Daily Planet Correspondent
On Tuesday afternoon, the University of California awarded the Berkeley Medal to a democratic leader and activist of such high repute that – and this is the amazing part here – not a single protester interrupted a minute of his speech.
Dr. Mario Soares, president of Portugal from 1986 to 1996 and a vocal advocate of democracy during Portugal’s four decades under the boot of Antonio de Salazar’s totalitarian regime (1932-74), garnered the University’s highest honor.
Speaking in his native Portuguese through a translator (though a very large portion of the 100-plus in attendance probably did not require the translator’s services), Soares talked of Portugal, the European Union and, the subject he is most identified with, democracy. “In Portugal, it was not easy to consolidate into a plurality, Western-style democracy, particularly after a dictatorship that lasted nearly half a century,” recalled Soares of the days and weeks following the 1974 coup that ousted Salazar and led to a democratic government. “At the time, Portugal was exhausted after 13 years of colonial wars in Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Mozambique. The majority of the Portuguese population accepted the need to negotiate peace and acknowledge the rights of all colonies to self-determination and independence.”
Things would not get any easier for the then-Minister of Foreign Affairs. Nearly a million people fled back to Portugal from the colonies, upsetting an already delicate situation. The military attempted to wrest away control of the state. As Secretary General of the Portuguese Socialist Party, Soares helped resist the military’s aims and was one of the authors of Portugal’s constitution, which was ratified by popular vote.
“During the revolutionary climate, immediately after the dictatorship, the Portuguese state came very close to disintegrating into anarchy, a civil war,” recalled Soares, a former defense attorney for political prisoners who was arrested 12 times during the Salazar years and even exiled in 1968. “The forced return of almost a million citizens from the colonies, often in states of panic, made the situation even more dramatic. In order to consolidate democracy and guarantee development, the most logical solution seemed to be integration into the European Community.”
After eight years of negotiations, Portugal – along with its Iberian neighbor, Spain – was admitted to the European Community on June 12, 1985. In ’86, Soares became the first civilian to be directly elected president by the Portuguese people. He won a second term in 1991, scooping up over 70 percent of the vote. Since his second term expired in ’96 he has served on Portugal’s Council of State and as a member of the European Parliament.
Soares repeatedly stressed his belief in the importance of the European Union, a “political, social, cultural and environmental entity, and, above and beyond that, an economic and monetary unit as well.” Now comprised of 15 member states, the EU is considering an augmentation that could push its membership to 29 nations. Soares saw both positive and negative sides to growth.
“(The EU’s) decision-making process is already slow and difficult. What would it be like with 28 members?” wondered Soares. “Revision is necessary.”
But despite the EU’s shortcomings, Soares felt that only a strong, united political entity could deal with growing problems of “xenophobia, racism, organized crime, drug trafficking,” and the dilemma of how to cope with large numbers of immigrants inundating Europe from the east and south.
“These people are in search of a better condition of living,” said the former president. “They often end up confined to social ghettoes confronted with linguistic and cultural problems that are difficult to solve. The aim of any serious policy on immigration is integration (and) societal integration is truly a complex issue. The European Union has rejected the idea of making Europe a fortress, closed and insensitive to the needs of its neighbors.”
In order, then, to admit poorer nations to the EU, Soares emphasized the importance of the EU aiding these countries financially, much as Portugal receives a yearly grant that won’t run out until the year 2006. When questioned by an audience member about how providing aid to other countries will affect Portugal, Soares replied that his homeland would have to take one for the team.
“Of course those of us receiving funds will have to sacrifice something,” said the leader. “We can’t keep it all for ourselves. We can’t be selfish. (The EU) doesn’t follow the American model of keeping everything for yourself and making a buck as fast as you can. Portugal has benefited greatly (financially), and will until 2006. I think others should as well.”