The shadiest place

A fascinating country. Such a long history, so many enthralling tales to come to the attention of the newcomer just by stumbling upon buildings constructed before say 1800, with quite a few of them as ancient as the discovery of America by Columbus.

Or by listening to folklore, of which there is a lasting culture to unearth in Portugal. Truth or myth, no one knows precisely – but then, was Columbus really the first one to discover the new world as we were told he was?

In Portugal, one story has it there is a proven remedy against the “sickness” of an adulterous husband. The wife has to collect a few bones of a dog and a cat, and a piece of skin from a recently departed human being including a small amount of dirt from the sadly deceased person’s grave. Oh, and some rosemary and garlic. Put everything into a small satchel and wear it on the right breast. Or on the left one, I forgot. Don’t take a bath for three weeks, then, at midnight, go to a freshwater source and clean your body following the pattern of a cross. Afterwards, use the water to prepare a soup and have your husband eat it. As said, a proven remedy, he’ll stop fornicating around immediately. You will see.

Americans should not look down on the Portuguese for believing in 600 years of old-wives tales. I mean, for as long as, in 2016, maybe 50% of the maybe 50% of the American voters who in the end indeed vote do not hesitate to scream “Kill the lying bitch” as if Hillary Clinton is worse than one of the witches of Eastwick; and for as long as they believe Donald Trump is always speaking the truth and nothing but the truth before they don their Make America Great Again baseball cap, go out and vote for the slimy, mythomaniac, lying bigot, I will prefer Portuguese myths. For their myths are just consoling lies, and although I am an easy believer in anything myself, I cherish only harmless, inoffensive, nontoxic crap.

One of my American friends and also one of the Dutch readers wondered if I wasn’t overdoing my praise of the gentle, friendly Portuguese – weren’t these the people who were the last to fight senseless, nasty, cruel colonial wars in Africa? The Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and Angola wars of independence? “With that in their history, can they really be such nice people?” Sure, Africa was Portugal’s Vietnam; the horror in the Portuguese colonies played at the same time as Indochina’s suffering (and not long after the Dutch fought their own senseless colonial war against the Indonesians). Yet there are a few differences to take note of. The Portuguese themselves were suffering under, at that time, forty years of fascist dictatorial regime, the Estado Novo. During that period (1926 to the late 1960s, with the end coming not before 1974) more than two-million Portuguese, or 25% of the population, effectively fled the country to escape the suppression, the extreme poverty, or the draft into obligatory military service, which as a rule led during two of the four years of conscription to fighting a war in what the Portuguese called “Ultramar”, overseas. Two out of eight million. I call this an exodus not unlike the Syrians’, even if the real slaughter was occurring far from home. At home, it was “just” imprisonment, torture, disappearances.

A general remark about war, about any freedom war and colonial war whether fought by the British, the Dutch, or the Portuguese; or any civil war whether fought in the United States or in Syria; about the Vietnam war, WWI and WWII, the Grenada “invasion” as well as the Falkland war, Iraq and Afghanistan. Good wars or bad wars, it makes no difference, none of them exactly make you appreciate mankind much. They all lead, in all times, to the unescapable conclusion that we humans are no better than poisonous vermin; defilements, contaminants on the surface of the earth. Cruel, cunning, villainous and hypocrite beings we are you’d never want to be associated with. Yet, if you look a little deeper you see cause for forgiveness and you understand that regardless of your nationality, whether American, Dutch, Portuguese, Japanese, Yemenite, you are a part of the human race yourself, for better and for worse. You are able to love people, those innocent, pitiful, sorry creatures who can be noble and unselfish even if they are prisoners of circumstances they cannot control, an endless bungling from which most of them –lonesome, powerless, deserted—are trying to escape. And remember, as Norton Cru has written: we can thank mistakes, stupidities, botch-ups and human inefficiency for the situation not being worse.

Talking about bungling. Those final years of Portuguese colonialism were in fact Henry Kissinger’s years as National Security Advisor and US Secretary of State. While still busy with leaving his mark on Southeast Asia, he needed new battle grounds, and foremost fresh opportunities for an end game this time with a victorious outcome. Previously, Africa was to Kissinger no more than an object of bigoted ridicule. Now he aspired to strengthen all white supremacist nations: South Africa and Rhodesia; and Angola and Mozambique, where Portuguese rule with racial oppression and colonialism was in danger of collapsing to insurgents, to “communists”. A new demented fantasy, this time that the domino theory would see all Africa and South America fall to the imaginary international communist conspiracy, was setting up broadly popular liberation movements for destruction by “freedom fighters” armed, backed with manpower and financed by the US. The Sandinistas and such. Remember the Iran-Contra scandal?

As Greg Grandin wrote, “Kissinger looked at southern Africa … and all he could see was Southeast Asia … The United States, Kissinger argued … would have to take ‘an active role’ … to demonstrate … ‘our will and determination to remain the preeminent leader and defender of freedom in the West’.” By then, the Portuguese were departing, their three colonies were approaching independence, but Kissinger already ran a pro-American insurgency. “Kissinger’s wars in southern Africa were catastrophic.” In Angola, the “… incursion prompted Cuba to enter the war, with Fidel Castro’s army routing the US-backed invaders.” The civil wars spun out of control. Kissinger was universally critiqued for justifying white supremacy and racism (his fighting of “Communism” was of course recognized as more commendable). Nevertheless, the upcoming African dictators were welcomed to Washington – your “freedom fighters electrify the world. Their hope resides in us, as ours do in them,” said Ronald Reagan while handing over surface-to-surface missiles which helped the killing of two-million Mozambicans and Angolans.

Even the Portuguese generals (at least quite a bunch of them) didn’t see any light at the end of the colonialist tunnel and jumpstarted the overthrow of Salazar’s regime in 1974; they were sensible enough not to form a never ending military junta but to allow democratic elections to decide the future of their country. Today, they command a defense force that is small but proud, and is wide awake at least after 8 a.m. This I know, because that’s the time of the day when I hear the bugler on the small infantry base just east of where I live blow happy tunes at me. I can count on him to wish me good night as well, at sundown, all evenings of the year.

Salazar. The dictator spent many weekends and vacations away from Lisbon, in his birthplace Vimeiro. During these periods his staff moved to the nearby Palace Hotel in Buçaco, a 260-acre all walled-in mountain forest where you can find Mexican cedars that have grown taller than 35m (105’) since they were planted in 1656. The area attracted then, as it does now, many visitors; in the past, no few came not so much for the spectacular nature and views but rather to be near the president and his power clique. The growing popularity of the woods and the start of international tourism instigated the hotel’s management to start an advertising campaign. It was 1936 when posters and brochures were distributed all over the world showing colorful images of the hotel and its surroundings beneath the rather ambiguous slogan evidently written by a Portuguese ad man who didn’t really master the English language: Visit Buçaco, the shadiest place of Europe.

This is no fable, no myth, no rumor, no fairy tale. It’s the truth. Just so you know.

Ton Haak, October 2016
Sources: J. Rentes de Carvalho, Portugal (1989, 1996); Greg Grandin, Kissinger’s Shadow (2015)