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Europe
3:00 am
Fri March 23, 2012

Portuguese Struggle Amid Austerity Measures

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Thousands of Portuguese workers walked off the job yesterday. They were protesting austerity measures tied to the country's $100 billion bailout from the European Union and International Monetary Fund.

Let's go to Lisbon now. Lauren Frayer reports that among protesters a sense of despair and confusion are more prevalent than anger.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: This crowd of several hundred protesters in Portugal's capital is tame compared to the almost daily unrest over austerity in neighboring Spain or Greece.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRAYER: The union organizers are playing mournful folk music. And 19-year-old Hugo Abreu says people are upset.

HUGO ABREU: The crisis affects me very much because my parents are without work. We are with less money, you see. Years back, I remember that we go to dinner in restaurants and something like that, and today we can't do that. We can't afford it.

FRAYER: Many Portuguese are bewildered, because they didn't have the same problems as the two other countries that got bailouts. Portugal didn't mishandle its finances as much as Greece did. It didn't have such real estate speculation as Ireland. The problem here has always been just a sluggish economy.

Luis Pais Antunes is a former lawmaker, lawyer and economist.

LUIS PAIS ANTUNES: We almost had no growth for the last 10 years, and we have spent more and more money building highways, bridges. We were in a very fragile situation when the economic and financial crisis arrived. If you have a weak condition, if it is too cold, you will be the first to catch a cold.

FRAYER: If Portugal is a sick patient, then the medicine - spending cuts and tax hikes - ordered up by Brussels is making it sicker. Unemployment has shot up to record highs. Youth are going abroad for jobs. Because of additional taxes, gas costs the equivalent of 8.70 a gallon.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

FRAYER: Groceries cost more. People crowd around street hawkers selling strawberries wholesale.

Alejadre San Miguel is trying to open a restaurant, but his taxes keep going up. He thinks his government is powerless to reject northern Europe's demands, now that the bailout has gone through.

ALEJADRE SAN MIGUEL: We are at this point and nobody can do nothing. Germany is the boss now. So we have to say yes, and it's difficult.

FRAYER: Tax hikes and poor consumer spending could kill San Miguel's new restaurant. And there are fears they could do the same to the whole economy, forcing Portugal to ask for a second bailout, like Greece, says Antunes, the economist.

ANTUNES: It is probably true that there is a risk of dying, not because of the disease but of the medicines. But is there any alternative?

FRAYER: Portugal's government says no. And judging from low turnout at protests here, the Portuguese people may just - begrudgingly - agree.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Lisbon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.