- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 21, 2012

LISBON — Garish costumes, scary masks and bright wigs trumped dreary economic austerity Tuesday as most Portuguese defied a government appeal to keep working on one of their deeply beloved holidays: Carnival.

It was a spontaneous “Ja chega!” - “That’s enough!” - from a people who have suffered in Europe’s debt crisis but have not rioted, set streets aflame and heaved chunks of marble at police like their fellow bailout colleagues, the Greeks.

The streets of Lisbon, the capital, were deserted and eerily quiet Tuesday, resembling a typical Sunday morning. Offices stood empty and banks were shuttered. Well over half of workers stayed home, local media estimated.

Instead, tens of thousands of people, many dressed in colorful handmade costumes and men often in drag, were expected later to attend traditional street parades around the country featuring elaborate floats, loud Brazilian samba music and dancing.

The mild, sunny winter day was apparently just the ticket for the austerity blues.

Nationwide, the government’s attempt to make people work more by scrapping the traditional Fat Tuesday holiday flopped as most companies and many public services shut down.

The spontaneous choice of revelry over austerity - imposed last year in return for a $103 billion international bailout Portugal needed to avoid bankruptcy - came at a particularly embarrassing moment for the government.

Inspectors from the bailout lenders were in Lisbon for a regular review of whether Portugal is honoring its promise to reduce debt and improve economic output.

Government ministers, lawmakers and the head of state worked normally. Civil servants had to turn up for work, too, but most local councils and state-owned companies closed, media reported.

Train engineers went on a 24-hour strike to protest the government’s anti-holiday call.

Marilia Gomes, a middle-aged worker at a Lisbon tax office, said she resented having to work on a holiday she cherished.

Carnival is about getting rid of your sadness, letting your hair down,” she said during her lunch break, calling scrapping the holiday “a lack of respect for working people.”

Local television stations showed some civil servants going to work in outrageous wigs, masks and outsize glasses.

Others, however, agreed with the government’s plea for people to knuckle down and beat the financial crisis by working more.

“We have to work for the good of the country,” said Manuel Agostinho, an unemployed 54-year-old. “It’s no laughing matter.”

Portugal sank into a double-dip recession last year, and the government forecasts the economy will shrink a further 3 percent this year. Unemployment is at a record 14 percent.

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