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António Guterres was right: It is time to be true to ourselves

Updated: May 20, 2021

While Covid-19 may pose a real and present threat to Portugal’s tourism economy — there is another issue that lurks off the main stage and could hurt the nation’s image. I have blogged on the troubling legacy of colonialism in Portugal today, and how it is difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction. I remember back in 2007 when working on a Smithsonian exhibition called “Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th & 17th Centuries,” seeing the same icebergs. The exhibit elicited some strong reaction from American writers who said that it seemed to celebrate colonialism. Fast forward to the tumultuous year of 2020, and the rise of dialog around the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. For Portugal today, the trip wires are many.

For years Portugal has embraced an Age of Discovery, celebrating the navigators who found new routes to build a commercial seaborne empire. But the colonialism, violence, and the religious glee that followed are often not addressed. And then, in the 1940s, the Salazar regime embraced the period as a legend to maintain Portugal’s remaining colonies in Africa and Asia. A false historic narrative was embedded into society based on a fairytale past, and the legacy of that false history still lives today.

I have seen some comments that Portugal is not a racist nation. Obviously, racism exists in every Western nation. Portugal is far from exempt. And, to talk about an Age of Discovery is to look through a Euro-centric lens of Europeans finding “backwards” and “unenlightened” peoples. That vision is outdated and offensive today. And, it didn’t happen that way.

In all fairness, many European nations have a cloudy history of colonialism. And, some are just now trying to deal with it. Recently the King of Belgium offered his "deepest regrets" to the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo for the "suffering and humiliation" of colonization.

Portugal has done a good job in addressing its past persecution of the Jewish people. There are monuments, websites, and government programs. Why not do the same with slavery? To own, regret, and ponder the errors of our ancestors does not make up for them, but it allows us to speak the truth, and try to heal.

And, as a tourism destination, this is better than the two-sided sword of Damocles - a mix of celebrating colonialism, ignoring slavery, while downplaying racism.

Portugal has to stop curating its past. We remember the Roman as ancestors, but disavow the Arabs as invaders — both were here for 500 years, both are part of the modern mix of Portugal’s past.

We need to stop talking about Discovery, and reframe it as Exploration. This defuses the Eurocentric worldview, and focuses on the navigational accomplishments.

But we cannot blindly celebrate people from the 16th century in two dimensions. We need to look at the full story, and not leave out the disturbing parts. And also acknowledge the harm.

Why not be inclusive in the imagery we show the world of Portugal today — which is a diverse and welcoming nation — with people and traditions and cuisine from all over the world. What Portugal has become is the greatest testament to how a nation can grow and evolve — and it is more real than mourning some “lost empire” that never existed.

We need to talk about slavery — not hide it, but acknowledge and recognize it — and look at the role of slavery in the Portuguese empire, and the contributions of human force into labor and building what is so celebrated today. There are so many of monuments of the “Discoveries” but no place to mourn the horror of slavery. No place to discuss the wrongs of colonialism. That has to stop, because it is a hypocrisy that has no place in where the world is heading. It makes Portugal a better destination, and it makes it a better nation.

No one has said this better than UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who recently addressed Colonialism. Today’s anti-racist movement, he said, points to this historic source of inequality: “The Global north, specifically my own continent of Europe, imposed colonial rule on much of the Global south for centuries, through violence and coercion. Let’s not fool ourselves. The legacy of colonialism still reverberates. We see this in economic and social injustice, the rise of hate crimes and xenophobia; the persistence of institutionalized racism and white supremacy.”

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21. Aug. 2020

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