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Portugal suffers from an inferiority complex and a sense of being economically, politically, and militarily weaker than its European and transatlantic partners. These are all true facts. For this reason, the Portuguese tend to focus on qualitative factors rather than quantitative; i.e., how soldiers performed rather than the number deployed.

The Portuguese are steeped in their seafaring history and feel an almost visceral pride in their maritime tradition and their past glory as a global empire. Portugal has a long and proud history one that is uniquely influenced by its geography. Daniel J. Boorstin wrote that the Portuguese were propelled by geography to their place in history. Portugal is on the western part of the Iberian Peninsula. Its closest European neighbor is Spain to the East. The country faces the Atlantic to the West with its major cities from north to south located on the coast. The majority of the Portuguese live along the Atlantic coastline. Hemmed in by mountains and a strong and often not friendly neighbor on the east and ready access to the seas gives Portugal its oceanic orientation.

Portugal has a glorious past. It is the oldest European nation-state, having attained its present extent by about 1200, centuries before neighboring Spain or France became unified states. In the early decades of the fourteenth century, Portugal began a period of exploration that within a hundred years gave it an empire that literally spanned the globe.

The wealth the empire brought mainland Portugal had woeful long-term consequences, however. The country's leaders turned away from Europe and its political and technological advances. Portugal's economy battened on the colonies, rather than developing through competition with other European countries. Because Portugal was too small a country to defend its extensive possessions, much of the empire was soon lost. Even into the second half of the twentieth century, however, enough of the empire remained that Portugal continued to exist somewhat outside the world economy. The colonies provided the mainland with foodstuffs and raw materials and were a captive market for low-quality Portuguese manufactures.

Between 1936 and 1974 Portugal lived under a right wing dictatorial regime characterized by suppression of dissent and local government growth, isolated from the European mainstream and drawing on natural resources of African colonies. Since Salazar's time a group of perhaps 40 families who control most of the country's wealth had played a decisive role in the exercise of political power. Their position derived from their control of the economy, ownership of news media, representation in the legislative bodies, and their close connection with top government officials. Consequently, government policy reflected the conservative political, economic, and social views of this group.

Helena Sousa observed that "Due to its recent political history and economic/social underdevelopment, Portugal has not been properly studied in the Western European context. Portugal could not be understood within the general framework of the less developed countries (LDCs) neither within the framework of the modern industrialised societies. Portugal was a colonial power until 1974 and its politics and institutions were fundamentally different from those of the LDCs. At the same time, Portugal was not an industrial society and, in this sense, it could not be integrated in the so-called advanced industrial societies.... Indeed, Portugal was simultaneously the centre of its colonial empire and the periphery of Europe."

A greater threat to the long-term well-being of the Portuguese people than the country's backward economy, however, was the state of its social and political institutions. Long ruled by a tiny oligarchy supported by the military and a rigid authoritarian church untouched by the Reformation, the mass of the Portuguese population was passive and ignorant. The nation's wealth was reserved for a few, most of whom lived in Lisbon. The small middle class was docile and without experience in government.

The new government that came to power after the Carnation Revolution of 1974 began a wave of nationalizations of banks and large businesses. Because the banks were often holding companies, the government came after a time to own almost all the country's newspapers, insurance companies, hotels, construction companies and many other kinds of businesses, so that its share of the country's gross national product (GNP) amounted to 70 percent. Political instability dominated the late 1970s and early 1980s as successive governments unsuccessfully tried to tackle Portugal's economic woes.

Portugal needed a well-trained work force in order to fare well in an increasingly competitive world economy. More Portuguese were being educated than ever before, even at the university level, which long had been reserved for a tiny elite. It was estimated, however, that in the early 1990s up to 20 percent of Portuguese over the age of fifteen were illiterate. This illiteracy rate represented a striking improvement over the 1930 rate of 68 percent but was still much higher than the European average. Even at the beginning of the 1990s, most Portuguese had had only five or six years of schooling, and the percentage of children attending school beyond the sixth grade was below the EC average by a wide margin. Morale in the teaching profession was also very low because teachers, like most state employees, were very poorly paid. EC financial transfers to Portugal to raise the standards of the country's education were significant, but much remained to be done before Portuguese schooling corresponded to that of other West European countries.

The severity of the education system's problems was matched by the serious problems found throughout Portugal's social welfare and health systems. A comprehensive social welfare system had been established by law in the second half of the 1970s but never fully realized, and benefit payments and pensions were set at a very low level. Significant progress had been made in reducing infant mortality and dealing with some other health problems, but public health care was not generally up to West European standards. The country's backwardness when measured against the rest of the EC, with the exception of Greece, was striking and could be seen as a legacy of Portugal's long isolation from Europe and the repression of the Salazar regime.

Given the advance made in the two decades after 1974, however, Portuguese had reasons to rejoice. Poverty remained, especially in rural areas, and housing was frequently inadequate, but the population as a whole lived better than ever before. The traditional necessity to emigrate to find employment that had forced millions of Portuguese to leave their country, especially in the 1960s when Paris became the second largest Portuguese city, had lessened greatly. Many Portuguese could now find employment at home, if not in rural regions where emigration was still the rule, then along the coasts where most Portuguese had come to live. The improved economy also gave young Portuguese a greater choice in occupations and a chance for social mobility.

A modernizing society also presented Portuguese with opportunities for a better life. Portuguese society was more varied than it had been during the Salazar period. The free media brought the outside world to the Portuguese and engendered a greater liberality in how people lived. Divorce was permitted in the old regime, but abortion not legalized until 1984, despite the opposition of the Roman Catholic Church, which had become less influential. More Portuguese women worked outside the home. If professional opportunities were not yet as great as those enjoyed by women in Northern Europe, Portuguese women were freer than their mothers. Until 1969, for example, Portuguese women who were not heads of households had to have the permission of their husbands or male relatives to obtain passports. In the new Portugal, in contrast, a government agency existed with the purpose of preventing discrimination against women.

By 2009 Portugal's population of 11 million had a literacy rate of 93% (eight points higher than in 1990); Portuguese GDP had climbed from 42% of the EU average in 1960 to 77%; but only about one-third to one-half of Portuguese were internet users (in most EU countries this figure is over 50%), and one survey put "digital illiteracy" rate at 54%. The Portuguese were becoming better educated, wealthier, and more interested in and linked to the world around them. The greatest achievement of the Portuguese people since 1974, however, and the one which had allowed and encouraged other positive developments and permitted confidence about the future, was the consolidation of a system of parliamentary democracy, the first successful such system in the country's history. It was hoped that a modern political system responsive to the people's needs would allow the Portuguese to prepare for the new century in a united Europe.

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Page last modified: 10-03-2016 20:02:27 ZULU