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?

Under-30 economist and MP Mariana Mortagua
Under-30 economist and MP Mariana Mortagua
Sarah Halifa-Legrand

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.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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