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Portuguese Rejects President’s Call for Reparations Despite Acknowledging Colonial Crimes


By Stacy M. Brown

In the wake of Portugal’s President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa’s acknowledgment of his country’s role in committing crimes during the transatlantic slave trade and colonial era, the Portuguese government has dismissed calls for reparations. The president’s assertion during an event for foreign correspondents that Portugal should “pay the costs” for slavery and other colonial-era atrocities was met with governmental opposition.

Portugal, a nation with the most prolonged historical involvement in the slave trade among European countries, has faced longstanding appeals from campaigners to address its legacy. Between the 15th and 19th centuries, nearly 6 million Africans were forcibly transported across the Atlantic on Portuguese vessels, enduring unimaginable suffering as they were enslaved and exploited on plantations, primarily in Brazil.

However, the new center-right coalition government has stated that it has no plans for reparations. Instead, it claims to focus on deepening international cooperation and fostering reconciliation among peoples. The government emphasized a commitment to existing relations with former colonies, highlighting collaboration in various sectors such as education, culture, and health.

Rebelo de Sousa’s call for reparations included suggestions such as canceling the debts of former colonies or introducing financial assistance programs. He stressed the importance of acknowledging Portugal’s responsibility for its imperial history’s negative and positive aspects.

The president’s stance faced immediate criticism, particularly from the far-right Chega party leader, André Ventura, who labeled it “a betrayal of the country.” However, support for addressing historical injustices has been growing, with the United Nations human rights chief, Volker Türk, echoing calls for action during a recent forum.

Portugal’s colonial era, which lasted over five centuries, impacted numerous territories, including Angola, Mozambique, and Brazil. The decolonization process followed the “Carnation Revolution” in 1974, which ended the nation’s longest fascist dictatorship and ushered in democracy.

The issue of reparations for slavery has gained traction globally, with various initiatives aimed at acknowledging and addressing historical injustices. While some countries and institutions have issued apologies and established funds for initiatives such as education and community development, comprehensive reparations programs remain controversial.

In the United States, discussions on reparations have intensified in recent years, with calls for acknowledgment of past wrongs and tangible measures to address systemic inequalities. While some progress has been made at the state and institutional levels, comprehensive national action has yet to materialize.

In a 2015 speech, then-President Barack Obama commemorated the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which banned the practice more than 150 years ago. “The question of slavery was never simply about civil rights. It was about the meaning of America, the kind of country we wanted to be,” Obama said.

In 2008, America appeared to had taken an important step in atoning for its past and most flagrant transgressions that included slavery and Jim Crow. Led by then-Tennessee Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen, the U.S. House of Representatives issued a symbolic apology. That came decades after lawmakers, led by the Congressional Black Caucus, tried to push the government to apologize.

“The institution of slavery was constitutionally and statutorily sanctioned by the government of the United States from 1789 through 1865,” former Texas Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee said in 2019 while pushing H.R. 40, a bill to study reparations. “The framework for our country and the document to which we all take an oath describes African Americans as three-fifths a person. The infamous Dred Scott decision of the United States Supreme Court, issued just a few decades later, described slaves as private property, unworthy of citizenship,” Jackson-Lee asserted.

“And a civil war that produced the largest death toll of American fighters in any conflict in our history could not prevent the indignities of Jim Crow, the fire hose at lunch counters and the systemic and institutional discrimination that would follow for a century after the end of the Civil War.

“The mythology built around the Civil War—that victory by the North eradicated slavery and all its vestiges throughout our nation—has obscured our discussions of the impact of chattel slavery and made it difficult to have a national dialogue on how to fully account for its place in American history and public policy. We know that in almost every segment of society – education, healthcare, jobs, and wealth – the inequities that persist in America are more acutely and disproportionately felt in Black America.”

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