At the Centro Portugués, it's Portus vs. Portugal's Foreign Minister

Portugal’s Foreign Minister came to Caracas to make nice with the government while hundreds of thousands of Portuguese nationals barely hang on.

It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon and I’m at the Centro Portugués in eastern Caracas: the modern, well-kept and comfortable social club established by Portugal’s once-prosperous immigrant community here. It’s heartening to think that this was built after the Portuguese diaspora came escaping poverty, and worked their asses off to build small businesses and reach for the Venezuelan dream. Distant days.  

You had to see it: People hanging out by the pool, children playing, others eating at the wonderfully appropriate panadería-themed cafeteria. Older men and women playing domino and canasta, respectively, in separate rooms (the Iberian way). It almost felt like a normal country.

But I’m not here to have fun. I make my way to the Centro’s ballroom, where lots of these portus have seen their loved ones get married or do their primera comunión, to a meeting set-up by the Centro between the Portuguese Foreign Minister, Augusto Santos Silva, and members of the Portuguese community in Venezuela, ahead of its official meeting with Venezuelan Foreign Ministry and Galáctico’s son-in-law, Jorge Arreaza.

The first speaker is the Centro’s president, Rafael Gomes, and he gives a stirring, surprising speech. Pulling no punches and speaking with the dignified anger that comes when honest and hardworking people suffer 19 years of abuse from a government that hates them, he proceeds to berate Silva for its government’s indifference to the many aggressions suffered by the Portuguese in Venezuela, abuses that it never decried because it privileges the interest of Portuguese companies doing big businesses with chavismo. People in the audience, proudly and emotionally, stand up and clap at the end. Gomes stood up for his people against the canned answers fed by Lisbon for years.

Tough act to follow, but even by normal standards, Silva’s speech is lacking. He recites platitudes about working together to achieve a solution, making false analogies with a past crisis in Portugal. The dissonance between the speeches’ tone is overwhelming; like my friend says, Silva seems spatially lost, speaking to the Portuguese community in New Zealand. He says he’ll be meeting the Libertador municipality Mayor and thank her for the support, in front of those whose businesses the previous chavista mayor has helped destroy, too. The icing on the cake for me is when he mentions, as an achievement of the Foreign Ministry, the publication of a bilingual volume of Fernando Pessoa’s poems in Venezuela, by a local cultural center. The caviar left at its clueless best.

For him, the number of documents processed by the Consulate in Caracas and the fact that they haven’t raised the fees for consular services are achievements.

The first question from the audience comes from a supermarket chain representative, who condemned the harassment (and even imprisonment) from Sundde officers during the last days, the same people Silva just thanked. The second is from a Portuguese-Venezuelan woman who needs a kidney transplant, a procedure not currently performed in Venezuela (she’s asking for help to get one). Finally, there’s an elderly couple; the woman explains, calmly and without melodrama, how her husband’s cardioverter-defibrillator battery is about to die and they cannot find a replacement.

Silva answers in the same anodyne tone and a bored bureaucrat in the podium refers the people to a medical assistance program in the government’s website, saying that a special version for Venezuela is in the making. Let’s hope these people make it until then.

He warns, though, that they cannot intervene in Venezuela’s “sovereign” affairs, that age-old excuse for tolerating abuses and atrocities. For him, the number of documents processed by the Consulate in Caracas and the fact that they haven’t raised the fees for consular services (which has costed the Portuguese government money and is now subsidizing the fees) are achievements. The generosity.

On Monday, the meeting with Arreaza takes place. Once again, Silva gives canned lines, offers to help Venezuela (probably meaning the government), makes false analogies again between the situation in Venezuela and Portugal and meekly explains the horrors described the night before to Arreaza, while downplaying them. He also met with Maduro and, briefly, with the newly-minted National Assembly President, Omar Barboza.

I’m left thinking of the European response to our crisis, the insincere calls for cooperation and dialogue and the mountains of sanctimonious and sterile statements, all made while failing to approve (or, in Portugal’s case, even blocking the approval) of measures that may actually produce a positive outcome to the crisis.

Just like the Portuguese community in Venezuela is for Silva, our country is some inconvenient affair that the international crowd listens to calmly, hoping it to just go away. However, people like the decent and proud portus I saw, won’t allow that without a fight they aren’t quitters.