Salazar: Portugal’s Paternalistic Helmsman

Before my four-week trip to Portugal in September/October of 2022, I hadn’t read much about Antonio Salazar, the autocrat who ruled Portugal for almost 40 years until poor health led to his retirement in 1968. Little has been written about this remarkable politician who arguably was the most important Portuguese leader since the Marquess de Pombal in the mid-18th century.

Tom Gallagher’s “Salazar, The Dictator Who Refused To Die”, is a dispassionate account of his tenure as Portugal’s “Chief Butler”. The author gained access to Salazar’s friends and associates as well as a trove of letters and memoranda that described a profoundly traditional, ascetic and intellectual man who guided his country through perilous times. Gallagher convincingly debunks the notion of Salazar as a “fascist” and positions him as an ultraconservative autocrat who restored the finances of Portugal and kept his impoverished country out of WW2.

For the century prior to the new military dictatorship’s appointment of Salazar as Finance Minister, Portugal had endured decades of overthrown kings and a liberal ascendancy steered by the elite of Lisbon and their overweening admiration of everything French, even though Napoleon had ravaged Portugal during the Peninsular War in the early 19th century. The liberal governments concentrated wealth in the hands of a connected few and spent little on education or social welfare, while the population’s literacy rate was barely 10 percent, prior to Salazar’s appointment as finance minister

Salazar was born into modest circumstances in a small village in northern Portugal, which even today is the most traditional part of the republic. His intellectual acumen was recognized early on and his parents were able to enroll him in a private school where his talents blossomed. He gained early admission to the ancient University of Coimbra, where he soon achieved status after graduation as head of its economics faculty. It was from this position that he was ultimately propelled to national leadership.

When he was named Finance Minister in 1926 by the new military junta, Salazar inherited a country in parlous condition. Paris and London were openly suggesting that Portugal’s African colonies might be seized given the country’s staggering foreign debt. Within a few years Salazar eliminated Portugal’s foreign debt and it was finally, after a century, in sound financial state, with an enviable gold reserve.

One thing that many Portuguese will say is that Salazar was, at least, not corrupt. He lived in a modest apartment during his long rule. When he died, his bank account would barely cover the purchase of an average Lisbon flat.

During his entire stewardship, Salazar never sought the title of Head of State, which was always the prerogative of the middling army or navy command. He preferred to rule as Prime Minister, a title he garnered as his indispensability to the regime expanded. As a sop to his right-wing supporters, he established the Novo Estado (New State) to offer a simulacrum of a fascist state. His agenda was unfailingly conservative, and the financial health of the state was his principal concern. He reasoned that a financially stable republic would ensure economic growth and stability. Curiously, the worldwide depression was not that serious in Portugal.

Perhaps his indispensable gift to Portugal was his deft success at keeping his country out of WW2, after a sobering experience allying with France during WW1.

Given Portugal’s long-standing alliance with Great Britain, it was under enormous pressure to enter the war on the Allied side. Salazar had provided aid to General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War, but never met him nor emulated his rigorous style of rule. He supported Franco since they shared a fear and loathing of Communism.

Both the Allied and Axis powers imported tungsten, a mineral essential in steel production, from Portugal’s northern mines. The Germans paid in gold, and there was a post-war pressure campaign by the Allies to force Portugal to turn over 44 tons of gold that were thought to have been seized by the Germans from occupied countries. The stubborn Salazar ended up ceding only 4 tons and the controversy disappeared.

Foreign governments found Salazar’s obstinacy frustrating. For example, Salazar allowed the US to establish a base in the Azores only after tough negotiations. He also resisted Churchill’s demands that he cease exporting goods to Germany. However, after the onset of the Cold War, Portugal was welcomed into NATO and the Azores became a major U.S. base.

By the 1960’s, the West began pressuring Salazar to let Angola and Mozambique go. He steadfastly refused to leave Africa, reasoning that since they were Portuguese citizens, there was no sense in “liberating” them.

After a stroke and a long recovery period, Salazar finally turned over the reins to his long-time protege, the humorless lawyer Marcelo Caetano, in September 1968. He hung on until early 1970, when he died. Caetano was eventually deposed in April 1974 by the Movement of the Armed Forces during the “Carnation Revolution”, so called because civilians in their joy placed red carnations in the barrels of the soldiers’ carbines.

In conversations with many, especially younger, Portuguese there is a broad feeling of disgust with the corrupt Socialist government. Some feel that a right-wing government could solve Portugal’s problems. Perhaps they unconsciously subscribe to Salazar’s notion that the Portuguese temperament is not suited to democracy.

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