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close this bookThe Courier N 158 - July - August 1996 - Dossier: Communication and the Media - Country Report: Cape Verde (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)
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close this folderCape Verde
View the documentMaking the best of history
View the documentThe economy: too weak to worsen
View the documentInterview with President Antonio Mascarenhas Monteiro
View the documentA portrait of towns and cities with atmosphere
View the documentCape Verd-EU Cooperation
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Making the best of history

Cape Verde has been shaped by the harmattan, the hot dry wind which blows from Africa, strong ocean currents and five hundred years of Portuguese colonialisation. Portugal has been a constant presence in the archipelago's history since the fifteenth century, when it granted the colonists who were to settle on the islands of Cape Verde a monopoly over the slave trade. The country became an interface between Africa, Europe and the Americas, at the centre of the triangle of trade in slaves, hardware and gold. The intermingling of black populations of every origin who passed through the islands meant that the country was unable to present a united face against the colonialist culture. The colonists were therefore able to impose their own culture, with their fervent and proselytzing Catholicism becoming the principal ingredientin the mixture that is Cape Verde. Strong, scorching winds from the desert have shaped the islands' landscape and inhospitable ocean currents mean that approaches to the islands are difficult, their rocky cliff faces plunging into the sea.

The mythical Portuguese colonial oasis

Up to the eighteenth century, Cape Verde was no more than a commercial centre for Portugal, its population at the end of that century barely exceeding 50,000, to be halved by the great drought between 1773-75. Other periods of drought regularly decimated the population and the arrival of new colonists and slaves did not offset such losses or compensate for the massive exodus which began in the early nineteenth century with the arrival of American whalers in search of crew members for their ships. Seven hundred thousand Cape Verdians currently live abroad, half of these in the United States.

Only four hundred thousand have stayed in their own country.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a period which signalled a turning point in the country's history, the population still numbered no more than 150 000. At the time, major sea voyages were being undertaken and Cape Verde's geographical location was highly valued. Mindelo, on the island of SVicente in the north of the archipelago, developed as a coal-and-watersupply port for English vessels plying the route between India and the Americas, and England helped construct this port. However, Portugal's policy towards Cape Verde was double-edged. On the one hand, the islands were regarded as a natural extension of the home country, but as a competitor in terms of port activities. This led to Mindelo's slow development, although the trade in skins, fishery produce, coffee and salt could have made it a thriving centre.

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The mixing of races in Cape Verde has often been held up as, so-to-speak, 'humane colonisation', but this opinion is not corroborated by the under-developed state of the country at the time of independence and the fact that Portugal implemented food security measures to combat the ravages of catastrophic famines only when under pressure from public opinion, at the end of the first half of the twentieth century. The island's colonists had always used slave labour to produce food or fabrics which enabled them to purchase more slaves and it was only when the slave based economy began to decline, which resulted in the impoverishment of the colonists, that a major grouping of free Blacks and rebel or emancipated slaves came into being. That is when the intermixing of races began. Therefore, before the abolition of slavery (18641869-1878), the vast majority of the black population of the island was free; both unmarried and married colonists would generally emancipate their children born of a secret relationship with female slaves. The aristocracy and white upper-middle classes continued to live a cloistered, aloof life and did not mix with other races. A second factor which would suggest that Portuguese colonisation of Cape Verde was sympathetic in outlook is the reputation of this small country's intellectuals; although colonisation created only a small intellectual elite which was the product of a single institution, the Mindelo College, opened in 1917. In a quote by Michel Lesourd, Deirdre Meintel refers to this phenomenon as the mythical 'cultural oasis'.

A nation born of a middle class in tatters

Through its contradictions, it was this black, mulatto and 'petty white' middle class which was to forge the mixed-race culture and national identity, caught between its own privileges and its aspirations of aristocracy, between its rejection of African culture (they sought a 'lusotropical' culture) and the need to find allies amongst the lower classes who retained African cultural values. In order to acquire the wealth and attributes of power, this middle class was to take over the lands vacated by the decline of the slavebased economy and which were often much improved by the former slaves (renamed 'tenant farmers' without a major change in their living conditions) preventing a major economic upheaval which could have put an end to this iniquitous system. Their wholesale appropriation of land explains why, today, there is a very high proportion of landless farmers in Cape Verde, seasonal agricultural workers who survive only thanks to the State's welfare system.

This petty bourgeoisie was to give birth to growing awareness which would lead to calls for independence. Officially, Cape Verde was not a colony but a province, and its inhabitants in theory had the same rights or lack of rights as Portuguese citizens in Salazar's 'New State', where the right to vote depended on social and cultural status. In other Portuguese territories, members of the petty bourgeoisie held the rank of colonial administrators and, from their ranks, the pro-independence movements emerged. Such was the case of the PAIGC (Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde pro-lndependence Party), created by Amilcar Cabral, a symbolic figure in Africa's striuggles for independence and Cape Verde's national hero. He was assassinated in mysterious circumstances in Guinea-Conakry in 1973. His brother, Luiz Cabral, was to become president of Guinea-Bissau, and Aristides Pereira his successor as Party leader and Cape Verde's first president.

Cape Verde's uneventful transition to independence in July 1975 mirrored Portugalts Carnation Revolution and was quite unlike the fierce war entered into by Portugal in Mozambique and Angola. There was a clandestine struggle during which a number of combatants were imprisoned, but there was never any real guerilla warfare. The Portuguese governor remained at his post until he was replaced by an ambassador. The PAIGC was to govern both Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde until the coup d't against Luiz Cabral in Guinea-Bissau in 1980, when it adopted the name of PAICV in Cape Verde, thereby signalling the end to any dream of a union between the two countries.

Diplomatic ventures

The new state pursued an even-handed diplomatic approach and accomplished the considerable diplomatic feat of remaining equidistant between the Cold wer's principal adversaries, adapting over time to all the changes which occurred on the world scene. Post-independence, embassies were opened by the United States, China and the Soviet Union. Cape Verde, with its marxist leanings, maintained the former links created with apartheid South Africa by Portugal. The arrival in power of a liberal party had no effect on this diplomatic tightrope-walking act. It was South Africa which was to provide aid to build the international airport at Sal. Ironically, after the establishment of democracy in South Africa, it was at this very airport that President Mandela was to stress his desire for strengthened links with the archipelago. Latterly, Cape Verde has demonstrated this flexible in its recent decision to Join the group of, French-speaking countries whilst still regarding itself as a mouthpiece for the Portuguese-speaking world, enjoying a privileged relationship with Portugal, the Azores, Brazil and African countries where the official language is Portuguese. It is also a very active member of the CEDAO (Community of West-African States) and its President is currently chairman of the CILSS (Inter national Commitee to Combat Drought). Cape Verde receives as much aid from China as from the US, from Russia and Sweden as from Cuba and Japan.

This diplomacy is in keeping with the atypical 'Marxist' Party which first initiated it. With its interventionist approach to economics, its highly developed social policy which gives priority to education, health and combating unemployment through public welfare, this party could be regarded as a socialist party, yet it opted decisively for a market economy. Its single-party structure mirrored the example of would-be popular democracies, but it never set up a system of repression and terror: only one opposition member's death is said to have taken place in suspicious circumstances on the island of Santo Antao. The population was able to discuss politics at popular assemblies and held no fear of openly criticising the government and, in the case of the well-off, of displaying its wealth. A mudan(change) was implemented calmly and collectedly by the PAICV when it was in power, sowing the seeds of its own downfall. With no pressure from street demonstrations and no insistent demands from political classes, the government of President Aristides Pereira and Prime Minister Pedro Pires adapted to the new situation created by the fall of the Berlin Wall. In early 1990, the PAICV gave up its privileged position as the single party and, one year later, at the legislative elections in January 1991 and presidential elections in February 1991, Africa witnessed the first democratic overthrow of a single-party government which had achieved independence. After the legislative elections, the PAICV, which had placed too great a reliance on being credited for its good governance, was silenced. The desire for change was too great and the position adopted by the Catholic church, anxious to punish a party which had dared to opt for a referendum on abortion, did the rest. President Aristides Pereira's personal prestige stood for little in the full face of this onslaught.

What change?

Prime Minister Carlos Veiga, who had founded the MPD only eight months before his overwhelming success in the 1991 elections, became the new figurehead in Cape Verde politics. His power sharing with Antonio Mascarenhas Monteiro was again successful at the most recent elections (December 1995 and January 1996). Shortly before the poll, the MPD experienced a near-fatal split, but the new party which emerged, the PCD, had only one representative as against 50 (an absolute majority) for the MPD and 21 for the PAICV, which continued to exist. Three other parties taking part in the elections fell by the wayside and the polarisation of Cape Verde's politics into two camps locks set to continue. This is the second time that the MPD has surprised its opponents - this time, the political adversaries had attacked the MPD's attempt to curry favour, but the majority of the electorate, concentrated on the island of Santiago, continued to show their appreciation of the visible signs of modernisation in their lives and also the government's seductive politics, particularly in the ran-up to the elections. The country had also had a good harvest and, although this was unconnected with the MPD, that party could only benefit from it.

Despite what MPD leaders might say, there has been no real ideological split, any political reorientation having been instigated in 1990 by the previous regime when it threw off its socialist trappings. Diplomacy remains pragmatic and the new government's liberal rhetoric and social policy, particularly in the areas of education and health, has essentially been maintained. Suspension of the State's collective works programme, the symbol of the State's interventionist social policy, is only temporary, according to statements issued by the Prime Minister, counter to several rumours.

More visible changes have taken place in the economy: partial liberalisation of the banking system; legislation relating to foreign investment; suspension of the requirement for preliminary import authorisation; despite the government's backtracking as regards certain basic products; privatisation of State assets, particularly in the hotel business, etc. Here, too, the PAICV government engineered the changes, but it can surely not be criticised for maintaining a delicate balance between the new demands of the global village and the social practices of a country which is very poor, but which is succeeding in putting an end to its poverty and creating a modest quality of life, but a secure one. Given its bleak geographical location, Cape Verde is simply continuing to make the best of history.

Hl Goutier