Perspective on Portugal

Can Portugal keep its fledgling democracy? What would Portugal's role be in a future conflict with the Soviet Union? The answers to these questions are more important than some policymakers may think. Portugal and its Atlantic islands (the Azores and Madeiras) remain strategically vital to American interests now and in the future, and the state of health of Portugal's six-and-a-half-year-old democratic experiment is a relevant concern. As Portugal approaches important general elections in December, it is useful to consider these issues.

Lessons of the recent past suggest that the use of Portuguese naval and air bases in worldwide conflicts -- or in conflicts which require long-distance resupply capabilities -- has been consistently significant.

In World War II, though Portugal remaned technically neutral, it granted the Allies access to several naval and air bases in the Azores Islands located in the mid-Atlantic. Precious lives, equipment and fuel were saved in the battle of the Atlantic against the German U-boat menace and in preparations for the Allied invasion at Normandy in 1944. Later NATO powers arranged similar base privileges and in 1973 Portugal allowed the airbase at Lajes, on Terceira Island , Azores, to be used in the American airlift operation to Israel during the Yom Kippur war.

Some strategists argue that the Azores -- or Madeiras, which are closer to Africa -- are no longer important because of the conquests of distances by modern technology, but this is a short-sighted view. Even though modern war planes can fly faster and farther, mid-ocean air bases continue to be important in order to save fuel, lives, and equipment. In the naval phase of any future world war, bases at the Azores, Madeiras, and Lisbon would be useful in two respects: containing any Soviet naval threat both in the Atlantic and in the Mediterranean.

Other lessons of Portugal's world war role in 1939-45 should be recalled as well. Neutral Lisbon and hinterland, the "Neutralia" of Arthur Koestler's novel "Arrival and Departure," acted as a vital spy center, transportation crossroads, and listening post for all sides in the conflict. Despite the probability of Portugal's favoring Western interests in a future struggle, domestic nationalists, business, and ideological pressures could move Portugal to assume a more "neutral" stance.

The United States now and in the future could well make use of a NATO naval base in or near Lisbon, but is this possible in current political conditions? Portugal's location as the westernmost continental state, its role as a kind of international broker for a nexus of peoples with different religions, races, and policies, could again combine to make Portugal a key "watchtower" in the West, as President Roosevelt described the country in 1940.

The West watches anxiously, however, as Portugal, with a weak economy, struggles to build a stable democratic system. Since the revolution of April 1974 when a leftist-led military organization overthrew the 48-year-old dictatorship, the pendulum has swung from the moderates to the extreme left back toward the right. Although the present system, which has seen 12 cabinets in six years, is more stable than that of Portugal's first attempt at democracy (between 1910 and 1926 there were 45 cabinets and Portugal had the most unruly parliamentary system in the West), it continues to be troubled by factionalism, personalism, and a gap between the political elite and the masses.

The current government is led by Premier Sa Carneiro and the Democratic Alliance Party, which is attempting to win a good proportion of seats in the Assembly elections on Oct. 5. The alliance's policy has been strongly pro-Western and pro-NATO, within Portugal's limited means, but economic weaknesses and a possible delay of Portugal's admission to the Common Market have complicated the party's bid for popularity.

The United States should take a strong interest in the outcome of the 1980 elections.Although they will not necessarily consolidate democracy there, the outcome will be a factor in the future of Portugal's political system as well as in Western strategic interests.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.