars. And we ask ourselves: can the country really afford to lose these active members of the population; these families who supposedly are (or should be) the basis of contemporary society?”

Ads over the past 64 weeks also reveal an increasing number of British, German, Dutch and even Brazilian citizens leaving the Algarve to return to their homeland, off-loading family pets among other possessions in the process.

A British client told the paper that “life is getting more and more difficult here” and that she was leaving because she feared it was going to get much worse.

A German reader who had a business in the Algarve for many years said she was leaving because she was 'sick and tired of the way the economy here doesn’t work'.

“This was just one example among many small businesses, shops and services that should be bringing dynamism and diversity to the Algarve. Instead, everyday, they’re closing down,” the paper commented.

It wondered if the Algarve is going to end up being inhabited only by retired people and the corrupt?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Freedom of expression
is neither free nor faultless

While there has been much international focus this week on the importance of freedom of speech, journalists have been under attack, physically and verbally.

Freedom of expression and freedom of the press are pillars of an open and inclusive society,” said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Referring to the uprising in Egypt, she also called on the government there to unblock social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, that had been used to organise protests. The minefield territory of WikiLeaks remained for the moment in the background. For Clinton and many others, WikiLeaks is too free.

Are press freedom and freedom of expression basic human rights that we greatly value or abused luxuries that we take for granted?

In an article in the Guardian newspaper, the veteran British journalist Simon Jenkins contended that journalistic ethics are in a “mess”. He is right of course – and this applies not just to the 'mainstream' media in the UK, but to all types of journalism, including electronic newspapers and blogging, just about everywhere.

Jenkins focused mainly on the alleged hacking of voicemail accounts of prominent people in Britain. This much-publicised scandal remains unresolved. The full ramifications of electronic surveillance technologies and the internet mean that any clear application of the law is impossible, so a new map of ethical territory is needed, Jenkins suggested.

As he put it, there is now “a thoroughly confused boundary between the public and private realms, between openness and secrecy, publicity and privacy, rapacity and trust.”

Journalists should try to obey the law. But which law? “Official secrets law is a shambles. Privacy law is made up on the hoof. Court injunctions are improvised explosive devices.”

Continued Jenkins: “Journalists have claimed 'public interest' in defence of actions that others might consider unethical and lawyers illegal. The reality of the matter is that one person's brave investigation is another's illicit intrusion. Journalists may claim a licence to judge the public interest for themselves, but this requires public trust, which is wearing thin.”

He concluded that the job of the journalist will always be to pursue the story, pushing boundaries when a case for public interest can be proved. “But this pushing will attract public trust only where professional self-regulation can be seen to work, as it works up to a point for doctors and lawyers. For the moment, anarchy rules.”

In Portugal, after a long history of censorship and oppression, the current constitution guarantees free speech and absolute freedom of the press. The law includes the right of journalists to access government documents. Their freedom includes rights of expression and 'creativeness'.

Yet Portugal rates only 40th in the latest world press freedom index drawn up by the international watchdog organisation, Reporters without Borders. That's 40 out of a total list of 178, but Portugal is a long way down from the Netherlands, Ireland, the Scandinavian countries and Germany. The UK ranks 19tth.

Portugal's reputation was tainted last year when the Lisbon-based weekly Sol was fined €1.5 million for defying a court injunction not to publish details from phone conversations recorded in a police surveillance operation.

The report implicated Prime Minister José Sócrates and other people close to him in an alleged attempt by Portugal Telecom to buy a controlling stake in the privately-owned television station TVI. Reporters without Borders expressed outrage and denounced the court rulings as “judicial harassment”.

In April last year, a Portuguese MP snatched audio recorders from two journalists to whom he had granted an interview in the parliamentary library. He stormed out of the room with the recorders in his pocket. Later, he explained his action by claiming that the journalists' questions amounted to “unbearable psychological violence”.

Reporters without Borders said it was “surreal behaviour that one normally sees only in the most authoritarian countries”.

Efforts by some Portuguese politicians since the introduction of the current constitution to bring about more media control, and recent defamation prosecutions that critics say impinge upon freedom of expression, need to be carefully watched by all who value “pillars of an open and inclusive society”.