Flags at half-mast for the son of a preacher man

Friday, January 13, 2017, 10:31

Flags at half-mast

Our part of Portugal, the Minho, was once the crucible of Portuguese life. It's where everything began. Here the first king, Afonso Henriques, with valour and determination, carved out a kingdom from amongst the multiple, often warring, principalities of the Iberian Peninsula. Now, though it remains the heartland of the country - the 'terra de tradicões', the land of tradition – it's something of a backwater. Where the movers and shakers of today vie for power and change the course of history is, of course, in Lisbon, far away to the south.

By chance this January, however, we were not snuggled up in our house in the Minho but in the capital, when an historic event took place; one which concerns a man whose influence over Portugal is without parallel in recent times.

To read more about him, click here.
We spent Christmas in York with all the family and then packed to return to Portugal. This time we flew to Lisbon, intending to visit old friends, people with whom we could reminisce about the great changes we have witnessed in the country over many decades. As it happened, like countless others this winter, we returned with hacking coughs, the kind you don't pass on to people you love and so we cancelled our visit. However, since air fares to Porto on Sunday evening were the same price as a night in a hotel, we decided to stay on in Lisbon for a day unbeknown to our friends.

Avenida da Liberdade empty of traffic

After breakfast, we debated what to do. I wondered about taking a tram to Belém to visit the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, the pre-eminent example of Manueline architecture in Portugal. The church reflects Portugal's obsession with the ocean and discovering the world. The wealth brought back from Brazil and the far east paid for extraordinary flights of fancy in stone; columns and fenestration full of nautical themes – ropes and anchors – and peeping from every nook and cranny the strange beasts and plants they discovered or imagined they were about to find. I have been thinking about writing a post on this monastery, now a museum, for ages but on this occasion, coughing and wheezing, I wasn't up to a visit. Instead, we strolled aimlessly in the downtown area, pausing now and again to sit in the sun on stone benches, and came eventually to the Avenida da Liberdade.

There it is in the picture. But look again: when in decades has anyone seen the Avenida like this? I remember it in the 1960s. It was then a beautiful, tranquil street with cafés under the trees, where you could while away a morning with a book, buy a coffee and eat a slice of toast oozing butter. But that was 50 years ago. You probably wouldn't choose to do that now. Latterly, the Avenida da Liberdade has been the scene of roaring traffic, exhaust fumes and the hurly burley of business. This is bad news if you like peace and quiet but good news if you think of the increase in prosperity – despite today's hard times – that this represents.

On Monday, though, it was as if I had stepped back in time to my student days. The road was empty. What was going on? Every hundred metres or so there were policemen on guard. That too was a little scary to someone who remembered the P.I.D.E. – the infamous Polícia Internacional e da Defesa do Estado – and the nefarious activities they got up to. Were they expecting trouble of some sort? A demonstration against austerity perhaps? And what about the flags on the buildings? Everywhere, from the Castle of St George to the outside of hotels, they were at half-mast.

Of course! The night before leaving we had heard that Mário Soares, the architect of modern, democratic Portugal, had died aged 92. The Avenida was clearly closed for his funeral cortège.

Mario Soares funeral cortege

And here it comes. Motorcycle outriders and dignitaries accompanied a hearse carrying his coffin draped in the national flag. A few people, sombrely dressed in black, stood in silence and watched them pass but there were no crowds here. They were where the funeral was to take place, which was in... have you guessed? In the church of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. My bronchitis had saved me a pointless trip. I would never have got anywhere near the building.

So, who was Mário Soares? Here he is in his younger days.

Banner showing Mario Soares

This portrait was one of several we saw hanging from municipal buildings. The words, "Obrigado Mário Soares" mean "Thank you Mário Soares". He wasn't everyone's cup of tea, and he made mistakes, but many in Portugal do thank him. It is probably fair to say that without him Portugal might not be the stable, democratic state that it is today. Those of us who remember the dictatorship of Salazar and his successor Marcelo Caetano, think present day Portugal a great success despite its problems.

Mário Soares came from a curious background: his father was a lapsed Catholic priest, which must have seemed peculiar to many of the faithful. Briefly Minister of Education in the unstable period before Salazar took the reins of power, he ran a private school, the Colégio Moderno, where his son was educated. From there Mário went on to study literature at Lisbon University, taking 9 years to get his degree because he spent so much time involved in politics. That was a dangerous game under the dictatorship and he was punished for his activism with several periods in gaol. When free, he went on to study law and join the communist party. In those days, this was a logical step. Many people I knew in the 1960s were either communist or on the very far left. What young person wouldn't be under a fascist dictatorship?

In 1967 he was arrested after using the foreign press publically to accuse several politicians of being members of a vice ring. The following year he was exiled to the island of São Tomé off the coast of Africa. He remained there only a short time, as he was released after Salazar suffered a stroke. Marcelo Caetano, Salazar's successor, must have regretted this leniency, however, as he exiled him again in 1969, though this time to a more comfortable situation as a teacher in France. During this period, having abandoned communism, he founded the Portuguese Socialist Party, which was to play a large role in Portugal's move to democracy.

When ultra-left army officers, who wanted to bring an end to the debilitating and shameful colonial wars in Africa, staged a coup d'etat in 1974, he was named Foreign Minister, though he was always at odds with, and mistrusted, the military. Inevitably there followed a power struggle between the army and the politicians, which was eventually won by the Socialist party.

In 1976 he was invited to form the first democratically elected left wing government in southern Europe since the 1930s. Unfortunately, economics was not Soares' strong point and the financial state of the country deteriorated. Nevertheless, he worked tirelessly to ensure that Portugal joined the European Union, from which the country has since benefited enormously, (though it could be argued that subsequently joining the euro has been a mistake).

He later led several coalitions as Prime Minister but always struggled with economic policy. In 1986, he became President and, in this position, was more successful than he was as Prime Minister. From 1999 to 2004 he was a member of the European Parliament and a strong advocate of a single European state.

Today, people born in the last 50 years or so can hardly imagine anything but freedom and democracy in Portugal. Yet in the mid-1970s many must have feared that Portugal would veer from a right wing, fascist dictatorship to an equally repressive ultra-left wing, military one. Now only a relatively few old hands, like me, can remember the repression of the middle of last century. For that blessing we have, in large part, to thank Mário Soares.

Do you agree that for all his faults, Mario Soares saved Portugal from a much worse form of government? Please write in and give us your views. (If you are Portuguese, please feel free to write in your own language. You don't have to write in English. Lembre-se: o que é importante não é a língua mas a contribuição.)

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