It feels like home. Carlos Cardim arriving in Luanda in 2005.

Angola, Portugal’s new Eldorado

For three years now, thousands of Portuguese have been fleeing the crisis at home to try their fortune in the erstwhile African colony, whose economy is taking off. This is a replay of the Portuguese exodus back in the 1960s – and harks back to the Age of Discovery.

Published on 22 October 2010 at 14:52
It feels like home. Carlos Cardim arriving in Luanda in 2005.

“Portugal is an old, closed country with no prospects for the future. Down in Angola you’ve got all the hazards you could possibly want, but at least there’s a future. A land of challenges. So I’m going for it!” Paula Cardoso, a go-getting journalist from Lisbon, is part of the young Portuguese generation who feel “condemned” to a dead-end future. For five years, according to Migration Watch, 350,000 people have left Portugal, a country battered by a brutal crisis, branded a weak link in the EU, and on the brink of a Greek-style crash.

A similar exodus occurred in the 1960s. In the recent past, the Portuguese would mostly emigrate to the UK, Spain and Switzerland. But for three years now a new Eldorado has been beckoning farther afield: Angola. This one-time Portuguese colony in south-central Africa, which gained independence in 1975 after a long war, is a seven-hour flight from Lisbon. It is 12 times the size of Portugal. This is the “land of challenges” into which Paula Cardoso and so many others now plan to leap.

And the phenomenon is spreading fast. In 2006, only 156 Angolan visas were issued to southbound Portuguese. Last year, the figure came to 23,787. 100,000 Portuguese have moved there, four times the number of Angolans who have settled in Portugal – where, given the crisis, the influx of new arrivals is now reduced to a trickle. “It reminds me of the great Age of Discovery, when our ancestors took off for Africa – to escape an economic crisis too,” enthuses Mario Bandeira from the ISCTE business school.

Like Portugal in the 1980s

Portugal is ailing, Angola is in terrific shape. What with its diamond reserves and oil deposits – the largest in sub-Saharan Africa after Nigeria’s – the country has been riding a 14% GDP growth curve, on average, since 2003. In 2002 Angolans discovered peace after 41 years of virtually uninterrupted armed conflict. Now everything needs reconstructing. They need civil engineers, telecoms experts, financial consultants etc. – Portuguese-speaking, wherever possible. That’s a godsend for the Portuguese, who are tied to the country by a shared language: so Portuguese forty-somethings and greenhorn graduates, out of work or in search of adventure, are setting course for Africa.

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The main motivation is the prospect of easy money and juicy salaries. An engineer straight out of college or a journalist with three years’ experience under his belt, both of whom would eke out €1k a month in Portugal, get offers of €3k in Angola, plus room and board, more often than not, on the company tab. Carlos Cardim, head of an advertising agency that set up shop in Luanda, the capital, five years back: “I have the impression I’m living in Portugal in the 1980s when EEC funds started pouring in.” These privileged émigrés live high off the hog: luxury villas, chauffeured cars, personal escorts, nights out on the town. “There’s something Far West about it, it’s exhilarating,” says João, a marketing consultant who landed in southern Angola in 2007. “Whereas Portugal is really not the place to be these days.”

Beach, bars & discos

“Land of challenge”, Angola? You bet. A career Eldorado? No doubt about it. Shangri-La? No way, says Paula Cardoso. Sitting at a café table in downtown Lisbon, this attractive 30-something journalist (of mixed parentage, one Portuguese, the other from Mozambique – another former colony in Africa) tells the other side of the story. In late 2009 she took off to spend six months in Luanda. Sol, the weekly she works for, which was saved from bankruptcy by a rich Angolan shareholder, sent her into the field to cut her teeth. “I didn’t have a good image of Angola to start with, and I was still disillusioned. Daily life there is a harrowing ordeal. If you don’t have air-conditioning, a generator and a water reservoir in your flat, you suffer in Luanda!” Seven million inhabitants are crammed into a city built for fewer than a million.

She recalls the daily down-sides of Luanda. “Recreation is the beach, the bars, the discos. For the rest, there are concerts for over $100 , virtually no cultural life to speak of and some horrible mega-shopping where you freeze on account of the AC. Quite a slap in the face compared to Lisbon!” Nonetheless, an old European country going through a rough patch is now avidly eyeing a booming African nation. But Angola is not a bed of roses: it has two-thirds of its population living in abject poverty, an average life expectancy of below 40, a very high cost of living and record levels of corruption.

Still, viewed from Lisbon, the former colony looks like manna from Heaven. Portugal invests massively (€557 million in 2009) in its biggest market outside the EU, and 800 companies have located there. But it also runs the other way: Angolan multi-millionaires splurge on luxury goods, cars and posh hotels, designer fashion and plastic surgery in Portugal. “Angola is the lifeline for the Portuguese economy!” says Lisbon businessman José Calp. Or as one ex-expat puts it, “In Luanda, they like to say – not without a touch of revanchism – that Portugal has become an Angolan colony!”

Translated from the French by Eric Rosencrantz


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