Reverse Colonization

How the economic crisis in Portugal has sent the Portuguese to the shores of former colonies in search of employment.

"Washing the windows of the Porsche dealership on Avenue Amilcar Cabral in central Luanda"

NPR’s European correspondent Sylvia Poggioli filed this piece, “Portuguese Seeking Opportunities in Former Colonies”on Friday. It takes a breezy look at how the economic crisis in Portugal has sent the Portuguese to the shores of former colonies in search of employment. A number of such articles have circulated in the international press in the last year. Like the others, Poggioli’s article settles for the easy irony of angry everyman opinion in place of in-depth analysis. It makes for a quick, four-minute piece with provocative sound bites (and why should I complain, it gave me something to post about?) but lacks anything but the most superficial sense of history. Enough of my blathering. Let’s just dig right in, shall we?

First, this is not about the former colonies, in the plural, it is really about Angola. Angola was the jewel in the Portuguese imperial crown – their India, their Algeria (get the picture?) – the former colony that created the most bitterness at independence that followed a grueling 13-year anti-colonial war.

As Portugal’s economy is tanking, Angola’s is booming, Angola being the second largest producer of oil on the African continent after Nigeria. Poggioli notes that Portuguese workers are headed to Angola to work in construction, restaurants and hotels. While Poggioli interviews a man on the street standing in line at the Angolan embassy waiting for a visa, she does not note that Portuguese companies – precisely in the industries she names – are invested in Angola and profiting there.

But the relationship between Portugal and Angola is never a straightforward economic one, even when for hundreds of years Portugal exploited the former colony through the slave trade, forced labor (that continued until the 1960s) and unequal terms of trade. These economic relations also did political work in the form of empire for the Portuguese monarchy, the Portuguese republic and the fascist dictatorship of António Salazar. It’s worth keeping this political history in mind, and the fact that the institutions and administration of colonial Angola did not include Angolans except at the lowest level of civil service. Colonial rule was an authoritarian system. The institutions of state that the independent Angolan government inherited at independence were not built to facilitate democracy, very much to the contrary in fact.

So when the editor of the financial daily Negócios, Pedro Santos Guerreiro says: “people have to give up some of their beliefs in order to be in a regime that demands more from people than it should,” he exposes a huge blind spot in his knowledge of that history. And when one is a foreigner in a country one never exercises the same rights as the local citizens – one does not, for example, vote. Mr. Guerreiro, in a sense, forgets that Angola is no longer a part of metropolitan Portugal.

Then there is the quote from the foreign investment lawyer, Tiago Caidado Guerreiro, who says that “we’re being colonized after 500 years by them,” referring to investments by Angolans in the Portuguese economy. True, wealthy, politically powerful Angolans have been buying up parcels of Portuguese companies, but that does not equal colonization, not by a long shot. Angolans are not, for example, creating settler colonies in Portugal, or changing the nature and character of local institutions of education, government and culture.

The final concern registered in the article is that this new economic interest (and it isn’t just Angola but…surprise!: China, Poggioli is careful to point out) is not so transparent. This is similar to Guerreiro’s concern but the space is now Portugal not Angola.

The initial post-colonial fear was manifested as fortress Europe, i.e. constraints on African immigration, the battle over the veil in France, etc. That was how the empire struck back, as one small green collection of post-colonial essays put it. Portugal, as Poggioli represents it, seems roiled by a mix of humiliation, resentment, hyperbole and lack of historical understanding as large numbers of Portuguese again (they did so in the 1950s) migrate to Angola for economic opportunities and Portuguese intellectuals claim that Portugal is being colonized by an authoritarian Angola.

But what is really at stake here? Is it that the Portuguese fear they will be as badly oppressed by those whom they oppressed? As economically dependent on those who were once economically dependent on them? And all they can do is dress up this primal fact in an Atlantic Charter type discourse about democracy? In the end, the only people they really have to blame are their own, democratically elected, leaders, many of whom are quite close to the Angolan President they are critiquing.

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