· Personality · · T. Maria Cruz · P. Nuno Almendra


«Today, I only do, I only am, I only think, I only say what I like»

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If he were not to consider time such a scarce commodity, Bagão Félix – who welcomed us at his home in Lisbon, his buoyant mood clear to see – he would have had all the time in the world, that afternoon, on the day of our interview, to prolong our conversation. We talked for a little over an hour, but there would have been so much more to discuss. The former politician spoke about time chronos – with which he has a cordial, but not obsessive relationship – and kairos - which is the spiritual time, the one to which he gives more priority. He was born in Ílhavo. From his birthplace he misses his origins – his father and mother –, because, for him, «yearning is the presence of absence». He studied economics. He has a fondness for botany – one of his interests in life. He became a politician at the age of 31. And because «errors are the compass for our learning», Bagão Felix has been learning from the mistakes he had made and from difficulties. He carries many belongings in his memory. He considers himself to be a being, who is «free, dependent on what he likes». And just what does he like? Bagão likes football, he likes Benfica, religion, botany, economics, politics... as he told us, he likes «so many things» and he feels he is «a happy person».

You were born in Ílhavo. You came to Lisbon in 1965. What did you miss most?
My roots. My birth roots, my father and my mother. It was 1965; there were no mobile phones. I was 17 years old; I knew no one in Lisbon, and at the time I could only go from Lisbon to Ílhavo in the Christmas or Easter holidays. The distance, in real terms, was greater than the distance between Lisbon and London today. Then I felt what homesickness truly meant. Yearning is the presence of absence.

When it came to choosing, you plumped for economics. If you were to go back in time, would you choose it again, or opt for agronomy?
No. In fact, at the time, I hesitated a lot. Secondary school meant year 5 to year 6, and we had to pick a letter. For example: D was for Law, J was for Economics, F was for Science and Engineering ... And I put F to do Agronomy. Without any pressure, not even from my parents, who gave me full freedom. But at the last moment, when I was going to hand in the paper, I changed it to the letter J, which was economics. And so I became an economist. I don’t know if I was good enough, but I don’t regret it. Let’s not forget: «The Titanic was made by professionals and sank; Noah’s Ark was made by amateurs and did no t sink», whereby, profession is important, it provides a means for us to fulfil our potential, but this alone is not enough.

An interest in botany runs through your veins. What is so fascinating about nature?
You know, according to the Bible, in Genesis, the plants were created on the third day and the man only on the sixth; on the seventh they all rested. It is plants that ensure the right amounts of transformation and release of oxygen and the capture of carbon dioxide for us to live, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. I like nature because I understand that I am here because of plants. They are much more sentient and intelligent beings than people think, and they have forms of resurrection that the human nature does not have.

When you entered politics, as Secretary of State for Social Security, did you ever imagine the challenge that lay ahead?
No. I was very young. I was 31 years old. It was the time of Sá Carneiro. I got a phone call from Dr. João Morais Leitão, who asked me, «Look, when are you coming to Lisbon?», «I’m going tomorrow,» I said. When he invited me I was very surprised. I hesitated, but thank goodness I said yes, because this is one of my passions – the social area. With some good and bad things, some well done and some less so, like everything in life, because errors are the compass for our learning. We only learn by making mistakes and through difficulty.

How challenging, or disturbing, was your political career?
It was more challenging than disturbing, to be very honest. There are days when you wake up in these positions with the feeling that you are unable to solve any problem, but there are days when you wake up with the feeling that you can make a real contribution. Between the ever-unfinished dream and the ever-distressing frustration, you go on living, but the balance is a positive one, in terms of personal experience. Experiences I would probably repeat, if I was as old as I was then, but not today.

You regard yourself as independent, out of conviction, and dependent, out of freedom. Have you always had enough freedom?
Generally speaking, I have always had the freedom I wanted. My parents raised me in freedom, which means raising me with a sense of responsibility, because freedom and responsibility are Siamese twins. Why do I say that I am independent out of conviction?! This has to do with a phrase of a French thinker: «To be free is to depend on what you like». I have always tried to depend on what I liked, loved, and what interested me. I am 69 years old, I am entering the final phase of my life, without any drama, because... the ‘passing of the years’ (I don’t like to say old age) gives us the experience. Today, more and more, I only do, I only am, I only think, I only say what I like.
«The good managing directors, the state officials, with a career all sewn up, step by step, brick by brick, have disappeared»

And you like football. You like Benfica!
This isn’t about liking, this is a passion. Passion is excessive amounts of affection. It is different from passion in the sense of a relationship between a man and a woman, which is a relationship that develops over time into love, consideration, respect, friendship. I’ve been married for 45 years, and before that we were seeing each other for six years, so I’ve been with my wife for 51 years. Today, we no longer have a passion for each other. We have other ways of liking each other. With football and with Benfica, it’s not like that. It is always passion. And so, it’s as much a vitamin-like and analgesic passion, as, when we lose, it is  brutal, violent, but I like it, I find it amusing.

It never changes...
My eldest granddaughter, Joana, is 14 years old and she is mad about Benfica. I have four granddaughters, and one of them supports Sporting. In fact, whenever she is with me as I drive past the Estádio da Luz stadium, she covers her face, and I usually say, «You can have no respect for Benfica, but you have to respect your grandfather» (he laughs). As for my granddaughter Joana, there are days when Benfica isn’t winning and I no longer think of myself; all I think about is her. I want them to win just for Joana’s sake. Some days ago, she said to me, «Oh, if we don’t win, we won’t be five-time champions,» and I said, «Oh, Joana, I’ve waited 69 years to be four-time champions, you’re still 14, take it easy» (he laughs). I always try to keep things rational for her.

Who is this man in the eyes of those who know him or may come to know him?
That’s a good question. There is one thing that I am proud of - perhaps the only thing, besides being a father, grandfather and husband –, and that is that people, although they may agree or disagree with what I’m saying, explaining, or doing, realise that I don’t say anything just for sake of saying it, and that is the truth. I like life; I like the aletoscope; I like being at the airport for two or three hours looking at people and soaking up the world; I like the patience of time... Time is so good! I hope that, on the last day of my life, I will still be able to know something more.

Simply because I want to, because I like it, I don’t have a utilitarian view of life. There we go back to the old question: «To be free is to depend on what you like». And...I like so many things that I feel like a happy person.

Does perfect time exist?
There are two times. The time of chronos, which shackles us today, for example, to our mobile phone, our iPad, with which I have a cordial but not obsessive relationship, because they are means, not ends. And then there is what the Greeks called kairos, which is spiritual time. I give more priority to kairos. There are parents who spend two hours with their children, chronological time (chronos) and spend zero minutes with their children in spiritual time (kairos). John Paul II said that there are children who are orphans of living parents. Better to have a minute of kairos than however many chronological days.

Changing tempo and area. In the State Budget proposal for 2018, what do you agree with and disagree with?
There is one thing that a former finance minister learns definitively – if he/she is serious, of course –, which is: you should never make an analysis of the State Budget in black and white. You can’t say everything is right or everything is wrong. No! There are always things that have been done well and there are things that should be done better. Any majority has to say good things about the budget, often even in disagreement; and the opposition parties necessarily have to disagree. I understand this political game, but I admit it is of no interest to me.
Now, this is the only time, as I recall, in which the whole world is experiencing GDP growth, with the exception of Venezuela and one country or another. If I were a budgetary technician of La Fontaine, I would say that, in this budgetary time of recent years, we have gone from being too obstinate, too stubborn, to a cicada that seems too greedy and too hasty. If we do not make the most of it now, for fundamental reforms that the country needs, when are we going to make the most of it?! Perhaps this is a critical stance, but it is a more philosophical criticism. However, there are some aspects that have seemed hasty to me over the last two years. One of them: why did we return to a 35-hour week in the civil service?! Firstly: everyone talks about equal treatment, about equality between public and non-public sector; here, the public sector no longer wanted to know about the non-public. Secondly, we know that the state has more staff in some places than in others. The state is completely de-capitalised in terms of qualifications. The good managing directors, the state officials, with a career all sewn up, step by step, brick by brick, have disappeared. They disappeared because they all retired; they died because they left, disenchanted with the civil service. Today, the state is completely disarmed, and as a result, laws are made in legal firms. It is a problem that is not just of this government. The country would need two regime agreements: the qualification of civil service administration and its serious revitalisation, and a regime agreement on the tax system; and in the tax system there is no sign of armistice, only war.

You recently spoke to Lusa and said: «The Portuguese tax system is full of inconsistencies and holes». What kind of tax reform do we need?
The tax system is like a pumice stone: it has many holes and low density. I would say that the tax on individuals is a tax that is brutally progressive, in the sense in which the state considers ‘tax rich’. If you look carefully, a person who earns €2000 pays a marginal income tax rate of close to 40%, plus 11% Social Security, meaning, from the outset, they have more than 50% of their wages cut, and this isn’t about people on high salaries. Sometimes people say to me: «Ah, we have a maximum income tax rate of 40%, there are countries that also have 48%, 50% and they do not complain...». Of course. But these countries have rates of 48% for incomes higher than €500,000 and we have rates of 48% for incomes of €80,000.
The second point is the matter of corporate tax. I think it is one of the aspects most criticised in the actions of this government. I apologise, I’m passing judgment here. Like it or not, today we live in aggressive, brutal competition, and therefore, when we cut a drop ine corporate tax, in addition to showing less predictability for economic agents – because they need to have a predictable tax framework for them to invest –, it requires this scenario of fiscal stability.
Third point, the issue of saving, which is a kind of variable shirked by economic models. Now, there is only investment if there are savings. Today we have the lowest savings rate in the European Union, 4% of disposable income, when we used to have 30. In the crisis, in 2008, savings rose, because people were afraid, a precautionary effect. But 4% of savings is not enough for a country to live. Any economist knows how to read the A-B-Cs of these issues. And what do we have today?! Where can people save?! Putting money in the bank, besides taking a risk, has a yield of practically zero. And the opposite of saving is consuming. People no longer have a savings culture. Having, trading, possessing comes before being. People today consume useful things, futile things and useless things.
The last, and fourth, point is VAT, which is the most important tax in fiscal terms. It amazes me that we have to pay 23% VAT on energy, and, at the same time pay 23% on a luxury car, or a precious stone. This government did something that I disagreed with, which was to once again change VAT in the restaurant sector from 23% to 13%, and to change energy from 6% to 23%. Would it not have been better to change energy from 23% to 13%?! VAT should distinguish the consumption of the goods that you can’t go without, such as electricity, from those, which, despite everything, you can either refrain from or you can select. And, in actual fact, VAT does not make such distinctions.

After more than ten years away from politics, what would you change today?
For starters I would never be Minister for Economic Affairs, because I think it is expendable. Ministry of Economic Affairs for what?! The Minister for Economic Affairs does not deal with economics. He/she gives speeches. The real Ministry for Economic Affairs is the Ministry of Education – this is the one that prepares people for the Economy of the future. The Ministry of Education should not be called ministry of «education», but of «teaching», because education begins at home. Raise children well if you do not want to have problems with adults, as Pythagoras said.

He recently took part in the Rethinking Europe seminar. What conclusions did you draw and what needs to be done to rethink Europe?
I was in the Vatican (and today I even received the photographs in which I am greeting the Pope, I was very happy). Pope Francis gave a truly amazing speech. It was a meeting between the four axes of Europe: the West and the East, the North and the South. (I remember two years or so ago, going to school because I wanted to improve my Italian. When I was enrolling, a very friendly lady asked me, «Why do you want to learn Italian, are you going to Italy?», «No, I’m not,» I replied, «but do you work for an Italian company?» «No,» and she continued to ask... very much surprised: «So why would you want to learn Italian then?», «Because I want to, because I like it and I feel like it,» I replied, and she said: «Ah, so that’s why!» [he laughs])
Back to the question. The Pope said one thing that was one of the main conclusions I drew: «We are building a Europe based on archetypes and numbers.» The Pope said: «We don’t talk about the unemployed, we talk about economic indicators; we don’t speak about poverty, we talk about poverty thresholds; we don’t speak about emigrants, we speak of quotas; there is no child, there are children; there is no family, there are families; there is no institution, there are institutions.» The model of decision-making and construction of the European economy is based entirely on numbers, on quantities.
«People consume useful things, futile things and useless things»

Sometimes it seems that we are all devoid of reason. Where are we heading?
Today we live the dictatorship of the «I» in first place, an atrophic individualism. The Pope also spoke of the pride of belonging. For example, in Portugal, have you noticed that people are not proud of belonging? If you look closely, people speak ill of the company where they work, they speak ill of where they live, they speak ill of the city... they are never happy. The only pride of belonging we have is of the national football squad, of little flags, and even those, after the European championship and the World Cup are over, some still remain on the balconies and veranda, years later, in tatters. Have you ever noticed that in Portugal it is rare for people to say «Portugal»?! They say: «this country», «our country». There is a lack of pride in belonging, as an ethical element.

Today [October 09], the Web Summit comes to a close. Is it just robots, technology...? Where does man’s future lay, in ethical terms?
Very good question. Yes, I am old. I don’t much trust the ‘mumbo jumbo’ of the Web Summit, but I recognise that it has some importance. However, most startups are StartOut, there’s a lot of show, and there is a lot of business too. Now, the key question is whether we want to turn the means into ends. The technology is univalent, either it is liberating or it is imprisoning, that is to say, the stand-out technologies of the moment, cannot imprison us, because they are an instrument for us and not the purpose in itself.
Who are we living for?! We are our own end, not our means. Immanuel Kant said that one of the rules is that of «dignity», that is to say, «we are subjects and purposes of actions and not means or instruments». If Kant were to come back to life, if he were to return to this world, his heart would give out on the spot. And technology, today, is not in our name. Sometimes it is against us, or to suppress us. Now, this distinction, notwithstanding the fact that technologies are fundamental, must be seen with this message.

Which tree would you choose to best portray Portugal?
It would be the olive tree, not because of the Estado Novo (he laughs), but because the olive tree is one that fights back. If you look at an olive tree you can see the stem. The stem is the permanent, full and integral portrait of life. In it you can see suffering, sacrifice, self-denial, patience, resurrection, exuberance…What is more, the olive tree is very Portuguese, not only because that’s just what it is, but also because the olive tree is ‘content’ with little, it is minimalist, it knows how to do a lot with little, which is a particular trait of the Portuguese.

Ethically speaking, should truth come before anything or any situation?
Oscar Wilde said, «If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out».

And Aristotle said: «I am a friend of Plato, but more of a friend of the truth...»
Exactly. Usually we say: if you lie, sooner or later, you’ll be found out. And what Oscar Wilde said was the opposite. Truth is not a value to be traded, truth exists by itself. The lie persists for others. Truth exists for its own sake, and therefore truth is not ‘lying to the power of minus one’, in mathematical terms. And today, truth has to do with authenticity. What is authenticity?! Authenticity is the truth of behaviour, which is a scarce commodity. Today, politicians no longer tell lies, they speak the truth. Now they are post-truths. In actual fact, if you watch the news on television for an hour, political correctness is nauseating, because wars affect children, women... And what they say is that the war incurred ‘collateral damage’; or, then, the children no longer fail, they are ‘kept back’; or no one plagiarises anymore, they ‘copy paste’...And, for example, the issue of abortion: 50 years ago, it was a ‘undoing’; then it became ‘abortion’; then it became ‘voluntary interruption of pregnancy’; and now in Portugal it is nothing but an acronym, IVG. What’s more it’s just stupid: in abortion there is no ‘voluntary interruption of pregnancy’, there is a ‘voluntary termination of pregnancy’, because if we interrupt this conversation, it means that we can continue it later... The world is full of this.

Do you have any plans for the future?
I do: to live, to make the most of life. I simply want to live and fulfil the greatest gift that my parents gave me, which was the gift of life. The relationship with death is a very difficult, brutally difficult relationship. I am afraid of death, I am as afraid of death as a child is of the dark, but it is a soothing relationship, indeed, in death, the only thing I do not want is to die alone, I want to bid farewell. Sometimes I go abroad and I think: what if I die now?! I won’t be able to say goodbye.

Are you a man of faith?
I am, a man of faith full of doubts, because faith is built on doubt. Sometimes I fall, sometimes I get up, sometimes I beg, at others, I struggle. As Pascal said, «I do not know whether God exists or not, now my life is made as if He existed».

Maria Cruz
T. Maria Cruz
P. Nuno Almendra
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