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Disintegrating Portugal: An Interview with Mário Soares

What we want is to become the party of the working class, to win over all the workers. If we’re forced into civil war against the Communists, we’ll resist on our own: without any help from the forces of reaction. Besides, I wouldn’t count excessively on help from the reactionary side. Rightists don’t love us. And should the right move in against the Communists, it will move in against us too. But not with a third barricade: with a rightist coup. In substance: I fear a rightist golpe more than civil war. In Portugal today there is a very grave danger of a rightist golpe. And while last May the Communist threat loomed largest on my horizon, today it is the fascist one that does.

O.F.: As the proverb has it: while two fight, the third exults.

M.S.: That isn’t the case, because the excuse for such a coup isn’t offered by the contest between us and the Communists. It’s the Communists themselves that offer it. It’s they that have pushed, and are pushing, large masses of the population into the waiting arms of the reaction. People have started to say: “If this battle has to take place, it might be better to have a strong right-wing government.” You hear it at all levels. You’ve only to listen to your taxi driver or stop at a streetcorner group. People are discontented, sometimes desperate and frightened of the Communists. Cunhal even manages to frighten the workers. Add to this the repatriation of the Portuguese from Angola. They’re a bitter, if not actually reactionary, force. They’re a force the reaction can easily manipulate. Because they’ve lost everything and want a scapegoat. In that state of mind, they’re coming back to a country in the throes of social and economic upheaval, half destroyed by anarchy. Some of them are already getting organized.

O.F.: And it’s too late to attempt any remedy, isn’t it?

M.S.: It’s never too late to save oneself, if one wants to. We Socialists keep on fighting. Certainly, if we lose, it’s a catastrophe. If we can’t manage to agree on a left-wing government, to solve the workers’ problems as soon as possible, to establish bridges with Europe, to start the economic machine working again, I tell you that in two months from now…. Yes, within two months discontent will have reached such heights that it’ll be as easy as pie for the right to stage a counterrevolution.

O.F.: Only two months?

M.S.: Yes, only two months. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Portuguese officers are preparing themselves in France, on the frontiers with Spain, maybe even here in Portugal itself. In the streets of Lisbon, yesterday, they were distributing pamphlets extolling Spínola. But a month ago, that would have been impossible: the people wouldn’t have allowed it. Today, the people accept it. They seized the pamphlet and read it. I’ve even told Costa Gomes about it. He said he already knew.

O.F.: There’s some resemblance to the last months of the Allende government in Chile.

M.S.: I’d say the Weimar Republic was a better comparison. Aren’t we too bearing the consequences of a colonial war, of a defeat? When we arrived on the scene, it was already too late: the army had collapsed. And it’s significant how this army, formerly an army of occupation, is now identifying itself with the [African] liberation forces. A sort of psychoanalytical phenomenon. Not only have the Portuguese army men forgotten that it was they that occupied the colonies and carried out reprisals: they even consider themselves in the guise of liberators. In psychoanalytic jargon this is defined as “a transference by the man who is defeated but won’t recognize it, identifying himself with the victor.” The same thing happened in Germany after the First World War: the German army refused to acknowledge its defeat and the social consequences thereof. Socialists, Communists, and Social Democrats, they all contributed immensely to the Nazi seizure of power. And they only realized this fact when they all met one another in the concentration camps.

O.F.: So the so-called revolution has failed?

M.S.: Not yet. Or better: I wouldn’t say it has failed but that it threatens to fail. At least, it’s compromised. Also, above all, because the Communists refused to understand that it had to be carried out with endless caution. Without forgetting, for instance, that the peasants in the north either own the land or are tenant farmers, not laborers. Or that, besides an important working class, there also exist an infinite number of minor civil servants and small landlords. Or that Portugal is a country with a European culture and education, that the Portuguese feel themselves European, that one million Portuguese work in the countries of the EEC, that we depend on Europe for 80 percent of our trade. Patience was required. Nationalization should have been undertaken gradually, so as not to awaken hostility in Europe. Instead, what has been done? The way has been left open to demagogy, the middle and lower bourgeoisie has been angered, those who offered their support have been frightened away, and the Church, seemingly well-disposed toward us, has been pushed into the opposition. An enormous potential has been wasted and the risk of a Pinochet nurtured.

O.F.: Are you alluding to Spínola?

M.S.: No. Spínola…. You know, I don’t like to talk about Spínola. For several reasons. I believe he committed serious mistakes, yes, stupid mistakes. And I think that maybe he’s one of those responsible for what happened after he left. Or, at least, responsible for part of the trouble that followed his departure. Because he tried to force events and because, blatantly, he made the attempt without being in possession of the required strength or ideas. Spínola was a deviation from revolutionary legitimacy. A deviation to the right. For instance, he wanted to set limits to the revolution and didn’t realize how impossible that was. However, especially on the part of the Communists, several lies have also been told about him. What I mean is: if there exists such a thing as revolutionary legitimacy, and there can be no doubt that there does, if said revolutionary legitimacy is represented by the MFA and is impersonated by its officers, then one can’t deny Spínola belonged to it. For better or for worse, in the beginning, he represented something too. That’s why I don’t like to discuss him. That’s why I prefer to say he made mistakes. And that he did is undeniable: for instance, he took for Maoists some democrats who are sincerely democratic. He also made more serious declarations: mistakenly. He was mistaken in many things, sometimes vociferously. But then, he’s not a brainy man.

O.F.: So you don’t think he’ll be the Pinochet?

M.S.: No, I don’t think so.

O.F.: I find it strange that you should attribute so little importance to him.

M.S.: Because, I repeat, I don’t believe in Spínola. I don’t believe in Spínola’s star, even if he still has some charisma in Portugal. Of course, I may be mistaken. Wasn’t I mistaken in Gonçalves, at the beginning? However, it doesn’t seem to me that Spínola is the man the right is staking its chances on.

O.F.: You know, of course, what people say about you and Spínola. They say you have mutual contacts, albeit indirectly. They say a meeting in Paris is scheduled between you….

M.S.: I know, I know. Every day, the national news agency, completely under Communist control, emits short communiqués to state, in one way or another, that I have contacts with Spínola. All stupid lies, and I find it a nuisance to have to keep on repeating that I have no contacts whatever with Spínola. I don’t want any contact with Spínola. Nobody in my party has any. I don’t want, we don’t want, anything to do with Spínola.

O.F.: But, if we exclude Spínola, then where is the Pinochet among these army men who consistently reiterate their leftist sympathies? M.S.: I’ve the answer ready. Two months before Allende’s death, I was invited to visit Chile. And when Allende received me, Pinochet was there, in the same room. Yes, he was there. He was there…and nobody knew it was Pinochet. He belonged to the group of Allende’s officers, to the staff of Allende’s military advisers, and smiled along with the others. And nobody knew he was Pinochet, although his name was Pinochet. Dreadful. Yes, dreadful….

O.F.: One thing is certain: whoever visits Portugal is immediately pervaded with the feeling that all this business must end in tragedy.

M.S.: Let’s hope not, because I’m not cut out for tragedy at all. I’m a peaceful man, fond of life, and I don’t even know how to shoot. One hears that the whole country is armed to the teeth, but I, believe me, don’t even own a popgun. Neither at home nor elsewhere. Because I believe my weapon is the fountain pen, and because I don’t know how to shoot and don’t want to learn.

O.F.: So you wouldn’t take part in an armed contest if it became necessary?

M.S.: Shooting?

O.F.: Of course, shooting too, if necessary.

M.S.: Who? Me?! Oh, no. Never. Jamais! Jamais de la vie! I tell you I’ve never touched a trigger in my whole life. I’ve never picked up a pistol, a rifle. I’ve never hunted. Nobody ever has in my family, not even my father. I’ve never done any military service! When I was called up I was so thin and so ill with asthma that my father found it easy to get me exempted. Besides, I don’t believe Cunhal has ever done military service either, I really believe he hasn’t. As for me, look, I’d rather die than shoot anyone. I can’t even imagine killing or wounding anyone. Were I to kill someone in a car accident, it would be a psychological disaster for me. When I was practicing law and had to defend someone who was guilty, willingly or unwillingly, of a killing, I always used to ask myself the question: what if it were to happen to me? My conclusion was: I’d go mad.

O.F.: So, were fascism to return to Portugal, you wouldn’t even resort to a small bomb?

M.S.: Let me think. There: I’d place the bomb on condition it didn’t kill or wound anyone. For instance, I might set it to go off in an empty, uninhabited building. If I knew someone was likely to pass by, I wouldn’t put it there. Never. Not even in self-defense. If anyone wanted to kill me, I’d never defend myself by killing him. I’d let him kill me instead.

O.F.: The subject is topical because I know you receive death threats all the time.

M.S.: Yes, every day. The phone rings, I answer and a voice croaks: “Soares, you’re about to be killed.” Or else: “Soares, today you’re going to die.” And I answer: “Okay.” Besides, of what use is it to be afraid, to hide, to walk about armed or with a bodyguard? When a powerful organization wants to eliminate someone, it always succeeds. Even if the person is well protected. Think of the two Kennedys. To conclude: I prefer to carry on with my normal life, walk about alone and not worry. Fear is stupid. It is humiliating. I reject it. The fact is, I can’t manage to feel afraid. I never have. The other day, an Angola refugee attacked me in the street. I was with comrade Zenha. The man jumped at me shouting: “Why did you sell Angola to the blacks?” I gave him a push out of the way and answered: “If you question me politely, I’ll explain that I’ve never sold anyone anything.” The he jumped me again and I had to shove him off once more and…. You know, I’m one of the few that still sleep in their own homes. In Lisbon, nowadays, many are the people who change addresses every night. For fear of terrorism, for fear of arrest…. What I say is: if they want to arrest me, they know where to find me. And if they do arrest me, they’ll have to explain why. In any case, it’s better than running away.

O.F.: Now I see what it is.

M.S.: What?

O.F.: Your irritating placidity. It’s sang-froid. In other words: courage.

M.S.: It’s you that wrote I was soft.

O.F.: It’s true. I’m sorry.

M.S.: Don’t mind too much. So many believe the same. Owing to my face. My heavy eyelids, my falling cheeks. A friend of mine who’s a sculptor once decided to do a bust of me. It took him ages. He kept carving and chipping away. Then he said: “There’s a problem. You have a common face, meaning it might be anyone’s, and your features are soft, although you aren’t soft.” Telling you this, I don’t want to imply I’m tough. I’m not tough, even if I sometimes give way to sinister rages. But I’m not a man to surrender either, or one that succumbs to fright. While in prison, I was never discouraged.

O.F.: And today you are?

M.S.: It’s one thing never to lose hope, and another not to delude oneself. And even when one does not nurture illusions, one may still feel hopeful. Certainly, to cultivate hope, one must fight.

O.F.: Like the Englishman who punched the Irishman?

M.S.: I don’t know if I really pulled that punch.

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