Tuesday, October 18, 2011

My 15 minutes of fame

So, while on vacation in Lisbon, I was told that the local TV station asked if I could be interviewed. Yeah, this kinda shocked me.

It shocked me even more when I found out that I was one of the main guests. Sorry, but how does a shlep like me get to that point? I still can't figure it out.

Anywho, for those who know Portuguese, here's the video of the show, Azores.RTP.PT

Friday, July 01, 2011

Cautious Optimism

So, this is the new PM of the country. His name, Pedro Passos Coelho. And so far, I am liking what I am hearing from him and his government and what measures he is planning to move forward with.

And those who have read my blog up until now will probably figure that, if I like it, the majority of Portuguese will hate it. And I can accept this since I've said many times in the past that this society need a good shock to the system. A wake up call so that they can go to being what I think they are capable of and not what they currently are.

Ok, there is one thing they did that I didn't like, but I compeletly understand it. They enacted an extraordinary tax on christmas bonuses for this year. The cut is supposed to be 50% of that of which is over the value of the national minimum wage(essentially, take the amount of the bonus, subtract the NMW value of €485 and that remainder is what gets the 50% tax). This special tax is estimated to bring in nearly €1billion. In return the government is advancing with a series of privitizations, eliminating certain public positions and selling its property, which should sum up to another €1billion

Now, I usually don't like when the government takes more money out of my wallet, in fact, I despise it. HOWEVER, I understand why this was done. There was a fairly big shortfall in the budget of about €2billion, and this country has a series of very strict obligations set forth by the IMF, the European Commmission and the European Union to reduce the deficit to 5.9% by the end of the year if we are to continue to receive financial aid to help get us out of this mess we're in. That said, the current number should be at 6.7% and not the 7.7% it is now. Now, while I don't like the state take more money from me, if my contribution goes towards an actual goal of helping re-establish our finances and help make things better, then it's a sacrifice I'm willing to take. But let it be known that sacrifices this big better not be a common occurance.

To those who are complaining, if you know of a better way to come up with nearly €2billion in under 6 months, I'm sure the government would be willing to hear you out. And that wasn't sarcasm.

Now, with that said. There are other measures that are planned to take place over the next 4 years. Measures such as simplying the tax code, reducing the number of income tax pay scales, revising both the labor laws and rent laws and implementing measure to speed up the justice system to help expediate court cases that have dragged on for nearly a decade.

All of this to go along with possible consititutional revisions that will include, among other things, redoing the electoral law by eliminating party lists in favor of uninominal candidates(ABOUT TIME).

I like how this government was formed, with people who, for the most part, aren't career politicians but rather have their own professional lives and don't need any benefits at the taxpayer's expense. This is a very refreshing change from the constant recycling of the same faces that proved to do nothing but worsen the situation of the country.

Now, while it's still early, and this government may end up being another facsimile of past governments(living here for 16 years, you grow wary of people promising change and doing nothing), I do like what they are saying and what they are putting forth in parliament. It almost seems like this government is doing the one thing most of Europe doesn't like seeing, they're actually acting like a right-wing government.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Firing off a few rounds......stand clear

  • A new year and, in this country, alot of fears. Namely of the economic variety. But yet, I don't see why people are so shocked. I mentioned, in a rather elaborate(and maybe not the most PC manner), in my last blog post that we only have ourselves to blame for this. Years of overspending and living far beyond our own expectations was a recipe for disaster. And we make matters worse with our extreme political apathy, voting in people who clearly don't serve the people but rather themselves, and then blaming some fictitious entities for the representatives we put in office rather than looking into a mirror.

    Earlier this year, I took a weekend trip to Lisbon and one of the stops I made was to the Colombo Shopping Center, once regarded as the largest mall in Europe some time ago. I was hard pressed to believe that we were in a financial crisis since the mall was PACKED, and people were making lines in some of these stores. Money was definitely being circulated....alot of it. Kids with expensive cell phones, wearing designer clothing, or getting new computers. Or people buying new LCD TVs. You name it, it was being sold and not in small quantities, and worse yet, with ALOT of credit and little to no cash.

    What I find funny is that alot of people here accuse Americans of being consumerist. And maybe they are right. Portuguese aren't consumerist like Americans......they're even more consumerist.

  • More and more, I've come to a grim reality. We Portuguese don't make too many moves in terms of progress and success because we dislike progress and success. In fact, we think it's damn near criminal that anyone or any group should be successful. We demand the spotlight for ourselves while doing nothing and get angry when those who worked for the spotlight actually get it.

    Think I'm kidding? Talk to some of the locals about businesses doing well here or nationally and you probably wouldn't need a whole hand to count the people who speak well of said businesses. Most will do the exact opposite. If it's Sonae, then it's accusations that Belmiro de Azevedo is a cheapskate(even though he is one of the largest private employers in the nation and Belmiro started this operation literally with nothing). If a restaurant is doing well, then rumors of bad food start flying. If a dealership is doing well, then it's talk of bad service. After a while, you just want to lash out at these naysayers.

    A while back, there was a NY Times article about how Portugal was in the forefront in renewable energy. This was thanks largely to the policies put forth by the current prime minister, José Socrates. While I usually hold alot of disdain towards him(mainly due to a few very suspicious dealings with a TV station and a mall), credit to where credit's due. This was no small feat. However, there are those, many of those, who look past that and say that these measures were horrible and that this is only to profit the national electric company. Yes, people even criticised something that was receiving international recognition(something that is a big rarity these days for Portugal)

    Hell, even when money isn't involved, people still dislike seeing progress. I know of cases where groups and associations were run effeciently and carried a great deal of legitimacy and success thanks to the tireless, and in many cases, thankless effort and hard work from those in charge who, in exchange, received nothing, only to be attacked and berated all because of petty jealousy of others who want all of the credit attained but none of the work that was involved to attin it. Worse yet, those who do the berating, when given the chance to back their words up and take charge, do nothing but prove their own ineptitude.

    So, nowadays, when I hear some people with their tavern talk wonder why we don't advance more as a country, I don't bother saying anything anymore, I just laugh.

  • Finally, on a lighter note. It's that time of the year, the NFL playoffs. And I've definitely enjoyed seeing the Patriots play this season. They've been playing their best football since the 2001-04 period. Yes, I know they broke a ton of records in 2007, when Brady was throwing what seemed like a million TDs to Randy Moss, but even then, I just didn't feel that said team was really "all there". It was alot of flash but not really that much substance, and was worsened with a defense that was starting to show their age and subsequent lack of speed.

    This year's team seems to have figured it out: a return to the team concept, where everyone gives an important contribution, guided by a quarterback who seems to be incredibly flawless behind an offensive line that is always well-coached, a head coach who stresses extreme humility to his players, and a corps of youth and veterans who are all focused on the team rather than themselves, and last but not least, a defense that seems to step in and make plays when it matters. While they won't kill you with a 50 yard pass or rip a 70 yard run, they'll gnaw away with the short gains, add a few solid runs up the middle, keep moving the chains and then a pass to a TE to put points on the board in the end.

    Even if they don't win it all, hell, even if they don't win their first playoff game, it's been nothing short of great seeing this team perform and I as a fan look forward for the next few years with this group of players.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The general bellyaching

You know, I see the news of the upcoming general strike here in Portugal, and I laugh. Seriously. Do we REALLY think that a day off is going to change this government's intention of implementing it's austerity measures?

People laugh at the Tea Party in the states, but they showed EXACTLY how to make their voices heard, be it there or anywhere else where there's a democracy worthy of it's very name. Form civic movements, make yourself heard, go the source and make sure those in power can hear you, loud and clear, day in and day out. 1 day of belly aching isn't going to change a damn thing and ceding to unions and the "status quo" political parties haven't done much so far. "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

Am I saying that this govenrment is 100% right? Hell no! I'm sure I've noted in the past of the continuous pork-barrel spending, the unnecessary entitlement programs, the constant pandering to unions, and it's unseemingly endless attempts and trying to meddle with private enterprise. But guess what folks, WE ELECTED THESE DIMWITS INTO POWER! Yes, we. Not someone else off the streets. Not "big corporations" or "private interest groups", WE DID. You want to start somewhere in trying to change the course of this country? LOOK IN THE MIRROR! I remember when Socrates was first voted in and thinking then that most who voted for him didn't have a clue as to what they were doing. Now they attack him, but forget that they were the ones who put him in power......TWICE! Government, in any democracy, is ALWAYS a clear reflection of the people that voted them in. You may hate that line, but that's the truth.

We're in a heap of trouble financially right now because we, again WE, simply couldn't say when. We demanded free health care, we demanded job security, we demanded massive handouts, we demanded easy access to public sector jobs as if there was an endless supply of them, and we demanded easy credit without any assurances that we'd pay it off. Now, after pigging out at the financial buffet for years, we're footed with the bill and, while our faces are still stained, are claiming we didn't eat any of that? Who in the hell are we fooling?

And here's the kicker. Alot of the benefits and entitlements could still be saved. That's right, the health care, the job benefits, the entitlements, could be saved. No, it's not through hiking taxes, nor is it though simple budget cuts. It's, once again, through ourselves. We need to make a difference in this country. We need to step up and do what we do, but do it better, faster and more efficiently. If you work the fields, get those crops in quicker and try to make them better. If you're in a facotry, make your product more reliable, more attactive and appealing to the consumer. If you're in an administrative position, get your work done well before the deadline and with as little flaws as possible. By doing these simple things, we improve as a whole. We start becoming true masters of our own destiny, and we can start naming our own price instead of expecting an easy handout. Results matter, folks.

People are refusing to accept the reality of this situation. We are in SERIOUS trouble, folks. I don't think people quite understand the possible "end game" in this which could very well be technical bankruptcy. You DON'T want foreign investment to stop investing in this country because we are not self-reliant, not in the least. A situation of an IMF intervention, while not doing much more financially, would have a brutal blow towards our credibility and image as a nation. Hate to break it to you folks, but we're not the US, UK, Germany, France, etc... We're Portugal. We're a tiny little country in the Iberian Peninsula that most don't even know exists. We can't live without the outside world giving us credibility. To return to the pre-1986 times would have a devastating effect, not only to those in power, but all of us too. Inflation and unemployment would surely skyrocket and we'd be no better than Albania.

So. Instead of not working for a day. How about making that sacrifice and understanding that we're all in this together? Stop passing the buck and start accepting your flaws and faults. Stop blaming others and start making a difference yourself. We got into the mess together, we can get out of this mess together.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

FINALLY, something positive about Portugal

It's not often that you see Portugal make news internationally, except for when it involves some screw-up committed by our politicians.

This, however, actually is quite the feather in our cap, and something I'll toot my horn about: Portugal is among the world leaders in renewable energy.

Monday, July 26, 2010

5 phrases to live by

Read this somewhere and, somehow, this would apply beautifully here in Portugal:

1) You cannot legislate the poor into prosperity by legislating the wealthy out of prosperity.

2) What one person receives without working for, another person must work for without receiving.

3) The government cannot give to anybody anything that the government does not first take from somebody else.

4) When half of the people get the idea that they do not have to work because the other half is going to take care of them, and when the other half gets the idea that it does no good to work because somebody else is going to get what they work for, that my dear friend, is the beginning of the end of any nation.

5) You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Low Cost at Any Cost?

A new year, and with it, new whines from certain factions here in the Azores. Now, it seems that the flavor of the month is from a group of people, hammering, whining and complaining that there are no low-cost flights here in the Azores. And I seem to be one of those who actually OPPOSES this idea.

Now, I know there are some of you that read that and think I've gone insane. Hear me out first before passing judgment.

For those who aren't familiar with the Azores, we're a tiny archipelago almost dead center in the Atlantic, between Lisbon and New York. There's slightly under 250,000 people here, 54.5% of which is based on one island, São Miguel, who, surprise surprise, are the ones yelling the most for these flights.

But what these people forget is that there 45.5% of the population, scattered throughout the 8 other islands: Terceira, Faial, Pico, São Jorge, Santa Maria, Flores and Corvo. These people are no different. They go to work, pay their taxes and, in the smaller islands, have an even bigger burden due to the products being more expensive on the account of it being more costly to ship there.

The Regional Government, many years ago, have understood this and also understood that those who live on each island generally have vested interest in going to Lisbon. To some it's for business purposes. To others, it's to go to school, to others it's to visit family, and of course there are those who simply want to take a trip and be in a bigger area for a short while, just to shrug off a bit of the isolation these islands may bring(especially in the wintertime). For that reason, they came to agreement with not only the airlines that service this region(TAP and SATA) under a code share agreement, but also established a Public Service statute. This means that the service MUST be maintained all year round and on a daily basis, even if the planes fly empty for a period of time. Nobody in the Azores is denied this service due to geographical limitations.

To pull that off, the Regional Government, in cooperation with the National Government, has helped to heavily subsidize these flights in order to keep them flying. The cost of the ticket an Azorean pays is merely part, a good part of it was already subsidized.

Now, you have a half dozen people, maybe good natured in their intentions but definitely myopic in their thought process, who see the term "low cost" and become instantly enamored by it. See, we here tend to aspire to that which we will never be. They see how someone can fly from Lisbon to anywhere in Europe for a ham sandwich, and they think they can have it too. This would be like driving a Pinto and thinking you should be as fast as a Ferrari.

To those who are firmly planted on the "pro-low cost" side, I feel the need to hit you with an ice cold bucket of reality:

1) Low Cost airlines operate ONLY where there is a chance at profitability. That's what keeps their costs low. That means that only 1 island would be serviced(São Miguel) and, even then, it would only be serviced on a seasonal basis. During the Summertime, everyone wants to go over here. However, anyone with even minimal intelligence would prefer the sunny beaches of Cuba, Canary Islands, even Cape Verde, than the high winds, low temperatures and generally awful weather the Azores offers in the winter.

2) The Regional Government(and for a rare instance I AGREE with them) established a rule for any airline that wants to fly here. See, for many years, the Lisbon/Azores route was established by a yearly "selection process" which usually ended up being TAP. Now, they replaced it with a rule. Any airline that wants to fly to the Azores MUST cover 5 airports: Ponta Delgada, Terceira, Horta, Pico and Santa Maria.

For those who don't live here(and a few that live in São Miguel) they don't quite understand why the Regional Government is so rigid with this. Those who live in the 8 other islands, however, know all too well.

See, as I said earlier, the Regional Government, through the Regional Transportation Fund, heavily subsidizes these flights because it's not just viewed as "just another route", but rather as a public service deemed all too necessary for the Azores as a whole. It's not just to carry tourists. It's to help with transporting patients, to shipping goods and services, to helping send students to and from the mainland, etc...

Also, the 5 airport rule helps in another aspect as well. Because that route is subsidized as well as the inter-island routes, by having direct flights from the 5 island mentioned, their fiscal burden gets reduced to only 8% of the population that resides in the 4 islands that don't have direct flights(São Jorge, Graciosa, Flores and Corvo) rather than the 45.5% of the population that lives outside São Miguel, or even the 22% that was originally covered before Pico and Santa Maria were included. This greatly eases things from the regional economical standpoint. The service is provided and costs are reduced. Reduced costs means more ease in providing the services at a lower cost as well as a lower fiscal burden on every Azorean.

This helps me add a footnote: The Regional Government is NOT trying to "make a quick buck". They lose alot of money by providing these services, especially at the cost they are providing them at. This is, given the layout of these islands, a VERY necessary evil for the region.

By allowing a low cost to fly in São Miguel, ESPECIALLY during peak season, that will cause more of the TAP/SATA flight to fly with more empty seats. This essentially means that, since THOSE flights are considered a public service and MUST fly at all times, that the Regional Government would have to subsidize even MORE money, which would be a greater drain on the regional finances, which, in turn, would be a greater drain on the National finances as well. More subsidies would have to be pumped in, which means more tax money being used, which means a possible hike in taxes.

If anything, low cost flights will actually cost MORE to the region than the current setup that exists.

So, in lieu of that. The Regional government is standing firm with the 5 airports. You either play by these rules or you don't play at all. It's very simple.

3) Those who defend low cost are trying, desperately, to compare us with another Portuguese archipelago, Madeira. Ok, this is just wrong on so many levels.

Madeira is, essentially, 2 island, and not only does a little over 98% of its population live on just one island, but a huge part of that live in just one city, Funchal. This makes things incredibly easier from a managerial standpoint because then you CAN have any type of flight you want. All the Madeira Regional government has to worry about is the littler under 5,000 people living in Porto Santo.

Madeira also enjoys relatively moderate weather all year round. It's much easier to, not only fly from one island to the other, but take a boat as well.

The Azores are NINE ISLANDS, and almost half of its population is dispersed in 8 of them. The weather here is good for about 6 months. From a government standpoint, this is nothing short of trying to balance a tray of glasses atop a high wire. You not only need to provide basic services to all 9 islands, but that of which is considered necessary for development of the archipelago, needs to be as general as possible.

Plus, to add salt to this already festering wound, half of the year, this has to be done with limited resources in terms of transportation.

4) This is the point that simply makes my blood boil: Alot of those that defend low cost airlines say that "This will allow more tourists to come over.". I hate to sound as frank as this but: TO HELL WITH THE TOURISTS! They don't live here, WE DO!

Look, Tourism is a part of our economy, but it is not THE part. I do not, nor will I ever support an idea to be completely subservient to those who are simply visiting these islands. Any rule, measure or proposal should, first and foremost, serve the needs and interests of the Azoreans, ALL Azoreans. Tourism should be a SECONDARY effect of any of those measures. If things are good for those who live here, then, by that aspect, it WILL be good for those who visit.

There are many issues that need to be addressed before tourism can be considered: schools need improvement, villages that still need their electrical grids, phone lines and cable improved, certain roads that need to be renovated and made safer(as was viewed by the tragic events in Agualva a short time back), there needs to be a greater emphasis on local commerce and promoting products made here in the Azores. And, we still have a few lingering issues like not having the same 4 public access channels that exist in the Mainland.

All of those things mean MUCH more to me than whether or not a half dozen mainlanders or other Europeans think it's too expensive to spend a weekend here. Quite frankly, I don't give a crap about their travel plans.

If you travel to the US, or France, or the UK, do you honestly think that they cater first to the visitors and then those who live there? Of course not. So why should we think any differently?

Look, I don't oppose more competition. In fact, I welcome the idea. More competition does indeed go a long way to provide cheaper rates. However, this can't be done in such a crass and irresponsible manner. We need to accept who we are and that we have geographical and climatic obstacles that will never disappear. If another airline wants to fly here, they need to serve all Azoreans, not just a handful.