The paper I wrote reflecting on my study abroad experience in Portugal.

Sorry, this is so late coming to you all!  I wanted to make sure everything was turned in and graded before I posted anything.  As a side note, before you read this paper, I do not think this is my best ever work.  It is not meant to be researched since much of the references I make were to presentations that we were given.  Please comment with any questions you may have and I hope you enjoy it!


Portuguese Political Economy and Culture

This trip was my first time abroad and I was surprised in many ways.  Before coming to Lisbon, I had spent about a week in Paris.  While Paris was absolutely lovely and I will be going back, I thought that Portugal seemed like a place in which people actually lived and worked instead of being the over the top city that I found Paris to be.  I found Portugal more of a place that was centered in reality more than catering to tourists and merely putting up with them.  I think that mentioning this is important as I was making comparisons between the two cities quite frequently, and while I did not speak to too many experts in French/Parisian culture, politics, and economics, my previous five years of studies in French made me familiar with some of these important issues.  In contrast, my studies of Portugal had been condensed into about a month leading up to this trip.  That being said, I was also still making the majority of comparisons to the United States since my sociological perspective is that of an American middle-class young woman.  As I said above, Portugal surprised me in many ways and I will be discussing the thoughts I have around the non-government organizations, political economy, and culture there.

Reading the book The Concise History of Portugal before arriving was extremely beneficial to understanding the current situation that Portugal is in socially, politically, and economically.  It made it especially important when considering Portugal’s recent history and how it has gotten where it has.  However, there was further reading required for further understanding the events that have happened since the book was published.  

Knowing that the Portuguese democracy is younger than my mother made me recognize that some of the far-right rhetoric that is being used by politicians in other parts of Europe and in the United States would simply not take hold because the dangers of nationalism would be remembered and recognized as they are  in the recent memory of the population.  The politics in Portugal in many ways are much more complex (although admittedly, compared to the American system of politics, it is probably simpler to understand for most people) in the fact that there are more parties and have a parliamentary system in which, instead of voting for specific candidates, one votes for a party.  This system, or some version of it, is a common form of a democratic republic.  When discussing this topic with some of the speakers and some of the people we met on the street, in cabs, etc., they seemed to really like this system and shared their critiques on the American system of government.  This included American policy positions on issues such as education, war, drugs, etc.

The system of government reflected the culture and economy quite well in Portugal as well.  I thought that the hospitality in Portugal rivaled with American “Southern hospitality,” and no one seemed unpleasant (at least not to our faces) while there.  I think that this value of hospitality was reflected in the policy decisions that Portugal has made, been a part of, and where the Portuguese government decides to spend its money.  For example, the handling of the refugee crisis, poverty and children’s issues, and the financial crisis was responded to and the people’s reactions to the policy decisions that were made are fantastic examples of this.  These issues that I have mentioned were handled in a rather simple, problem-and-solution type of manner that has impacted the other social problems that policy makers often struggle to handle.  With the refugee crisis, Portugal deciding to take and help refugees get back on their feet in any way that Portugal could do so within their means and while they are not taking in anywhere near the amounts that other countries are, the citizens did not seem to mind like they did in other countries.  The reasons for this have been speculated upon, including geographic location and the state of the Portuguese economy.  When handling poverty and children needing to not live with their primary caregivers for whatever reason, human dignity and individual autonomy are considered.  They take measures to ensure that everyone can eat and have an actual decent life.  With the last financial crisis, the government that was in charge at the time made hard choices such as cutting back on social programs, which is highly unpopular as everyone benefits from these programs.  With that being said, it was explicitly for the best of the country that those choices were made; it was not for the large companies or any of the large money makers in the country, it was simply the best choice out of some terrible choices that had to be made.  

Going to Portugal, I knew that how they dealt with social problems was extremely different, but I was shocked with how compassionate and empathetic people were.  Perhaps it is just because I am so used to people turning a blind eye to people in need here in the United States, but I was still shocked that people and a government could stand together to try and make their country and their society a relatively better place.  Having to come back to the United States and seeing the bills that are in the State and Federal legislatures that do not help the people that need it most has been, frankly, eye-opening.  It has however, given me hope that with our vast amount of resources that could be used in so many ways to help others, that we will eventually use them.

During our visits to various organizations in Portugal, there were some significant differences with their Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) from ours here in the United States.  For example, Champalimaud has been conducting medical research since its beginning in 2005.  When we visited, they were doing groundbreaking research in vision-related ailments, neuroscience, and cancer treatment.  While they are independent from the Portuguese healthcare system, they did explain that the costs that a patient would incur were not nearly as high as they would have been here.  However, I think that the largest difference between the research that is done on people is the intensity of government regulation and the influence of the drug companies.

Normally, I am all for the regulation of industries in order to protect consumers of those goods.  However, I think that in the United States, it is becoming more universally accepted that the pharmaceutical companies have a huge influence on policy regarding medical research and choosing whether or not to bring certain medicines to the market.  The best way that this issue was displayed was how Champalimaud was treating cancer.  It was explained that in Portugal, the regulations on medical research are not nearly as strict as they are in other countries, like the United States.  This enabled them to do state of the art research, and since they were in Portugal, where the cost of operation is not as high in other parts of Europe, they were able to do it for a lower cost.

The other NGO that we visited was the Gulbenkian Foundation.  I thought that this was quite similar to the large foundations here in the US.  Gulbenkian’s overall goal after all of the talks from different projects that the foundation had was to try and do some good in the world.  The foundation outlined how it was able to do the work that it did and the major difference between NGOs in the United States and Portugal: most people in Portugal did not see it as their job to donate money to take care of citizens, it was the job of the state.  This did not in any way present an issue for Gulbenkian, and they have been able to manage and grow the fund that they had started with in order to sustain their foundation.

One issue that probably stood out to me the most was the conflict that has been caused by the Eurozone.  I did research regarding the Eurozone before leaving the U.S., so I knew that there were cracks and issues arising in certain countries throughout Europe.  However, I don’t think I realized the extent of the issues until I got there and we had talks with people that were knowledgeable about the fallout that took place after the European Debt Crisis.  

During the recession, the United States fared okay when compared to other countries because of the ability to debt finance its economy in order to save it from collapse, which is all because it has monetary sovereignty.  The main problem that I saw with how the single currency system worked was that the central bank tended to make policies that favored the Northwestern countries in Europe and, after the recession, did not treat countries such as Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece, with any grace in regards to saving their economies.  These countries are also not seen as an asset to the European Union, but rather a burden, which impacts how people think of the EU.  

When the recession started to hit Europe, Portugal’s economy tanked and revenue severely declined, which resulted in the need for tough choices to be made.  This included cutting the social programs, as they were the most expensive.  As former Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho mentioned in his talk, the Portuguese people did not want to see their social programs be cut or disappear and this ultimately resulted in the change of government that we saw in 2015.  The problem that could be seen from this is that without the social programs to support those that are most impacted by the recession, a slew of problems were created for the entire population.  These would include increased crime, an increase of obesity, lower overall health of a population, and all of these problems are very expensive problems to deal with.  While the choices that he made were admirable with the situation that he found himself in, the worst of it could have arguably been avoidable if Portugal had control of their monetary policy.

This gets me to my next point: I do not think that the Eurozone is going to be sustainable into the future for much longer.  Already citizens in the EU have animosity towards countries that “don’t pull their weight” economically.  This has arguably been one of the major reasons that there is an increase of recent nationalistic election rhetoric that is taking hold of Europe.

This problem could potentially be solved without the upheaval that would be caused by the dissolution of the European Union, which could cause economic problems not just in Europe, but throughout the world as so many economies depend on the EU in some way.  When I posed the question of whether or not slowly transitioning from the Euro instead of a catastrophic event was politically possible, the gentleman that we had the opportunity to speak with did not think so.  

In the same vein as the issues in the Portuguese economy, the recovery from the last recession has been slow to say the least.  The Portuguese unemployment rate has consistently hovered around 10% in the best of times.  This has been an issue because since people are unemployed they are unable to be active agents in the economy.  The saying “one man’s spending is another’s income” is extremely applicable here.  Unemployment impacts other people’s incomes (because they can not spend on anything other than necessities) and the government’s tax revenue (when large numbers of people make less money and taxes remain stagnant, overall revenue will decline).  When I was walking around between sessions, boarded up businesses and buildings largely in disrepair were not uncommon.  This issue will need to be resolved somehow in the future.

One last issue that Portugal is facing that I will mention is this: the trust of the media and its relationship to society and politics.  As we found out from our media panel, the United States is not the only place experiencing an influx of fake news aimed to influence political opinion.  Obviously, it has not been as large of an issue there as it is here, but with media revenues declining and the way people consume their news changing, the media personnel globally are facing challenges.  Although Portugal is not exactly fertile ground for political extremism, there may be issues that come about in future elections due to false stories that circulate.

This leads me to my conclusion of where I think Portugal will be going in the next 5-10 years.  They have all of the potential that they need to be a successful and beneficial corner of the world.  They have NGOs that are doing amazing, groundbreaking work in so many fields that desperately need improvement.  However, while I am optimistic that Portugal will succeed in the end as a European power and that their economy will grow as people discover Europe’s best kept secret, I think that Europe and the global economy may be put through some very difficult times.  Already, we are seeing changes in politics and philosophies on how the world should be run, and I do not think that this will just be in the United States and, and these changes will undoubtedly impact the economy.  

While I can not make specific predictions on the Portuguese economy  as far as time lines go, I think that the work that Gulbenkian and Champalimaud are doing is amongst the best in the world and will continue to succeed.  The politics in the country seem to be arguably more stable and less polarizing than in many other democracies that we are witnessing and I think that it will continue to be that way.  Overall, Portugal has itself set up that it can succeed.  We will just have to see how they “play their cards.”  Ambassador Katz predicted that we would probably fall in love with Portugal in some way while we were there.  For me that was definitely the case, and I look forward to go back again to see how they have progressed.  

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