Who will get profits from Portugal's return to private enterprise?

Just over 13 years ago, businessmen throughout Portugal saw many of their enterprises swept out of their hands. A wave of left-wing nationalizations followed the 1974 military coup that ousted a dictatorship and paved the way for democracy. But it also took over some 2 trillion escudos ($13.6 billion) worth of private businesses, factories, farms, and service industries.

Today, with the Portuguese stock markets growing strongly and the government ready to begin selling off assets as a way of easing its debt burden, dispossessed stockholders and former owners are eager to ensure they are fairly compensated out of the spoils.

Some 137,000 business people are pushing for fair compensation as the Portuguese government prepares to reprivatize large chunks of the 53 percent of the economy taken over at the time.

``It is morally untenable for the government today to sell off for $50 businesses it nationalized at $10,'' says Jaime de Lacerda, a director of the 35,000-member Portuguese Confederation of Industry, which is leading the battle for compensation. ``We have set out a minimum acceptable settlement on the principle that if the money can't be found, the goods should be restored to their owners.''

The confederation is taking the issue to the European court of human rights in Strasbourg, France, he says. Mr. de Lacerda estimates that apart from the coordinated confederation action, some 2,000 individual claims could shortly flood the court from Portual.

Until the government clears up the indemnities issue, de Lacerda says, foreign and national investors in Portugal will have doubts about the security of new investments here.

Since January 1986, when Portugal joined the European Community (EC), investment levels have soared. The latest figures for 1987 show more than $375 million of new investment poured in.

Should the Strasbourg court find in favor of the confederation, the EC could then force the Portuguese government to pay indemnities.

The matter has dragged on for more than a decade through a succession of short-lived governments and major political and economic instability.

Today, Prime Minister Cavaco Silva's center-right Social Democratic government has a 53 percent majority in parliament and faces four stable years in power. It has announced a liberalization program, virtually rolling back the last excesses of the 1974 revolution and designed to boost Portugal's living and development standards to those of the rest of the EC.

But the compensations loom large as a stumbling block in one of Western Europe's most ambitious denationalization programs after that of Great Britain.

In 1977, the Portuguese government set a ceiling of 2 billion escudos (one-tenth of that claimed by the confederation) to meet nationalization claims and issued compensation bonds. But soaring inflation, as high as 30 percent in 1982 but down to 9.5 percent last year, has made the real interest on the bonds valueless.

``Even if we wanted to compensate fully for what happened in 1975, we do not have the means to do so,'' Finance Minister Miguel Ribiero Cadilhe has told industrialists. ``At this moment and for the next few years, there is no way we can meet the compensation claims.''

Successive Portuguese governments have pointed to the 1977 compensation bonds as a sign of good faith and a fair settlement within the restraints of Portugal's limited resources.

A political row over the issue is simmering. The Portuguese constitutional court, whose 12 man-bench is dominated by left-wing political appointees, has declared that the nationalizations were ``an act of sovereignty in the highest national interests and that no case for further compensation therefore exists.''

That followed an appeal by the Portuguese ombudsman, to whom the confederation turned in 1985, for the nationalizations to be declared unconstitutional.

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