US-Lisbon ties improve as airbase talks near

Relations between Portugal and the United States have started off 1982 on the right foot.

The Portuguese armed forces have received the first batch of the 20 A-7 ground-attack Corsair jets they are to get in return for all the help this tiny country has given the US over the years.

The Portuguese Air Force received the first batch of aircraft almost a fortnight ago from US Ambassador Richard Bloomfield. The planes were acquired with the $60 million of US military aid granted under the 1979 Lajes agreement.

The US airbase at Lajes is probably the best-known landmark in the Azores, and the handover of the attack planes was well timed, since the Lajes agreement expires in February 1983 and must, therefore, be renegotiated this year.

The base has proved to be the most important link between Portugal and the US. Its strategic location in the Atlantic halfway between the two countries has gone down in history as the vital link that helped the United States mount an airlift to Israel during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, when America's other European allies refused to grant the necessary refueling facilities.

It would also play a crucial role should the United States have to reinforce Europe or the Middle East in any emergency.

From the day the North Atlantic alliance was founded in 1949, NATO control of the Azores archipelago stayed firmly on the US side of the Atlantic, at Norfolk, Va. This is something the Portuguese military still find hard to swallow.

All this makes the Portuguese extremely sensitive to any hint that Americans look on the archipelago as a kind of 51st state or back its separation from the mainland.

It is true that the whole Lajes deal in 1979 was worth $140 million and that the United States has, in fact, come up with nearly $2 billion in grants and soft loans to Portugal since the 1974 revolution. But nearly half of this covers the grain purchases of a country that has always been an important market for US agricultural products.

It is also true that the United States has played an important role in reequipping the Portuguese Army since the end of the colonial wars in 1974. Portugal, like Iran before the downfall of the Shah, is one of the few countries where the United States maintains a military assistance mission.

Since the ruling Democratic Alliance came to power, Portugal has tended to take a far more pro-American stand on international problems than the rest of its European allies. The Portuguese government is now acting as an intermediary between the United States and Lisbon's former colony of Angola over the future of Namibia.

A sigh of relief was expressed here when Richard Allen resigned as President Reagan's national security adviser. Allen was remembered here as a former Washington contact of the Azores Liberation Front, an anticommunist group that started campaigning for the archipelago's independence at the height of communist influence in Portugal after the 1974 revolution.

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