A week of news and views from the Algarve...
Following on from last week’s news that Zeinal Bava and Henrique Granadeiro, former Portugal Telecom directors, were being investigated over the millions they had received from Grupo Espírito Santo’s, Ricardo Salgado, the pair now have been charged and are the 22nd and 23rd defendants in the Operation Marquês inquiry into José Sócrates and the funding of his millionaire lifestyle.
The estimated €40 million in payments that the pair are unable to explain are but part of the €300 million that Salgado has paid out over the years through ES Enterprises (Panama) to buy influence and swing deals.
March 17th is the big day for Operation Marquês. This is the deadline for formally charging Sócrates and 22 other defendants for running a web of corruption and influence peddling that spanned the top echelons of Portuguese business and politics.
Let’s hope the detailed work that has gone into this wide-ranging investigation will pay off and any business or political leader who has broken the law is exposed and punished.
I said in January that this will be a year of high-profile court cases - let’s hope so and that justice is impartial and any sentencing fits the crime.
The Environment Minister, João Matos Fernandes, already has proved himself to be economical with the truth - a point picked up by Portugal’s NGOs which have marked his report card with ‘poor.’
The C6 group of the country’s top environmental associations commented, “the minister's management of nature conservation policy is very negative," and added that his views are based on "preconceived ideas and a clear negative discrimination of the opinion, experience and consideration of organisations.”
Certain MPs have started muttering the Fernandes is not up to the job but the public is way ahead in assessing his performance as consistently being below the barely adequate.
In addition to the minister’s support for the oil and gas contracts off the Alentejo coast, his deceit over the fate of the Ria Formosa islanders has proved yet again that politicians cannot be trusted.
C6 had little positive to say, with the exception of a plus point for halting Portfuel’s plans to turn parts of the Algarve’s land mass into an oil and gas production facility.
But these contract cancellations were down to Portfuel’s owner, Sousa Cintra, not following the basic steps outlined in the concessions that he mysteriously had ‘won’ and had little to do with the minister. Fernandes is pro-oil, despite being in charge of Portugal’s environment.
The Ria Formosa islanders certainly have been in the media this week and the spray painting of reference numbers on properties to be demolished has shocked many who imagined that the minister’s assurances to parliament that each property would be dealt with on a “case-by-case” basis, contained at least an element of truth.
I quote from the referenced link: ‘These clearances are being pursued with a burning zeal by the government which, with a particularly virulent blend of nastiness and lies, has decided that the poor have no rights when big business is involved and the islands need tidying up before tourist developers can move in without the inconvenience of having to deal with unruly locals and their basic quality housing.’
I was not in a good mood when writing that and, having seen further video footage of islanders in floods of tears, am at a loss to explain how or why normally pleasant and cooperative Portuguese can turn into vindictive shits when ‘the law’ allegedly gives them rights over others.
The variety of laws that have been wheeled out to justify demolishing people’s homes have been increasingly weak. In desperation, SOS Ria Formosa has called on the President of the Republic to listen to what has been going on in the name of the ‘environment’ and to put a stop to this stupidity. (Click on this report in the Portugal Resident)
The islanders are not trying to stop empty or derelict properties being removed. They are trying to stop the State bulldozing properties that people are living in. These are the “case-by-case” homes that the minister said he would deal with - but instead Fernades hides away in Lisbon while his goons do the dirty work in further persecuting a harmless community with scant resources with which to fight back.
Fernandes also has not been too clever over the Spanish nuclear fuel dump in Almaraz, 100kms over the Portuguese border.
This power station is close to the end of its planned life and has been poorly maintained but the Spanish want to keep it running. This requires them to build a spent fuel dump near the river Tagus, which turns into the Tejo as it crosses the border on its way through Portugal to the sea.
Any leak from the ageing power station or from the planned nuclear fuel dump, could affect Portugal far more than Spain.
Portugal, correctly, made a formal complaint to Brussels that it had not been consulted but the EC president, Jean-Claude Drunker, put pressure on Portugal to drop its complaint and go along with the standard sort of whitewash we all have become accustomed to.
Fernandes, devoid of opinion, now has to manage this farce but will not let the media know what is going on. Expect platitudes and hand-wringing and frequent mentions of ‘EU regulations’ with Portugal remaining exposed to an ageing nuclear power station and new spent fuel dump.
The Mar Salgado fishing boat managed to haul aboard an unexploded bomb that its nets had dragged from the seabed. The bomb probably was from the 50s judging by the description, and the skipper was told to bring it into harbour for inspection by the maritime authorities.
The bomb would still have been packed with the equivalent of 600lbs of TNT and by bringing it to shore, exposed Nazaré harbour to the risk of an explosion.
This action seems to have been far more dangerous than keeping the bomb on board for a decision, or simply lowering it back into the ocean.
As it was, no harm was done and the device was blown up underwater, well away from shore.
The government is proud to tell the world that Portugal is a leading light in computer software yet the most basic error in the till systems used by restaurants and cafes has created a gaping hole in the Treasury’s VAT receipts.
Around 40% of restaurant and cafe bills are settled with cash, but cash sales can be deleted at the till if a bill is requested without the customer’s fiscal number added.
This loophole is losing the Treasury an estimated €500 million a year in VAT, to the benefit of those cafe owners and restaurateurs who simply hit a 'delete cash payment' button.
These software systems, selected by the Tax Authority, appear not to have been tested properly but the State is not interested in fixing the problem.
We all have to contribute, one way or another, to the cost of running the country and it is unfair that one sector can continue with a known fiddle while the rest of us pay the full amount of tax.
That is nothing compared to the State-sponsored scam that allowed wealthy depositors to transfer €10 billion out of the country between 2011 and 2014 - no questions asked.
Normally such transfer information is collated and then investigated by the Tax Authority which checks that the account holders have paid all taxes due.
The Secretary of State for Fiscal Affairs says there was a computer error - but for three years running?
This feeble excuse is not credible and the reality is that Portugal’s well-connected companies and individuals were afforded the time by a complicit government to get €10 billion into offshore tax havens as the economy steadily declined.
A report later on last week indicated that €5 billion or more of the €10 billion transferred offshore came from one bank, Banco Espírito Santo, which for years has been suspected of warning its family members and favoured clients that all was not well and to get their money out of the bank and out of the country, asap.
The chances are slim that former finance ministers, Vítor Gaspar or Maria Luís Albuquerque will admit that the elite was allowed to hide money in offshore accounts without the Taxman raising a finger.
News just in from the environmental association ASMAA: the Minister of the Sea, Ana Paula Vitorino, stated on the 14th of September last year, at a conference in the USA, that the first oil exploration well was to be drilled in 2017 in the Alentejo Basin off Aljezur.
This statement came while a public consultation was still in progress on the Galp-ENI drilling licence and highlights the farce that this public consultation turned out to be. The minister knew that whatever the public said, the drilling would go ahead.
The 42,000 signature anti-oil petition was ignored by the government which is about to reap what it sowed as this gave ASMAA the opportunity to present its views to a committee of MPs as a precursor to a full debate in parliament.
An increasing number of MPs now are anti-oil and soon will be able to express their concern and to vote on the offshore oil and gas exploration programme - not quite what the government expected would happen after shedding 42,00 opinions.
An example of sidelining another of Portugal’s environmental associations comes from Almargem which was expecting to hear from China Triumph International Engineering and Welink, the partnership that is to build a 600 hectare solar power park near Alcoutim.
Almargem earlier had issued an ‘unfavourable opinion’ on this solar park project, an opinion that neatly was omitted from the final report submitted to support the licence application.
One of the points made by Almargem was that the solar park visually will affect a section of the Via Algarviana walking route and that provision should be made for some natural screening - a perfectly sensible observation.
The environmental impact statement reads that before the solar project is licensed, there should be "solutions for the landscape integration of the Via Algarviana and minimisation of visual impacts for users. Contact with the entities that look after the Via Algarviana should be initiated in order to establish measures that minimise the visual impact of that section."
There has been zero contact with ‘the entity looking after the Via Algarviana,’ and Almargem should know because it is Almargem that looks after the Via Algarviana.
To sideline and ignore a hard-working environmental organisation shows the State to be overbearing and cynical - criticism here is well justified.
Another area where the State may again ignore the opinion of the great unwashed is in Monchique where the threat of feldspar mining has reappeared.
In 2013, the mining company Sifucel commissioned the clearing of an area of Monchique hillside with the contractors saying that the work was just 'tree planting.'
This nonsense was rumbled and the company’s machinery is still being held as an inquiry progresses.
The latest company to try its hand, Felmica, also a feldspar mining company, has applied to mine on 15 hectares in Monchique's Corte Grande area, a Natura2000 zone that also is protected under laws governing national ecological reserve and national agricultural reserve land categories.
Monchique’s mayor, Rui André, politely has suggested that companies are welcome to look at mining on the north-facing slopes but that the south-facing slopes of Monchique are to be left alone - going as far as stating that he will “stand in front of the machinery” if this latest licence application is granted.
Mayors Rui André from Monchique and José Amarelinho from Aljezur - who has been solidly behind the anti-oil protests - are rare examples of politicians that represent their constituents.
António Pina from Olhão could be a third but has gone all wobbly over the Ria Formosa islanders question.
Pina already has ducked out of a Polis board meeting at which the latest demolition notices were being discussed and neatly avoided a parliamentary environmental commission meeting that could have tested his socialist party allegiance.
Back to Lisbon where the Novo Banco sale lurches from pillar to post and where the governor of the Bank of Portugal, Carols Costa, remains well out of his depth.
Negotiations have been continuing with the US fund, Lone Star, which has worn down the Portuguese negotiating team to a state of collapse.
The government and Lone Star already have entered into ‘exclusive negotiations’ and all was set to be signed off, at a massive loss to the taxpayer, when in came a bid from Aethel Partners LLP, based at a swanky address in London.
Figures of €3 billion swirled around the city, Lone Star’s bid was complex but the cash element was only €750 million with the State retaining an unwanted shareholding of 30%, so Aethel’s bid looked good, albeit rather last minute.
The problem for the socialist government is that a disgraced former-minister in the Passos Coelho right wing government, Miguel Relvas, is mixed up with Aethel and the last thing that the PM, António Costa, wants is sanction a deal that involves Relvas, a known liar and cheat - the PM would be crucified in parliament.
The Bank of Portugal says that Aethel may not bid, even though this would benefit the Treasury, unless it joins one of the other finalists but this is pointless when the Bank of Portugal already is in 'exclusive negotiations' with Lone Star.
If the Bank of Portugal goes ahead with the Lone Star bid and continues to block Aethel, the taxpayer will be billions worse off.
In fact there are three new bidders, all attracted by the ‘close to zero’ price about to be agreed with Lone Star.
Aethel Partners, Cerberus and Kildare all want to buy Novo Banco and now that there is some real interest, the Bank of Portugal is stuck with Lone Star.
Carlos Costa seems to have devised a sale process that almost ensures the taxpayer gets as little as possible from the sale of Novo Banco.
For this reason, and a host of others, Costa should be removed as governor of the Bank of Portugal.
Gardeners, this month is a good time to plant most summer annuals and perennials, lawns from seeds, many vegetables, and most trees, shrubs, ground covers and vines.
For ‘March in the Garden,’ click on this link:
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