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Disintegrating Portugal: An Interview with Mário Soares

To use your metaphor: the Irishman is now floored. Floored, however, in a position compromising him in the eyes of the country and international public opinion, and he’s got to choose in that dilemma: whether to play the game according to the rules of democracy or to seize power by force. I fear Cunhal is incapable of submitting to the rules of the democratic game. His strategy would become incomprehensible, demented, if his objective hadn’t always been the seizure of power by force. And the seizure of power by force can mean only one thing: an armed confrontation, civil war. We don’t want civil war. Nor does Melo Antunes’s group, the majority, that is, of the MFA. But if the Communists throw all caution to the winds and launch themselves….

O.F.: With what results? A few minutes ago you said that would signify, at most, a passing success for the Communists.

M.S.: Gonçalves can only command the services of Communist or pro-Communist generals like Corvacho, the overlord of the northern garrisons, but he can’t rely on their troops. Just a short time ago, the troops under Corvacho’s command refused to shoot and agreed to take part in maneuvers on condition their rifles were only armed with blanks. Our soldiers, the majority of them, aren’t Communist. And soldiers, recruits, represent the people. They are the people. There do exist Communist cells among the soldiers and, as we know, Communist cells are subject to strong discipline. But is that enough to influence a whole regiment, a whole division? Most of the officers in the army are on the side of Melo Antunes, as we’ve seen, and the air force too, thanks to its chief, Moraes e Silva. All Gonçalves has left is the navy with its marines. The marines are an elite, true, but few in number. Cunhal asserts he can count on an armed people’s militia, especially in Lisbon. Let’s admit they are strong and energetic and add them to the troops of the Fifth Division, which is Communist: the forces in the field are still quite unequal. Gonçalves might score that passing success in Lisbon. But what then? I keep on naming Gonçalves, not Cunhal, because the decision to embark on such an adventure rests with Gonçalves. All Cunhal does is to tune him up, nothing more.

O F.: What kind of man is Gonçalves?

M.S.: Oh, not unattractive, you know. Not at all. He attracts sympathy in fact, because he’s an idealist. He’s sincere. He really believes in what he’s doing, albeit naïvely. Certainly, he’s a man who abandons himself to excesses, but in human contacts he’s shy. In the cabinet, for instance, I’ve never had a quarrel with him: he was always ready to search for a compromise, an agreement. He shows firmness only when faced with a crowd, in an emergency and with Cunhal beside him.

O.F.: What about Melo Antunes?

M.S.: Oh, he’s not an army man: he’s a politician. At most, an intellectual army man. He has great political flair, he’s the most intelligent of the lot; and he’s morally strong too. He didn’t wait until April 25 to declare himself against fascism. In 1969, he stood as candidate in the elections, defying Caetano. I’ve known him since then, we’ve been friends since then. And, although there exists no alliance between the Socialist Party and the Group of Nine, between Melo Antunes and me, I must admit that our programs coincide completely. Melo Antunes is fully aware that the PSP is on his side.

O.F.: And the new prime minister, Admiral Pinheiro de Azevedo?

M.S.: Very direct, very frank, very emotional. Too emotional. In Portugal men like him are described as having their hearts in their mouths. The kind of man, in one word, who is even too open in expressing his thoughts. He believes himself very strong, from a military viewpoint too, and he says so. But we’ll have to see whether he isn’t deluding himself. He’s certainly not cut out for politics. Among other reasons, because, as an army man, he finds it difficult to listen to anyone else’s point of view. Ideologically speaking, he asserts he belongs between the Socialists and the Communists. What he means, exactly, I don’t know. So it’s hard to guess how things will develop with him.

O.F.: And President Costa Gomes?

M.S.: You’ve named our great problem, our greatest question mark: Costa Gomes. What’s Costa Gomes’s position? Who is Costa Gomes, really? To begin with, he’s not a proper army man: in the army he was an engineer with colonel’s rank. He was promoted to brigadier during the revolution. So he hasn’t an army following like Gonçalves and Otelo and Antunes, nevertheless his word carries authority in military circles. He has had a lot of human experience in the army: he knows how to deal with soldiers. Costa Gomes is a mathematics graduate: what game is he playing? At first sight, he has made a lot of concessions to the Communists, and he’s still doing so. However, he has always spoken a different language, very different from the Communists’ and from Gonçalves’s. The only sure thing about Costa Gomes is that he appears obsessed by the idea of an armed confrontation and that he wants to avoid it. He’s doing everything to avoid it and….

O.F.: But what are you doing to avoid it?

M.S.: There’s only one thing to be done: dissuade Gonçalves and Cunhal. I, for instance, am attempting to dissuade Cunhal by organizing that meeting of European Socialists and Communists. Because, you see, after the recent events in the north, the campaign for solidarity with the Communists of Portugal has grown stronger, especially in European countries. Thanks to the French Communist Party that launched the campaign. Well, international solidarity is a fine thing, but it becomes debatable if it’s based on mistaken premises, the wrong information. We have to explain to the European Communist and Socialist parties what this Portuguese revolution consists in and how diabolical, unconsidered in fact, is the Portuguese Communist Party’s strategy. None of the other European Communist parties, the Italian, the Spanish, or the French, has ever contemplated the possibility of sinking the government, destroying the economy, causing total chaos in the country in order to achieve a Communist dictatorship. On the contrary, and the Italian Communist Party is the most striking example, they believe it is only within the framework of advanced capitalism that it is possible to build a democracy launched on the path toward a socialist society. To attain socialism, that is, one mustn’t destroy the existing democratic state: one mustn’t, and can’t, sacrifice the political democracy and freedom that are socialism’s ultimate goals. Even if it’s a bourgeois style of freedom, as Cunhal says. The problem is by no means theoretical, and, so far as Europe is concerned, is of interest to at least four countries: Italy, Spain, France, and Portugal. If the Communist parties of these four countries manage to convince Cunhal of the usefulness of a meeting, they may also be able to convince him of the necessity of refraining from launching himself into civil war.

O.F.: Soares, how far do you believe in the possibility of avoiding civil war?

M.S.: The Portuguese are very different from the Spanish. They are more conciliating, more compliant. They’re not bloodthirsty. If all this had happened in Spain, civil war would already have broken out. However, we’re not saints either, and there are already signs that our pacifism is crumbling. All those cars, army vehicles or civilian, loaded with munitions that are being discovered daily. All those episodes of violence. And at the point we’ve reached in the conflict with the Communists, in view of the situation in which the country has precipitated….

O.F.: Are you alluding to the anarchy upsetting Portugal?

M.S.: Yes. I’ll give you two examples. The other day there was a demonstration against sending troops to Angola staged by the army itself. Yesterday, I walked into a hotel and saw five or six young military policemen, you know, the ones that wear mimetic battledress. They surrounded me and said: “Mr. Soares, have you heard that the other day we nearly killed the prime minister?” Open-mouthed, I could only utter: “What? How? When?” They explained: “Yes, indeed. We were at the demonstration and Gonçalves appeared in his limousine with a motorcycle escort driving to Belém. We hurled ourselves on the motorcyclists and then on Gonçalves’s car. We started kicking its sides to get the doors open and we’d nearly succeeded when the driver, swinging the wheel, managed to escape.” When I reported this to Costa Gomes, he answered: “Yes, I had heard about it. It’s very serious.” Second example. The day before yesterday, the Bank of Angola was occupied by refugees who wanted to change their Angolan escudos for Portuguese escudos. “We’ve been robbed! We want our money back!” they were shouting. The army managed to clear out the premises and next morning the president of the republic, satisfied, told us how successful the operation had been. He was still congratulating himself when the phone rang: the bank had been occupied again. A mass of refugees had poured in as soon as the doors opened for business and this time they were even talking of sleeping there.

O.F.: But civil war requires two sides of the barricade, not three to man it. And against Gonçalves’s and Cunhal’s Communists there aren’t only Soares’s and Melo Antunes’s Socialists. There are Otelo’s radicals too. At the same time, Otelo isn’t at all on the side of Soares and Melo Antunes, so that…

M.S.: I think Otelo is a democrat and a revolutionary. Maybe he’s influenced by the extreme left, but he isn’t being used by anyone. It’s true he changes opinions rather often and voices somewhat original ideas. You’ve only to think of what he said on his return from Cuba or his language to American ambassador Carlucci, when he accused him of being a CIA agent. I was foreign minister at the time, and I alone know what trouble that utterance caused. Nobody could ascribe the gift of diplomacy to Otelo. However, words are but words and he must be forgiven some of his rather emphatic attitudes: the fact remains that he is capable of filling a very important role in Portugal. And, should an armed conflict occur, he wouldn’t be the third barricade.

O.F.: What about the fascists then? Let’s say civil war breaks out between Socialists and Communists, with Otelo on the Socialists’ side. If the fascists move in against the Communists too, you’ll find yourselves fighting side by side with them. What’ll you do in that case?

M.S.: That’s exactly what Cunhal has in mind when he attempts to throw us into the arms of the reaction. We won’t fall into the trap because we’re a left-wing force. We’re a left-wing party and we may even have some connection with the extreme left. With Intersindical and the Maoists, for instance. That doesn’t solve that complicated and terrifying menace. But that’s one more reason why we wish to prevent civil war. And, while it is true that every day there are fresh rumors according to which Spínola is Soares’s ally, it is equally true that Soares will have none of any such alliances. No Socialist wants them.

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