Portugal plays each side against the other in World War II
Neill Lochery's new book "Lisbon" chronicles Portugal's pivotal role in World War II.
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But just when you're about to paint him as an evil dictator, the fact is that he never spent the gold, and he was in power until 1968.Skip to next paragraph
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Q: Why do you think Salazar didn't spend the money on his people?
A: My guess is that part of his philosophy is that you don’t spend more than you earn. It's better to be poor but not in debt, which is kind of ironic considering what’s going on today.
Q: Portugal is hardly a wealthy country, then or now. Where did the gold go?
A: Efforts to trace the gold have been met with silence. Most of it, I think, was laundered out.
But… the Catholic church here in Portugal has a big shrine in Fatima. Every year pilgrims come there. The Catholics wanted to upgrade the shrine, and they sent all these trinkets and gold bits to the Bank of Portugal to have them melted down. What came back were gold bars that still had swastikas on them.
Q: You're talking about Portugal's debt crisis. If the money is still around, could it play a role in that mess?
A: If Lisbon has $20 billion worth of gold, then it puts a different spin on when you look at events that are currently going on.
Portugal received a bailout last year, and just before it received it, a senior member of a coalition in Germany made a suggestion that maybe Portugal should sell the family silverware before it asks for money. As far as I know, that was met by stony silence, a quite eerie stony silence.
Clearly, the Germans believe that Portugal should spend some of this gold. That has interesting dynamics -- a German asking the Portuguese to sell their gold.
Q: What was the legacy of Portugal's role in the war?
A: I'm sitting you here talking to you in Lisbon, the center of Portugal, which wasn't bombed, even though the Luftwaffe was a couple hundred miles away in Bordeaux. It's quite unusual to have a major European capital that wasn't bombed in the war.
Salazar managed to avoid a Spanish invasion and made money out of the war for Portugal. He also granted both the British and Americans access to the Azores, islands that were vitally important to both the British and Americans in terms of U-boat warfare.
Salazar and Portugal basically played a very complicated game, and played it very well. Whether it's morally right or wrong, this was an opportunity for the Portuguese.
For small countries involved in global conflicts, it appears that there are possibilities to play both sides off against each other in order to maximum both political gains and money.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor correspondent.