Over the summer, Mamadou Ba, the head of an anti-racist organisation in Lisbon, received a letter. “Our goal is to kill every foreigner and anti-fascist – and you are among our targets,” it read. A few weeks later, it was followed up with a message telling him to leave Portugal or let his family face the consequences. That message was accompanied by a bullet casing.
Ba’s experience is one of a growing number of racist incidents perpetrated across Portugal that have led the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) to call for “an urgent institutional response”.
In January this year, a black woman and her daughter were assaulted because they didn’t have a bus ticket. In February, two Brazilian women were attacked by the police outside a Cape-Verdean club, and in the same month, the Porto football player Moussa Marega, born in Mali, abandoned a game after fans shouted racial slurs.
The worst attack took place on a Saturday afternoon in July, when a black actor, Bruno Candé, was murdered after a man shot him four times in what ENAR has described as “an explicitly racially motivated crime”.
“In recent months, there has been a very concerning rise in far-right racist attacks in Portugal, confirming that the hate messages are fuelling more aggressive tactics that target human rights defenders from racial minorities,” the organisation said.
Ba, who heads the NGO SOS Racismo, agreed: “There has been an obvious escalation in violence – a clear result of the growth of far-right terrorism in Portugal over the past few years.”
Last year, the Portuguese commission for equality and against discrimination received 436 complaints regarding cases of racism, an increase of 26% on 2018.
ENAR traces the rise back to last October’s general election, when Portugal – like many European countries, including neighbouring Spain – saw the re-emergence of the far right. In Spain’s case it was Vox; in Portugal’s, it was the Chega (Enough) party, whose leader, André Ventura, won a seat in parliament.
Since then, according to ENAR, “far-right activists have been emboldened to commit racially motivated crimes against people of colour in Portugal”.
Ventura, known to have ties to other far-right extremist groups, has appointed former members of neo-Nazi groups to leadership positions in his party – although he later claimed not to be aware of their backgrounds. He has also called a female politician running against him a “Gypsy candidate” and defended the “drastic reduction” of Muslim communities in Europe.
“Ventura is growing because he is saying in public what many Portuguese think in private but don’t say,” said political scientist António Costa Pinto. He adds that while the Portuguese electoral system meant that Ventura could take a seat with just 1.29% of the votes, “he is giving a voice to many people”.
Costa Pinto noted that Ventura’s political agenda is similar to that of many other far-right leaders across the world – not least in his railings against the “typical political elites and corruption”.
Ventura’s programme also focuses heavily on the fight against crime – “usually personified by Roma or Afro-Portuguese [people]” – says Costa Pinto.
But despite all the tough talk, reminiscent of the rhetoric deployed by Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, government data shows that crime in Portugal has actually decreased steadily by 20% over the past 12 years.
Chega did not reply to a request for comment, but Ba says the party’s advent is already having an impact. “We’ve always said there were always a lot of far-right supporters in Portugal, but no far-right leader,” said Ba. “Now André Ventura has become an institutional megaphone of racism in parliament.”
The Black Lives Matter movement is currently trying to start a debate about racism in Portugal – an issue that was never addressed during the period of decolonisation that followed the Carnation Revolution in 1974 – and Ventura is leading the opposition.
Earlier this year the black community in Portugal organised what was, according to Ba, the biggest anti-racism rally ever seen in the country. The Chega leader responded with a counter-protest in which he was seen doing the Nazi salute while holding a banner reading, “Portugal is not racist.”
When protesters tried to remove some statues of colonial figures, a “Ku Klux Klan” parade was staged outside Ba’s NGO, which was graffitied with swastikas and racist slurs. Death threats were sent to activists such as Ba – but also a number of academics and MPs.
“I never imagined this much violence,” said Joacine Katar Moreira, one of the three black female MPs elected to parliament almost a year ago. “I think if someone had told me it was going to be this way, I’d never have run for office.”
The MP, who was born in Guinea-Bissau and has a stutter, has been the target of harassment and ridicule since her election, including from Ventura, who told her to “go back to her country” when she took office.
“We’re seeing the beginning of the normalisation of racist hate speech. There is a normalisation of racist attacks and there is even a political-institutional legitimisation [of these behaviours],” said Katar Moreira.
“I entered parliament at the same time as an anti-democratic MP, and the target of attacks on a national level for several months was not the fascist, anti-democratic MP. It was the black, female MP with humble beginnings.”
Despite the growing number of discrimination complaints, hardly any have resulted in a conviction. Between 2014 and 2018, the number of convictions for the “crimes of discrimination and incitement to hate and violence … is less than 3”, according to police statistics provided to the Guardian.
ENAR noted that “a lack of institutional response only reaffirms the historical sense of impunity for perpetrators of racist violence and denies the urgent need to address racism in Portugal”.
Katar Moreira said there was a “huge resistance” to talking about racism in Portugal because people get “truly offended when we say we are in a structurally racist society. They think we are offending them individually.”
Ba called it a “state of denial”, and argued that current laws were insufficient to fight discrimination effectively.
“There is a kind of lethargy,” he said. “We either change the laws to make them more effective, or we’ll be in trouble because the ease with which André Ventura managed to grab the most nefarious and obscure sentiment of the old regime could really be the gasoline that fuels the growth of the extreme right.”