Cuts can't stop carnival in Portugal

Tue Feb 21, 2012 7:47am EST
 
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By Axel Bugge

LISBON (Reuters) - The Portuguese have mostly quietly accepted reforms in the labor market, soaring unemployment and cuts to welfare to rein in their debt mountain - but calls to cancel the centuries-old tradition of carnival went a step too far.

The government tried, in the name of austerity imposed by international lenders, to force the end of Tuesday's public holiday but the country effectively shut down all the same as the Portuguese refused to go without their pre-Lent festival.

In Lisbon, streets were quiet and many shops and offices were empty, apart from government ones.

Carnival parades went ahead as normal in many parts of the country, some of them adorned with puppets of the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and European Central Bank - the "troika" of lenders to Portugal's 78-billion-euro bailout.

"Going without the carnival holiday is not going to save the country," said Filipe Garcia, head of Informacao de Mercados Financeiros consultants. "It is on symbolic points that credibility is lost, the government should be more worried about social cohesion than symbolic measures."

It is a timely reminder that despite the so-far tame level of social protest and strikes against Portugal's hardship under the bailout, there are limits to how much austerity the country will stomach during the deepest recession in decades.

As Portugal is the euro zone's second most risky country after Greece, European officials are well aware that any descent by the country into deeper social protest could undermine Europe's argument that Athens' situation is unique.

A clear warning sign emerged last week when data showed unemployment reached a record 14 percent in the fourth quarter of last year - already above the government's estimate of 13.7 percent for 2012, when the recession is expected to worsen.   Continued...

 
Carnival revellers perform during the Ovar city parade February 19, 2012. Dozens of Portuguese cities continue their celebration of the carnival weekend, despite the government's decision to cancel the holiday due to austerity measures. REUTERS/Jose Manuel Ribeiro