October 2017        

Portuguese communist festival: From strength to strength

Laura Duggan

The Avante festival is the annual festival of the Portuguese Communist Party and is held every year in the first weekend of September. It is named for the party’s newspaper, Avante! (Forward!).
     The festival has been running for forty-one years, mostly consecutive, except for 1987, when as a result of anti-communist sentiment they could not secure festival grounds. To avoid this happening again, the PCP organised a mass fund-raising event and successfully bought grounds. The festival grounds have been expanded on since, most recently in 2016 for the fortieth Festival.
     Unlike similar festivals, Avante is not sponsored and has not needed to compromise on its message. Ticket prices are kept low, so it remains accessible, and all work during the setting up, running and dismantling of the festival is carried out by members and friends of the party. It is a huge undertaking, but each year they have more volunteers and a larger event as a result.
     The festival’s purpose is highlighted by the typical Portuguese Communist Youth (JCP) chants that echoed around the debate square during the opening address: “This is how we show our strength!” But it’s not just an opportunity for the PCP to show its strength to an audience of international guests: it’s also an opportunity to reaffirm links and show solidarity.
     Over the course of three days, dozens of acts perform on several stages—imagine Electric Picnic if it had been taken over by communists—each stage and surrounding areas acting like self-contained festivals in their own right. There is also a traditional stage where those attending can take part in group dances, and newcomers are patiently taught a few steps; a sports area, where you can compete in and learn street games; a book festival, where all the works printed by the PCP and friendly publishers are available.
     Each of the regions of Portugal have their own stages and areas as well as immigrant, emigrant, international, youth, women’s and children’s areas, meaning a person can tour the cuisine, music and dialects of all of Portugal without ever leaving the grounds. The aim is to celebrate the differences but focus on the commonalities that unite them.
     The organisation of each area, while led by the Festival planning committee, is actively managed by party members from that area. For example, the Youth City stage performers are selected from all over Portugal through a Battle of the Bands competition held in each region and organised by the JCP in that area, through schools and community youth groups.
     Avante is overtly political: debates are billed as highly as the musical acts, and just as well attended. Each debating floor is dedicated to the issues of the day: Brexit in the international area, student fees in the Youth City, and Relevance of the October Revolution in the main debating square. There were also exhibitions on music, with tours and talks by musicians, a public art gallery and stands and stalls around the October Revolution exhibition, on the history of the PCP, including a clandestine printing press.
     The PCP is not secretive about its history or the reasons they hold a festival. They want to celebrate their ascent from an underground organisation during the dictatorship to that of a party capable of holding their own in council elections.
     The festival grounds were littered with murals dedicated to the party and all the iterations it has gone through. The festival and the PCP continue to go from strength to strength, and the name of the festival says it all: Avante!

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