Wednesday, April 24, 2013

25th April 1974 - then and now

The revolution of 25th April 1974 transformed the political and social set-up and gave great hope to the people of Portugal. Thirty-nine years on, hope is in short supply. It has evaporated in the face of the intractable economic crisis. What has gone wrong?
During the decade before 1974, the country was still relatively underdeveloped with poor infrastructures and inefficient agriculture, but growth rates for GDP were among the highest in Europe. By 1973, the on-going colonial wars were exacting a heavy toll in terms of financial cost and in promoting mass emigration among the better educated and most technically skilled who wanted to avoid conscription.
 The ‘Carnation Revolution’ replaced dictatorship with democracy. It also led to a succession of economically inept governments and a litany of mismanagement, corruption and greed that has brought the country to the edge of bankruptcy.
In the aftermath of the military coup, the nationalisation of banks and industries and the expropriation of agricultural estates led to collapse across all sectors of the economy.
The 1980s saw a return to economic and social stability of sorts. After joining the European Union in 1986, trade ties increased, structural and cohesion funds flowed in, and tourism took over from farming and fishing as the main economic activity in the south of the country.
Living standards continued to rise and prosperity spread among an expanding middle class in the 1990s. On 1st January 2001, Portugal adopted the euro. In the five years that followed, household debt expanded, unemployment increased and GDP growth dropped to the lowest of any country on the continent.
At the beginning of 2010, Portugal joined Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain in a full-blown debt crisis that the Socialist government of José Sócrates was unable to bring under control. One of its last acts in 2011 was to apply for a bailout from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union.
As the centre-right government of Pedro Passos Coelho struggles to repay the €78 billion bailout, a need for a second mega loan may be looming. Some analysts insist Passos Coelho has lost his way in a mission impossible - that the debt burden is such that Portugal will never be able to pay it off. If that is the case, what is point of trying?
Among those who hold that opinion is Mário Soares, an arch critic of the dictatorship who rose to prominence immediately after the revolution. The former Socialist leader and now elder statesman said recently in a radio interview: “No matter how much [the government] impoverishes people or steals from their pensions, the state will never be able to pay back what it owes. When you can’t pay, the only solution is not to pay.”
He is urging all left-of-centre political forces to bring down the present government and repudiate the austerity measures demanded by the IMF-EU troika of lenders. 
Before the Carnation Revolution, people all across the country were restive and hungry for change. They are again. Contempt for authority is being fuelled by the collapse of many businesses, rising costs and austerity measures that are impacting on education, employment and health, causing widespread suffering, especially among young families, the elderly and the poor.
Proposals for even more severe austerity are infuriating vociferous opponents who increasingly see the present government as taking on the mantle of a dictatorship.
Portugal could be on the verge of another pivotal transition. It is unlikely to be as dramatic as a military coup. It is the people not the army who are in the forefront of the demand for change this time.
Amid the current paucity of hope, street protests in what is being described as a “historic day of struggle” are planned for May 1. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Odd weather - and likely to get odder

By our standards, here in the far south of Portugal it had been a long, wet winter. Then suddenly, from one day to the next at the end of last week, spring finally burst forth.
Bee-eaters, our most flamboyantly coloured nesting birds, have returned
from Africa and are hawking for insects in the radiant blue sky. The Golden Orioles are back too, flashing through the lush green woodlands. Cuckoos announced their arrival in the drizzle a few weeks ago - now they won’t shut up. It’s mid-April and the countryside is awash with outrageous orchids and other wildflowers galore.
What a change from the month of March, which had been as miserable as most could remember. Portugal and Spain had floods. It was the coldest March in the UK since 1962. It was the coldest in Germany since their records began in the 1880s. More than 100,000 people in Poland spent the Easter weekend without electricity after heavy snow dragged down power lines. Extreme conditions prevailed all across the continent.
Meteorologists explained that the jet stream had been operating much further south than usual. As a result, the Mediterranean countries experienced the early spring weather normally associated with northern Europe. Only lately did the jet stream head northwards, bringing a return to more typical spring weather.
As we in the Algarve happily cast off our woollies as temperatures shot up towards the high 20s, the soothsayers began forecasting a scorcher of a summer.
One thing for sure, climate change is happening, influenced by humans or not. International participants attending a major conference on the subject in Dublin this week warned that unless properly addressed, global warming will lead to widespread famine and, yes, even more crippling economic and social problems.
Numerous studies predict that average temperatures in Europe generally will rise this century by up to 6º higher than they were in the 1980s. The warming in summer is expected to be greatest in Portugal and other countries in the Mediterranean climatic zone.  
Average summer temperatures in Lisbon and the Algarve, for example, may rise from 28º t0 34º, with a noticeable increase by 2030 in the number of days exceeding 40ºC. 
Rainfall is expected to decrease on the Portuguese mainland this century by between 20% and 40%. The Azores is unlikely to be so dramatically affected, but precipitation in Madeira could plummet by 30% even though temperature increases there may be only of the order of 2º or 3º. 
The outlook is being analysed by the European Centre for Climate Adaptation (ECCA), which constantly monitors what a large number of international research organisations and scientific journals are saying on the subject.
“The Algarve could be negatively affected by climate change,” states the ECCA, meaning it may become a less attractive place to live or visit in both environmental and economic terms. Higher average temperatures, an increase in the frequency of droughts, heat waves and outbreaks of forest fires will induce greater risks of soil erosion. Desertification may become irreversible.
Such a scenario would mean dramatic changes in the landscape and biodiversity of southern Portugal. While some traditional crops may cease to be productive, there may be increases in tick and mosquito-borne diseases, including a possible re-emergence of malaria. Water shortages may restrict the operation of tourist facilities such as swimming pools and golf courses.
Of course, some dismiss the science of climate change and talk of our vulnerability as mere conjecture and therefore not worthy of taking seriously. Others have simply no interest.
Only slowly is climate change entering the decision-making of governments, investors and tourist enterprises in Europe, says the ECCA. “Studies that have examined the climate change risk appraisal of local tourism officials and operators have consistently found relatively low levels of concern and little evidence of long-term strategic planning in anticipation of future changes in climate.”
It suggests  that, “in Portugal, the aim should be to direct tourist flows firstly towards the off-peak season, and secondly to the northern part of the country, in which tourism is still relatively underdeveloped.”
 Meanwhile, here in the sun-blessed far south, the spring of 2o13 could not be lovelier.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Portugal seeks to fill fiscal black hole

Incredibly, Portugal has plunged from being a role model in its handling of the debit crisis to a potential basket case that may have to go begging for a second bailout. Some analysts say events here could instigate even worse and wider mayhem elsewhere in the eurozone.
The current international spotlight on the life of Margaret Thatcher provides a poignant reminder that the recent turn of events in Portugal is totally in line with the Iron Lady’s scepticism about European economic and monetary union.
Writing in the Guardian, business reporter Graeme Wearden managed to put a lighter spin on things: “No sooner had Cyprus been whisked out of the operation room and into intensive care than Portugal returned to casualty.”
Reeling from the setback delivered by the nation’s constitutional court on top of blistering criticism from opposition politicians and a wide cross-section of citizens, the Portuguese government is now studying plan B.
Widely praised in Brussels for sticking to the stringent terms of the €78 billion bailout negotiated with international creditors two years ago, confidence suddenly nose-dived when Portugal’s highest court ruled that some of the key austerity measures included in the 2013 budget were not acceptable.
The court rejected pay cuts for government workers and pensioners, thus confronting the government with finding an alternative way of making savings of €1.3 billion this year. It also cast doubts on how much further austerity will be tolerated, not only by angry citizens but by the nation’s top judges.
The European Commission welcomed Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho’s promise that his government remained committed to the adjustment programme, including its fiscal targets and timeline.
The proposed alternative deficit reduction measures are deeper cuts in public service, especially social security, education, health services and state-run companies. They are expected to be presented at the end of this month, or early next, and will almost certainly bring yet more job losses, hardship and anger.
The Fitch credit rating agency wondered if the ruling of the constitutional court “could be interpreted as saying that all public spending cuts that affect civil servants are unconstitutional.” It added: “If that interpretation is correct, the ruling represents a setback to future fiscal adjustment efforts in Portugal.”
The wider fear is that politicians in the other struggling euro economies may face complications if their own judges examine the constitutional correctness of austerity measures.
Troika representatives will soon be back in Lisbon to assess how Portugal is now going to cope. Meanwhile, eurozone finance ministers meeting in Dublin this weekend agreed "in principle" to give Portugal and Ireland seven more years to repay their loans. Portugal hopes this will facilitate a return to full market financing. But the Commission says the extension is dependent on the government providing compelling evidence that it has found an alternative solution to the €1.3 billion shortfall.
Regaining full market access may not happen this year.  “In our opinion, at best, this may occur in 2014,” declared a Barclays report. “Negative growth, rising unemployment, and delayed fiscal targets could even push Portugal to require additional official funding in 2014.”
As a backdrop to all this, the United States Treasury secretary Joseph “Jack” Lew,  on his first official visit to Europe, suggested to EU Commission president José Manuel Barroso among others that austerity should be relaxed in favour of more focus on policies that drive economic growth.
Many in Portugal and elsewhere in Europe have been saying this for years, arguing that austerity measures depress growth and are counterproductive.
While the debate rages on, Portugal may soon emerge from the casualty ward, but it will still need intensive care.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Conman Ken proves crime does pay!

The Welsh fugitive conman Kenner Elias Jones, a Walter Mitty character who disappeared two years ago after being tracked down in Portugal, has showed up in Spain, still leading an extraordinary life of fantasy and fraud.
Best known as Ken Jones, he has defrauded charities, religious institutions and hospitals, as well as many companies and individuals, in a criminal career spanning 40 years and involving more than 60 convictions.
In recent months he has been up to his old tricks in the Murcia region of
southeastern Spain. The Guardia Civil in Cartagena say they are aware of Jones staying in local hotels and leaving without paying the bills, but like their counterparts previously in Portugal, they seem unable or unwilling to arrest him.
Jones, 62, ‘collapsed’ in a restaurant and was taken to a district hospital near San Javier where he stayed having tests for six weeks. On being discharged, apparently in good health, he promised to settle the bill of more €26,000 with medical insurance. He had pulled the same stunt in a Portuguese hospital.
Over the past couple of weeks and using the Christian name Elias rather than Kenner or Ken, Jones has been spotted relaxing in the Murcia seaside resort of Santiago de la Ribeira. It is thought he may now be in Valencia, either gadding about or relaxing in hospital.
Charged with stealing thousands of pounds from an employer in the UK, he absconded from Lewes Crown Court in Sussex before his trial 10 years ago. He has been on the run ever since.
Long before that, he had been sentenced in the Old Bailey in London to three years’ imprisonment for committing theft and forgery. Coventry Crown Court sentenced him to 15-months’ jail for obtaining money by deception. He received a further 18-month sentence for deception and fraud from the Merthyr Tydfil Crown Court in South Wales.
Originally from Caernarfon, Gwynedd in North Wales, his colourful career has also included imprisonment and deportation from both Canada and the United States where he was deemed by officials to be “a danger to society.” A senior immigration officer in the US described him as “the best conman I have ever encountered in my entire career.”
Between fleeing the UK in 2003 and turning up in Portugal in 2011, Jones, a.k.a. Kenneth Ngeiwo Hawkins, spent years in Kenya posing as a doctor and administered medicines to children athough he had no medical qualifications. He is still wanted in Kenya for alleged debts of more than US$100,000.
An estate agent in the town of Palmela, south of Lisbon, told me how in 2011 Jones approached him saying he wanted to buy a house in the €400,000 to €600,000 price range. The wily Welshman went on to diddle the agent out of hundreds of euros by saying his foreign credit card was incompatible with the Portuguese system and he needed money urgently for medicine and other vital expenses.
On the understanding that Jones was transferring money from an overseas bank account, a Palmela travel agent handed over tickets worth €2,500 for Jones’ wife and two adopted children to fly into Lisbon from Kenya. The travel agent reported the scam to the Polícia Judiciária but she never got her money.
The return trip to Kenya was paid for by the Cáritas charitable organisation in Sétubal, according to a reliable Palmela source.
After being exposed in Portugal by dogged investigators from the BBC Wales Week In Week Out TV programme, Jones disappeared again and has gone about his wicked ways unreported until now. He is still pretending to be a qualified doctor and an ordained Anglican priest. He tells people he is planning to rejoin his family in Kenya where in 2003 he set up a charity called Luke’s Foundation. Even for the highly imaginative Ken Jones, getting out of Europe may now prove to be difficult: his passport expired at the end of January this year.
Those who have met him say he is a very intelligent, easy-to-talk-to, plausible and likeable person who confesses to multiple lamentable health problems – but then those are normal characteristics in a successful conman.
A full, unexpunged account of his activities over the past 40 years in his own words would make a riveting book – but who would believe it?

* algarvenewswatch will welcome any further accurate, honest information from readers. Please post comments below or send information to Be assured that sources will remain strictly confidential if that is their wish.