Thursday, April 30, 2015

Amaral to appeal McCanns' libel action

 The McCanns partially won their libel action against the author and former lead detective Gonçalo Amaral, but the matter is far from over.
Amaral intends to appeal. In his first comment on the verdict he said: “I find that the court’s decision is unfair and questions my right and every Portuguese citizen's right to freedom of expression and of opinion. For that reason, I do not resign myself to the decision and I will appeal it until the very last judicial instance.”
Apart from Amaral’s assertion on the “unfairness” of the court’s decision, there were two remarkable features about the verdict and the way in which it was announced that got little or no mention in the mainstream media coverage.
The first unusual aspect was the huge sum awarded. It may be normal in the UK, but not here. Amaral was ordered to pay the parents of Madeleine McCann half a million euros in damages, plus interest, currently calculated at €106,000 and rising.
Kate and Gerry McCann had sought a total of €1.2 million. In addition to €250,000 each, they claimed €500,000 for Madeleine and €100,000 for each of their twins. The judge ruled against the claims on behalf of the children.
The McCanns successfully claimed that Amaral’s book, Maddie, the Truth of the Lie,  caused them great personal distress. The judge did not agree, however, that the book had hindered the search for Madeleine or had caused damages to the twins.
 Should Amaral on appeal get the verdict overturned, or the compensation figure greatly reduced, the McCanns may lodge a counter appeal. The deadline for appeals is 40 days. The legal battle that has been going on for more than five years looks like continuing for some time yet.
A defiant Amaral supporter noted that, “a decision from a Portuguese court can only be enforced after all appeals are exhausted. No money will change hands until a final decision is reached by the very last appeals court.” With this in mind, other well-wishers are being urged to make donations to a Gonçalo Amaral defence fund.
The second oddity was the way in which the announcement of the verdict was handled. The judge’s ruling was not read out in court. It was contained in a 52-page report, which was received by the McCann’s Lisbon lawyer Isabel Duarte who swiftly passed it on to media organisations in Portugal and abroad.
Soon after the news appeared on media websites on Tuesday, Kate and Gerry McCann said they were “delighted” with the outcome.
In a statement issued by their spokesman Clarence Mitchell, they said the case had never been about money. “It was entirely focused on the effect of the libels on our other children and the damage that was done to the search for Madeleine.”
When contacted by journalists the same day, Gonçalo Amaral chose not to comment because neither he nor his lawyer, Miguel Cruz Rodrigues, had received a copy of the ruling. They only received it the following day, by which time to many in the mainstream media it was old news.
        Madeleine went missing on 3rd May 2007.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

April 25: time for another big change?

Forty-one years on from the joyous Carnation Revolution that ended half a century of dictatorship, the Portuguese are unhappy. According to the latest Eurostat opinion poll on the subject, the only less happy people in the whole of the European Union are the Bulgarians
“Overall, how satisfied are you with your life these days?” the Eurostat poll wanted to know. The answers showed that the least dissatisfied were those in the 16 to 24 age group.
Of course the respondents did not include the young who have left in droves to seek work and a better life abroad. Nor did the poll take into account the birth rate in Portugal, which is the lowest in Europe and well below the death rate, another factor adding to the growing vacuum of desperately needed dynamism and innovation.
The over-50s - the pre-revolution generation - registered the greatest dissatisfaction, according to Eurostat. Ask them now about the ‘old days,’ and they will tell you that everyday life has greatly improved and become much easier in many ways, but gone backwards in others.
Around the time of the revolution, most people at least nominally still believed in God. Now they find it hard to believe in anyone in authority, especially politicians. Salazar seems like a saint compared to the recent and current crop of administrators.
Strict authoritarian rule has gone, but a more insidious kind of control in the form of bureaucratic regulations at every turn is now limiting freedom. Small businesses will certainly attest to that.
The high hopes of 1975 have been replaced by widespread despair. Few working people will find much to celebrate on o Dia da Liberdade this year.
Foreigners unaware of Portugal’s long history steeped in oppression find it strange that pessimism and low self-esteem should be so prevalent in a culture that these days is one of Europe’s most open, welcoming and tolerant.
Some Portuguese argue it is time for another transformation, not initiated by idealistic young army officers, but by a groundswell of public opinion demanding a fundamental change in economic and social conditions to end the debilitating status quo.
Ironically, part of this is due to membership of the European Union, which for two decades from 1986 opened the country to greater stability, confidence and wealth - until it all started to come crashing down in 2008.  
Just before the 1974 revolution, Portugal’s economy was growing at well above the European average. Second only to Greece, it is now reckoned to be Europe’s most vulnerable.    
The hollowed-out middle class and those at the lower end of this deeply unequal society have taken the brunt of the austerity measures imposed by the government at the behest of the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank.
It was the previous Socialist government that agreed to aid at a terrible price from the Troika. Since the last election four years ago, the right-of-centre coalition leader Pedro Passos Coelho has been unswerving in his commitment to Portugal’s bailout programme.
In the face of political and public opposition to austerity and harsh structural reforms as the remedy to the sovereign debt crisis, the government has stuck to its guns. Along with Ireland and Spain, the government in Portugal has rejected Greece’s antagonistic efforts to gain special concessions. In seeking to create economic and fiscal stability, Portugal has adhered to the agreed hard terms.
The Socialist leader António Costa says that far from being a panacea, the bailout programme has been a deplorable failure that has produced nothing but poverty and misery.
For what it’s worth, Central European Bank president Mario Draghi thinks Portugal is a success story for the European Union’s financial policies.
“Portugal has reached the stage where it is fully reaping the benefits of the measures that have been undertaken in the past years,” he said.
Despite such talk, the lack of public confidence in authority and the division of opinion over the way the government is handling the country’s economic and social woes run deep.  
Yet there seems little appetite as in Spain to follow Greece and switch to a radical new party to replace the entrenched two-party system. A hung parliament in Portugal’s next general election this autumn could even result in a grand coalition, as tried in 1983-85 under Mário Soares and now in operation in Germany.
In announcing his candidacy as an independent in next January’s presidential election, businessman and former Socialist member of parliament Henrique Neto made the point that both sides of the political spectrum need to be utilised to solve Portugal’s problems.
The most pressing of the problems include unemployment, currently running at 13.5% overall, 35% among the young. As ever, corruption at all political and social levels is appalling.
Corruption is the country’s “biggest evil,” according to the former deputy mayor of Porto Paulo Morais who has also announced his candidacy for president of the republic. He has said he wants to “increase transparency” and “recover the respect for the main constitutional principles that have become systematically forgotten.”
Wider worries persist over the very future of the Eurozone as Greece wobbles ever closer towards default and a likely exit from the euro. Yet more crunch talks between EU finance ministers are being held this week, but commentators are unanimous that time is running out.
       All is not lost for Portugal. Aside from the real possibility of a Eurozone meltdown, much depends on the outcome of the autumn general election. Anxiety and tension prevailed from the turmoil of 25th April 1974 until the first free elections in 1975 and 1976. Maybe history will repeat itself. Perhaps some real relief and hope for better days will be forthcoming. 

 25th April 1974, celebration…..

…..  protests four decades later

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Günter Grass, creative to the very end

The renowned German writer, artist and activist Günter Grass, who has died at the age of 87, had a long and warm association with the Algarve.
His passing on Monday in the northern German city of Lübeck brought to an end an extraordinarily creative career steeped in both accolades and acrimony.
In contrast to his formidable presence in Germany, Grass was always a low-key figure in the Algarve, a place he appreciated as a peaceful working retreat.
He first came to international prominence in 1953 with his audaciously inventive novel The Tin Drum. Thirty years later and having published many more books, short stories, plays and poems, he became an Algarve holiday homeowner.
On befriending fellow-Germans Marie and Volker Huber, founders in 1981 of the Centro Cultural São Lourenço near Almancil, Grass held exhibitions there for decades.
Marie Huber recalled this week that during well-planned visits with his large family two or three times a year, Grass always busied himself writing, sketching and painting.
An exhibition of his sketches, watercolours, prints and sculptures was showing at the São Lourenço cultural centre in 1999 when it was announced by the Swedish Academy that Grass had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
He celebrated his 75th birthday in the Algarve in 2002 with a retrospective, his tenth one-man show at São Lourenço. It opened with a reading by Grass from his latest novella, Im Krebsgang (Crabwalk). The Palácio de Galaría in Tavira was the venue for a major exhibition the following year.
By then Grass had moved from his original holiday home in Estômbar, near Lagoa, to a self-designed haven surrounded by nature in the foothills of Monchique.
Grass was“a very gentle man,”Marie Huber recalls. Others in the Algarve have commented on his quiet friendliness, his love of storytelling and his sense of humour.
In Germany and elsewhere he was a much more confrontational and often stridently outspoken character.
At a Council of Europe meeting the year after his Nobel Prize, he denounced the bigotry shown towards the Roma people, Europe’s largest ethnic minority for whom he set up a foundation.
Without compromise he campaigned for global disarmament, but admitted he had been too hasty in warning that German reunification might once again threaten world peace.
Accusations of hypocrisy accompanied the row that erupted in 2006 when he revealed in his memoir Peeling the Onion that as a teenager he had served as a tank gunner in the Nazi Waffen SS.
In 2012, at the age of 84, he was declared persona non grata in Israel following publication of a prose poem called What Must Be Said in which he criticised Israel as being a threat to world peace because of its nuclear capability and hostility towards Iran.
A few weeks later in a poem entitled Europe’s Disgrace, he chastised his own country’s treatment of debt-ridden Greece, which he called “a country sentenced to poverty.”
That same year, the São Lourenço cultural centre sadly closed and, because of heart problems and advancing age, the otherwise indomitable Grass was never able to visit his cherished Algarve again.
The writing did not end there, however, for he was working on a new book during his last days. He died, of a lung infection, surrounded by his family.
He is survived by his second wife, Ute Grunert, four children from his first marriage to Anna Margareta Schwarz, two stepchildren from his second marriage, two children born to other partners, and 18 grandchildren.

Grass at a book fair in Germany last month

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Portugal welcomes Iran nuclear deal

 The hopes expressed by Portugal earlier this year of  an agreement on nuclear enrichment between Iran and the world’s major powers looks like coming to fruition.
Portugal’s hopes were based on its burgeoning new relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran that began just a couple of months before last week’s breakthrough deal in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Under an historic framework arrangement with the United Nations Security Council, Iran, still regarded by some as a pariah state, has agreed to limit its nuclear programme.
Critics, most notably Israel, Saudi Arabia and Republicans in the United States, believe the deal shows far too much leniency towards Iran. That is not Portugal’s view.
In essence, Iran has agreed to curtail uranium enrichment in exchange for the phased lifting of international sanctions.
It is clear that Iranian scientists have the engineering capability to enrich their stockpile of uranium to the high level required to make nuclear weapons. The agreement may not change that capability, but it will entice Iran to stick to its stated intention of limiting enrichment to the level needed to generate electricity from nuclear power.
Iran’s nuclear expertise, materials, laboratories and factories developed over the past 15 years remain intact, but the preliminary promise reached last week means they will be subject to regular inspections and monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The deal so far is only an unwritten preliminary understanding. A formal, comprehensive accord is expected at the end of next month.
It will lead to the lifting of nine years of UN sanctions and isolation that have crippled Iran’s economy. Both the EU and the US have indicated they will start to lift sanctions as soon as the IAEA verifies that Iran is complying with its side of the bargain.
During the last few months of tough diplomacy featuring the United States, China, Russia, Germany, France and the UK, Portugal has been quietly promoting bilateral relations and expanding co-operation with Iran on cultural, scientific, sports and tourism fronts.
On a visit to Tehran in late January, Portuguese Foreign Minister Rui Machete met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and with cultural and business leaders.
Machete said that all countries, including Iran, were entitled to have access to civilian nuclear technology. In the foreign minister’s words, Portugal “totally encouraged” the intensifying talks aimed at a negotiated solution. 
Iranian Culture Minister Ali Jannati said there was “a solid base for expansion of bilateral relations and the two countries can promote their all-out co-operation in the next years.”
A memorandum of understanding was signed under which the University of Lisbon and the University of Tehran will establish educational and research exchange programs for students and professors. Direct flights between Lisbon and Tehran were among the other subjects discussed.
The proposals were all relatively modest but still highly significant as this was the first visit by a Portuguese diplomatic delegation to Iran in 40 years.
Machete commended President Rouhani for all the reforms the Iranian leader had undertaken. “Hassan Rouhani has succeeded in depicting a new image of Iran on the international scene and highlighted Iran’s role in the region by increasing relations and proposing initiatives,” Machete said.
The visit was seen as a turning point in bilateral relations and the highlight was the observation by both Rouhani and Machete that Iran and Portugal could provide a bridge between the Middle East and Europe.  
In a loosely related move a month earlier, Portugal’s parliament had passed a motion to join other legislative assemblies in the EU in recognising Palestine as an independent and sovereign state. The motion noted that negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians were essential if security and peace in the region were to be realised.
All this must now be seen in the context of the widening and worsening situation across the Middle East.
The re-election last month of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyanhu has done nothing to increase the likelihood of Palestinian statehood or lessen Palestinian-Israeli distrust. 
In their bid for greater influence in the region, Iran and its archenemy Saudi Arabia continue to fuel sectarian violence in Iraq, Syria, Jordan and most recently Yemen.
Portugal’s willingness to help link Iran with Europe and the wider world is for now obscured by rampant chaos and bitter confrontation in the Middle East, but it will continue to offer a modicum of hope.  

 Foreign Minister Rui Machete and 
President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran