· Economy&Business · · T. Filomena Abreu · P. Nuno Almendra

José Gomes Ferreira

«Banks were used to favour friends»

He arrives late, having barely remembered the interview. No, forgetfulness isn’t his forte, but the life of the deputy news director at SIC is, as he says himself, not suitable for heart disease sufferers. Our conversation, which owing to circumstance, is a game of two halves, before and after a live television broadcast, is focused essentially on the economy, the chosen field of José Gomes Ferreira. The same that the country is used to seeing him master. The current state of the country is never out of the analytical sights of this man who has been known to be mistaken for a minister. The journalist, who insists on condensing his CV into a single sheet of A4, believes in the right to opinion, due to the status he has earned after a career spanning many years. He doesn’t see himself as rightwing or leftwing. He is, and on this he is certain, against the corruption «that eludes no sector of the country» and in favour of reducing the bureaucracy preventing entrepreneurs investing in Portugal.

Did you imagine you would get this far in your career?
I haven’t got that far, I’m here, right next to you, in the middle of SIC, with so much to do (he laughs). There’s nothing extraordinary about it. You need to work hard, to be considerate, dedicated and always to be attentive to everything. My career is very simple. In fact, my CV fits on to a single sheet of A4. I insist on not having much on it.

Why?
Because I believe that in life there are only two or three important things, you don’t need that much.

And what is important, or has been important for you?
It’s trying to understand the situation and, when you don’t understand it, you ask many really naive questions, because there are things that you don’t know and, sometimes, other people, who are on the other side talking to you, have it in their head that you should know. I always assume that nobody knows everything and when I want to know, I ask, and I ask it insistently. This has led me to the stage in which, thinking that I already know something, I create convictions, which I share and defend. It isn’t being convinced. It is gathering a variety of information about given things which I can now share in an affirmative manner, having an opinion. I allow myself to do this because I believe that I elicit a response in my viewers and readers. Some criticise, others applaud, but they don’t remain indifferent.
«I can say that I have already voted for parties from the right and parties from the left. I make my vote count»
Not all commentators want to become president of the republic, do they?
No. But there have been and there are people that still think that way. Normally, if someone says that the state can’t spend so much on fixed costs, for example, have a very heavy salary payment structure and have a social welfare and pension payment systems structure that never changes and can accumulate errors and omissions, this kind of reading is easily pigeonholed as being rightwing. So easily that it’s impressive. And, nevertheless, there have been leftwing leaders that have made these analyses. I think that this limits our performance as journalists and also reduces the scope of the democratic debate.

You have been mistaken for finance minister Mário Centeno before, in the official photographs of Eurogrupo. From your point of view would you do a better job than him?
I understand this provocation, but I don’t feel particularly attacked. I feel that there are people that would like journalists to have a political agenda, and I don’t have one. I do politics. That I do, I do. In choosing, in deciding to opt, I do politics, but this isn’t party politics. I have already voted for various parties. I can say that I have already voted for parties from the right and parties from the left. I make my vote count. I vote in what I believe will be best for the country and, unfortunately, the majority of times this means what does the country the least harm. It’s like that because there isn’t much choice.

In the book you wrote (O Meu Programa de Governo), is the idea you defend of government far removed from what is currently in place?
The majority of things I wrote are still current, the constraints of our society, the underlying ones, they haven’t disappeared. A serious problem in the financing of the republic and more besides has been resolved. That of banks still existing because they can’t go to the market freely to ask for money; they are still very limited. Public companies, many of them that is, can’t either, but the state has managed to finance itself once again and, therefore, there has indeed been an interesting development in this aspect. For us to give an opinion of this development of the country is important because people have to understand. You need to connect the dots and interpret facts in the light of realities, which, often, are not only internal, but also external, they are decisions made by the European Central Bank, by the European Commission...
«Institutions are malleable. They are moulded around interests: anything a large group wants, a law can be passed in parliament»
Is there excessive zeal in the country?
There’s everything, excessive zeal and, above all else, there is one thing, which is part of public administration, which has the power to decide, wanting to hold onto this power. It’s in their interest to have entrepreneurs in their pockets. That’s literally how it is. Many people working for the state don’t like me saying this, but this is the truth. This is how it is with the ministries for agriculture, for the environment, for economic affairs, for home affairs and for health, to name those that are most directly involved in giving entrepreneurs permission to work. And that’s what it’s like with local councils. Some have already learned, but many, when an entrepreneur goes there and says that he wants to make a small workshop, there are still civil servants that say: «No! Do it, but make it a craft shop!» As if this were viable for the future. In some places, where there’s more tourism, then maybe. But a business and economic community of a country cannot be formed with just this idea of tourism and services. It can’t! And the civil servants in these departments don’t have the mindset for attracting investment. They have a mindset focused solely on justifying why they should keep their job, because if they were to say yes to everything, and this is a problem of the regime and of democracy, they would end up removing all reason for their very existence.

But there are cases in Portugal in which you can clearly see that red tape has been removed to satisfy interests...
This is the problem. What happens in a dysfunctional system is that the small, medium and large entrepreneur, who isn’t in league with power, is blocked. And entrepreneurs that dare to be in league with power, in the literal sense of the term, have doors opened... 

Is it easy to understand who is on one side and who is on the other?
You can guess, and some cases have even ended up being investigated and prosecuted. But then there’s the other lot, that of those that are neither on one side or the other, they aren’t even small or medium entrepreneurs waiting to be allowed to invest, nor are they corrupt, or even part of the equation. It’s the large multinationals that have so much power that they influence governments themselves and impose laws. Democracy is blocked in many aspects and this has an immediate impact on economic activity. And sorting out these problems isn’t on the political agenda.
«I do politics. That I do, I do»
With regard to José Sócrates suing the state, who stands to lose, him or the state?
Nowadays I make a broader analysis. For a long time I thought that Portugal was moving towards clarifying relations between economic and social agents and that the degree of corruption was being reduced... I was in for some disappointment because I came to realise, in those years of financial madness, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009, in which there was much to suspect, that it was the very heart of the state that was affected by the stain of corruption. If we look carefully, no sector can escape it. It’s a problem that comes from above. Institutions are malleable. They are moulded around interests: anything a large group wants, a law can be passed in parliament. And then those in the middle and at the bottom of the scale say: «But if they do business in their favour, backed by the state, why can’t I get mine? I have to get it». And then this is reproduced, even in social terms, from parents to children. And we haven’t come out of it yet. Therefore we are, at this moment, sat on a very fragile fence between a developed world, living under the rule of law, and us, who are not quite there, and we are falling towards becoming an underdeveloped world in which what counts is oppression, the ‘quick-fix’ and scheming to achieve decisions that favour oneself to the detriment of the competition. This is very serious and people aren’t really seeing that we are going back to a time in which institutions block because they cannot solve these problems. We need to make that change, but I do not know if the current political class can manage it. Also by this I think that journalists have a role in raising the alarm and saying that this cannot be. Often party politics dismiss this role because it is in their interest. There are issues to do with banking, which the right never wanted to investigate, because it involved them directly. And the left never wanted to investigate because it also affects some interests that it wants to defend. It’s still like this today. Caixa Geral de Depósitos is a perfect example of this. Banks were used to favour friends instead of financing competitive activities. This is the outcome of 25 years of private banking in Portugal. Of course this is not the entire case. I am talking about deviations from the rule, of which there were many; there were some banks and many bankers who did things by the book. In certain dossiers the right does not want to investigate thoroughly and the left does not either. What we see today is an investigative commission for the CGD in which leftist politicians did not want to hear from many of them involved, among them Armando Vara. Could it be that they are not interested in uncovering the secret and lifting the veil on a set of practices that were made by politicians who joined forces with bankers and favoured friends? The political spectrum does not respond to certain interests of the country, so the press has to denounce these things.

T. Filomena Abreu
P. Nuno Almendra