Focus on Portugal: Was António de Oliveira Salazar an autocrat or a dictator? Tyrant or protector? It’s complicated.

Photo credit

To put it mildly, the legacy of António de Oliveira Salazar is open to a variety of interpretations.

António de Oliveira Salazar GCSE, GCIC, GCTE, GColIH (28 April 1889 – 27 July 1970) was a Portuguese politician and economist who served as Prime Minister of Portugal for 36 years, from 1932 to 1968. Salazar founded and led the Estado Novo (“New State”), the corporatist authoritarian government that ruled Portugal until 1974.

Just 11 years ago — a full 37 years following Salazar’s death — he was declared “the greatest Portuguese who ever lived,” albeit in non-scientific voting conducted by a television show.

Nostalgia for António de Oliveira Salazar divides the Portuguese, by Dan Bilefsky (NYT)

SANTA COMBA DÃO, Portugal — When the Portuguese recently voted the former dictator António de Oliveira Salazar “the greatest Portuguese who ever lived” in a television show – passing over the most celebrated kings, poets and explorers in the nation’s thousand-year history – the broadcaster RTP braced itself for a strong reaction. But what ensued resembled a national identity crisis …

… Whatever the intrigue behind the voting, Fernando Dacosta, a biographer of Salazar, calls his victory the “Portuguese revenge” for disillusionment with the revolution of April 25, 1974, which overthrew the dictatorship but failed to deliver on its own promises. Today, Portugal is the poorest country in Western Europe, and its recent history is marred by corruption scandals.

“The Portuguese don’t want to have Salazar back from the dead,” says Dacosta, who was jailed several times as a student during the Salazar regime. “But they miss the dream they had in the past about a future that never came.”

He said nostalgia for Salazar also reflected the “saudade,” or longing, of the Portuguese soul, a melancholy, he noted, that is present in most things Portuguese like the existential angst of fado music.

There isn’t much to be found in terms of English-language video documentaries about Salazar and the era of his preeminence. However, the films of Susana de Sousa Dias (including 48) strike me as a must-view.

48 (the title refers to the period of the dictatorship between 1926 and 1974) is perhaps the most radical response to this challenge, in that it offers nothing else but still images of faces and recordings of voices of those who were imprisoned by the regime. Mugshots taken on the moment of capture are accompanied by testimonies of survivors, relating their experience of the brutalities they endured in prison and the insidious system of oppression that kept the dictatorship in place for so long. But De Sousa Dias also manages to reframe and displace the meaning of these images by transforming what were originally small, generic images, useful for identifying enemies of the regime, into large-scale portraits that accentuate the dignity and shared humanity of these women and men whose name and age remain unknown to us.

During Salazar’s 36 years as prime minister, he theoretically served at the discretion of the president. Reality was different, but in 1958 there was a presidential election with an opposition candidate, a military man named Humberto Delgado, seeking the office on a succinct platform.

After declaring his candidacy in the 1958 presidential election, Gen. Delgado was asked what he would do with Salazar if he became president. “Obviously, I’ll sack him,” was his reply.

The election was fixed, and Delgado lost. In 1965, he was murdered, and there wasn’t much opposition to Salazar (and his successor) until the Carnation Revolution in 1974.