Portugal: Culture groups seek more, better emergency state aid as lockdown looms

Groups representing Portugal’s cultural sector are calling for more and better emergency support measures to cope with the new closure of cultural facilities from Friday as part of a new lockdown imposed by the government to try to contain the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19.

Venues will have to close from midnight on Thursday in mainland Portugal, as happened in mid-March last year.

“We continue to argue that what is fundamental are emergency measures for the sector,” said the leader of the Union of Workers of Spectacles, Audiovisuals and Musicians (Cena-STE), Rui Galveias, in comments to Lusa. Current aid measures for the sector, he said “have proven to be clearly insufficient in their various forms.”

According to Galveias, emergency aid measures are essential “to ensure the survival of the sector, both of the workers and of the groups and companies in the sector, which are generally small and medium-sized enterprises.”

Last year, the sector began to come to a standstill in the second week of March; in the year as a whole, despite an easing of the lockdown from early May and following several periods of state of emergency, revenue in the sector was more than 70% down on 2019.

The stance taken by Cena-STE is corroborated by Rede – Association of Structures for Contemporary Dance. 

“The extraordinary financial support measures in 2020 had neither the scale nor the adequacy they should have had,” its leader, Elisabete Paiva, told Lusa. “The prime minister said there would be support, but we don’t know what this could mean. We are very apprehensive because this could mean the closure of spaces and the dismissal of people.”

Rede is demanding, among other things, “new emergency support” because “if we have to suspend activity – and that is what agents understand – then we need the state to be able to offer compensation,” said Paiva.

In addition, Rede claims that “social protection measures should be comprehensive and simple for all people, because previously there were people who were left out for numerous reasons, either procedural or [because they were] non-eligible, and with minimum values, far below what is decent.

“We want broad, simplified and direct social protection for all people in the cultural field,” Paiva said, warning of the existence of “many people on the poverty line, and if it were not for some networks of solidarity that have been generated, there would be even more difficult cases than there already are.”

Contacted by Lusa, another group called Plateia – Association of Performing Arts Professionals, opted not to comment on the situation “without knowing if there will be support measures and which ones”.

However, in a statement released on Saturday, the group recalled that “in this second moment of successive states of emergency, which have been going on for months”, it had been “alerting to the absence of support measures for workers and artistic structures which, with restrictions on [people’s] circulation and curfews, prevent the normal functioning of cultural activities.”

In the statement, Plateia reported that in the last few days it had received “reports of a large increase in cancellations of cultural activities” and that “with the lockdown that is coming … will increase even more” in number. 

According to Portugal’s prime minister, António Costa, on Thursday the minister for culture and the minister for economy are to present “a set of support measures for sectors that are particularly affected” by the lockdown, including culture.

Rede, meanwhile, is also asking that it be “possible to continue to undertake some specific non-public activities, such as rehearsals and artistic residencies or research activities.

“This is not yet clear, because we have just become aware of the measures,” Paiva said of these possiblities. “Remote working is compulsory, but there are activities in the case of cultural production that are only possible with [people’s] presence.”

She stressed that, although the group understands “the gravity of the situation” that the country is going through, “as the prime minister says, there is evidence that schools are safe spaces; there is also evidence that cultural spaces are mostly safe spaces.”

There is, she argued, “no evidence of outbreaks in cultural spaces” and workers in the sector “feel enormous frustration” at the prospect of the closure.

Cena-STE also said it understood the decision to close venues, with Galveias stressing that it is up to experts to make “decisions for the health of the population”. At the same time, he added, “our field is to ensure that there is support and other capacity for government intervention in a sector that is really, really in need of measures on another scale and with another dimension.”

The Cena-STE leader recalled that a national protest organised by various cultural groups is scheduled for 30 January, to call attention to what they see as a government failure to respond to the devastating consequences of the pandemic. The protest was called before the lockdown announcement.

“We will see together with other groups at what time and in what way we will make this protest,” he said.