Struggling against the lack of Democracy

Fighting back with more Democracy!

Joana Dias Academia Cidada in Lisbon writes about the Portugese democracy at risk as a consequence of the economic crises and austerity measures, and new paths for participation and citizenship on the horizon. 

“Active citizenship not only makes communities stronger, but also offers a critical look at the decisions taken by governments, either through questioning, whether through monitoring, putting the control of people’s futures back into the people’s hands”.

We now count five years of austerity the Portuguese population had to survive. Because of it, we currently live in a violent social regression, the largest in the history of our young democracy: 28% of the population lives in poverty and 41% in severe material deprivation (source: INE); the poverty risk rate for children under 18 years is 24,4% (UNICEF); and 7% of children have permanent hunger (BACF). Rising unemployment contributes to an aggravation of the situation, with a real unemployment rate reaching 29%. Among youngsters this is 35%. We also have to deal with the increase in long-term unemployment (64% of total unemployed) and the huge increase of labor precariousness. The general lack of prospects in the future feeling has dramatically increased emigration, which corresponds today to more than 20% of the resident Portuguese population. In the last years, the amount of new economic exiles has been even bigger because of dictatorship’s escapes from colonial war, political police and poverty.

Nowadays people are struggling to find their family’s next meal, appearing unable to organize themselves in order to protest, nor to create new solutions for their lives and for the country, even if they wanted to. Today the Portuguese democracy is at risk!

Nevertheless, there are new paths shimmering through the mist, leading us to a real democracy: there are people willing to intervene in society; there are new ways of communication and interaction (including digital), providing new forms of organization and social participation; there are innovative ways of participation, based on a new social development paradigm based on principles of sustainability, autonomy and self-organization.

Carpe Diem Arte e Pesquisa is a very recent project of contemporary art, headquartered in a palace called Palácio Marquês de Pombal, in an old quarter of Lisbon (Bairro Alto). This cultural project aims to propose new curatorial directions and production of contemporary culture, using a methodology of experimentation. The research processes are always negotiative ones, taking in consideration the palace, involving its “particular spatial reality”, namely “its history and successive layers of materials, presents challenges to the development and installation of artworks: unstable walls, uneven floors, warped windows, the dialogue between interior and exterior space, the seasonal lighting, the ceiling-height, the angles of the walls that are never regular, the humidity which interferes with electrical equipment and materials of the artworks and ultimately the marks left by previous uses of the past and works on the palace.” The currently existing 17 exhibition rooms open to the public and the 9 rooms for backstage, production and services were reconstructed from what was left of the 1755 earthquake. They ensure the return of the palace to the city and citizens, through a public service strategy. Cultural activities such as exhibitions, artistic residencies, performances, public talks, development in partnership with universities and Art Schools, from Portugal and abroad, approach the community, promoting its cultural development.

Carpe Diem Arte e Pesquisa

GEOTA – Grupo de Estudos de Ordenamento do Território e Ambiente (Environmental and Land Use Planning Study Group) – is an environmental defense association that exists as a reflecting and educational group since 1981. This was the year when this NGO set up a small “think tank, with the goals of promoting environmental education and developing an environmental policy for Portugal”. GEOTA believes that environment should always be a central factor of development, which might look like a common place nowadays, but back in the 80’s this was a quite alien idea, especially in the Portuguese context. The association also defends a “global Environmental concept, not only Nature but also humanized landscape, cultural values, people’s quality life and a management of the natural resources.” GEOTA proclaims itself an independent institution, from official institutions, political parties and economic interests. Since the beginning it has been doing intervention with the political powers at the highest level, to promote a sustainable development model in Portugal, with the President, Parliament, Government, Attorney-General’s Office; internationally, with the European Commission and other international organizations.

GEOTA Coastwatch

From all the projects that GEOTA has been developing since its foundation, we would like to emphasize Rios Livres. This project aims to preserve the wild rivers in Portugal and to alert for the social, environmental and economic importance of the riparian ecosystems. Rios Livres’ mission is to stop the National Program of Dams of High Hydroelectric Potential, preventing the construction of seven dams that are projected by this program, namely the huge dam of Foz-Tua. By doing this, GEOTA accomplishes the conviction that big dams do not assure the supply of green energy, also having heavy social and environment impacts. On the contrary, there are less aggressive and cheaper ways of getting energy, than the one that is produced by dams.

Rios Livres

Chapitô is a project in which training, creation, animation and intervention promote multiple intersections daily. It’s a school that includes to educate; educates to professionalize; professionalizes to activate civil society with arts. Historically, Chapitô emerged from the complex context of the artistic movements that happened during in the 70’s in Portugal. Since that time, circus has been the central reference of Chapitô’s intervention, involving all arts and creative disciplines and enjoying a social acceptance: theatrical expression confounds itself with music, humor and body language. In Chapitô, social, cultural and formative areas connect in order to promote integration and personal development of youngster coming from fragile contexts. Through the organization of exhibitions, debates, concerts, cinema cycles, workshops and big cultural events, Chapitô has been responsible, in the last 33 years, for the social inclusion of thousands of youngsters at risk. Chapitô has partnerships with several entities, official and private ones, on a national and international level. It has acquired several official statutes, such as, “public utility”, “manifest cultural interest”, “institution of social solidarity” and “NGO”.

©Chapito via

The presented examples represent, in our point of view, new paths for participation and citizenship. Using different ways of action, they all face and fight government authoritarianism and financial totalitarianism that has been growing in Portugal, at least for the last 5 years. They prove that active citizenship not only makes communities stronger, but also offers a critical look at the decisions taken by governments, either through questioning, whether through monitoring, putting the control of people’s futures back into the people’s hands.

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