The 28-Year-Old Who Stared Down The Portuguese Rockefeller
An economist and daughter of one of the leading opponents of Portugal's former dictatorship, Mariana Mortagua is challenging the status quo. Is this a new Syriza?
LISBON — The vigor of her handshake offers a glimpse of her personality, frank and strong-willed. Her appearance does the rest. With her Converse shoes, jeans and ear piercings, Mariana Mortagua contrasts with the setting of Portugal's Parliament.
"No, I'm not like the others," she says. A 28-year-old economist who became a parliament member in 2013 with the far-left party Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc), Mortagua has since demonstrated that she is undoubtedly her father's daughter.
Camilo Mortagua played an important role in the fight against the dictatorial regime of António de Oliveira Salazar and in the 1974 Carnation Revolution. Mariana has earned her own reputation as a righter of wrongs by standing up to the country's biggest industrial and financial empire, Banco Espirito Santo (BES). As vice president of the Parliamentary Inquiry Commission, last year she led the offensive against one of the last banking dynasties.
The collapse of BES in the summer of 2014 plunged Portugal back into turmoil just as it was emerging from a 78 billion-euro bailout program. After three years of austerity, wage cuts, pension cuts, spending cuts, tax hikes and privatizations, Lisbon found itself forced to bail out the debt-ridden bank to save it from bankruptcy. The state injected 3.9 billion euros, and the country's private bank another 1 billion.
Taking on the power
The young lawmaker was enthralled by the whole affair. For months, she worked relentlessly until late at night, until she knew all the twists and turns by heart. The Palácio de São Bento, Portugal's house of Parliament, became her second home, and the black couch in the room her party occupies became her camp bed. First of all, because what this finance fanatic saw in this case was the "occasion to scrutinize our economic elite," but also because the history of Espirito Santo, like that of her own father, goes back to the dictatorship.
Founded in 1869 and developed under Salazar's authoritarian regime, the finance giant was nationalized in the aftermath of the 1974 revolution. "Humiliated but still refusing to admit defeat, the Espirito Santo family set about rebuilding its might abroad, through debt, before coming back to Portugal to get its banks back," Mariana explains, punctuating each of her sentences with a punch on the table.
The group, built upon holdings divided among the family members, had placed its banking institution at the center of a complex financing scheme connecting all of its different companies. The structure was "poorly built, poorly managed and weakened by the crisis," she says. It ultimately collapsed just after Portugal's bailout.
Mariana suspects the government and the Bank of Portugal were aware of the problems inside BES but waited until the international creditors left the country to avoid provoking a banking crisis while they were there. But she can't prove that. "Our job in parliament was to show to all Portuguese what the elite really think and how they operate," she says.
She may not have succeeded in getting the people to share her passion for analyzing this Ponzi scheme, but Mariana Mortagua did manage to spark citizen interest in this extremely complex case. She created a blog to inform citizens, posted videos of the parliamentary debates that have been viewed more than 200,000 times on YouTube, and made a remark that has become something of a cult punch line. "The owner of everything is trying to pass himself off as the victim of everything," she told 70-year-old Ricardo Salgado, the empire's boss who has become known as "the Portuguese Rockefeller."
"She stood out thanks to her perfect knowledge of the subject, her precise and direct but always polite questions, in a society that's used to more biased exchanges," says economist José Caldas, who was her professor until she went to London to continue her studies.
"She's one of the rare women to often speak up in parliament," one journalist notes. Bloomberg News dubbed her a "Portugese star."
Offspring of a militant
In Alvito, a small village in the southern region of Alentejo, one of the poorest in the country, 81-year-old Camilo Mortagua follows his daughter’s television appearances with pride. Mariana is "hard-working" and "competent," he modestly told Público newspaper.
The elder Mortagua is known for his involvement in the League of Union and Revolutionary Action, a small group of far-left militants who carried out spectacular operations against Salazar's regime. A sea pirate, he hijacked a cruise ship in 1961 with 900 people on board. Also an air pirate, a few months later he hijacked a plane to fly it over Lisbon and jettison 100,000 anti-fascist leaflets. In 1967, he robbed a branch of Bank of Portugal to continue to pay for his activities.
"He was a revolutionary, yes, but not a terrorist," the lawmaker says in defense of her father. "His goal was to make the rest of the world care about what was going on in Portugal."
Her parents met soon after the Carnation Revolution, which toppled the regime in 1974, four years after Salazar’s death. Twelve years later, Mariana and her twin sister Joana were born. "I joined Bloco de Esquerda thanks to Joana. She taught me a lot," Mariana says. Her sister joined the radical left party in 2004 and quickly became an important figure, becoming part of its standing committee. Mariana, who at the time was a militant in a feminist group, joined Bloco de Esquerda in 2009. "I realized that this party was a point of reference in my life," she says. "I crossed its path in every fight I took part in."
Today, Mariana is one of the party's most promising figures, and some see her as its potential future leader now that its founder Francisco Louça, with whom she has co-authored books, is retired. "We'll see," she says when asked about her future.
The task ahead is immense, and she knows it. Unlike its Greek or Spanish equivalents, Syriza and Podemos, her Portuguese anti-austerity party is swimming against the tide. Having received 10% of the vote and seen 16 lawmakers elected in 2009, Bloco de Esquerda has since lost half of its representatives.