Soares, Who Helped Forge Portugal’s Democracy, Dies at 92

(Bloomberg) -- Mario Soares, the prime minister who helped consolidate Portugal’s transition to democracy and became the first freely elected premier after a revolution ended almost five decades of dictatorship, has died. He was 92.

Soares died Saturday, said Jose Barata, a spokesman for the Red Cross Hospital in Lisbon. Portugal’s former prime minister and president entered the hospital on Dec. 13, 2016, according to Barata.

“The loss of Soares is the loss of someone who is irreplaceable in our recent history, we owe him a lot,” Prime Minister Antonio Costa said from New Delhi, where he is on a state visit. The government declared three days of mourning starting Monday, with a state funeral planned, Costa said in comments broadcast by television station SIC Noticias.

Soares, who was arrested a dozen times in his fight against Antonio de Oliveira Salazar’s dictatorship, returned from exile in Paris after the 1974 Carnation Revolution. That year, he was appointed foreign minister in a provisional government and was in charge of negotiating the independence of Portugal’s overseas colonies. A co-founder of the moderate Socialist Party, Soares is also credited with helping counter the Communist Party’s attempt to win more power after the almost bloodless revolution.

“I certainly don’t want to be a Kerensky,” Soares said in a discussion with Henry Kissinger, then U.S. secretary of state, referring to the moderate Russian socialist Alexander Kerensky who had to flee after the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917.

“Neither did Kerensky,” replied Kissinger, who was concerned that the communists would take power, according to an account of the conversation published in 1997 in the Journal of Democracy.

In 1976, Soares’s Socialist Party won the country’s first free elections after the revolution and he became prime minister. In 1983, he was elected premier again and helped negotiate Portugal’s entry into the European Economic Community, a predecessor of the European Union. He served as president from 1986 to 1996.

‘Historical Role’

“Mario Soares challenged all the big proposals and power situations of his time,” Rui Ramos, a Portuguese historian, said. “That was the historical role of this man of letters and lawyer from downtown Lisbon.”

Soares remained an active voice in Portuguese politics after leaving office, often critical of austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund and European Union after Portugal sought a bailout in 2011.

“The troika doesn’t give us anything. It grants loans with very high interest rates,” Soares, who also requested aid from the IMF after becoming prime minister in 1983, said in a an article published on his foundation’s website.

Mario Alberto Nobre Lopes Soares was born Dec. 7, 1924, in Lisbon, the son of Joao Soares and Elisa Nobre Baptista. His father, the founder of a school and a former minister, endured periods of imprisonment and exile under the Salazar dictatorship, according to a New York Times profile in 1983.

Soares obtained a degree in history and philosophy and a law degree at the University of Lisbon before founding the Socialist Party.

While in prison in 1949, he married Maria Barroso, a leading actress, according to the Times profile. She died in 2015. They had a son, Joao Soares, a former minister of culture and Lisbon mayor, and a daughter, Isabel Soares, a psychologist and school director.

© REUTERS/Rafael Marchante/File Photo FILE PHOTO: Portugal's former President and PM Soares is seen during an interview with Reuters in Lisbon
Mário Soares Dies at 92; Guided Portugal’s Shift to Democracy

Mário Soares, the pugnacious Socialist leader who guided Portugal’s rocky transition to democracy in the 1970s after decades of dictatorship, died on Saturday in Lisbon. He was 92.

Mr. Soares died in the Red Cross hospital in Lisbon where he had been hospitalized since mid-December, according to José Barata, an official from the hospital. Mr. Barata did not specify an exact cause of death.

His death was confirmed by Portugal’s Socialist Party, The Associated Press reported. The party did not give further details.

Mr. Soares, a lawyer, was a relentless foe of the fascist government of Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar, who ruled Portugal for more than 40 years. He was later the central figure in Portuguese politics after Salazar’s successor, Marcello Caetano, was deposed in what became known as the Carnation Revolution of 1974.

In the course of his career, Mr. Soares (pronounced SWAH-esh) suffered years of imprisonment, exile and political defeat. He served twice as prime minister, only to watch his country’s first attempts at representative democracy fall apart amid bitter party feuds.

He fought his country’s economic isolation and efforts to drag the revolution down anti-democratic paths. He also oversaw the granting of independence to Portugal’s African colonies and the country’s integration into the European Economic Community, the precursor to the European Union.

Mr. Soares was an indefatigable political animal, always enthusiastically shaking hands, smiling and engaging with strangers even when he was not campaigning. He was known in Portugal as “sempre em pé,” or always on his feet, after the toy that bounces back whenever it is knocked down.

“There are victories and defeats in politics,” he said in 1986, “and what is necessary is to maintain your convictions, to keep battling.”

Mário Alberto Nobre Lopes Soares was born in Lisbon on Dec. 7, 1924. His father, João Lopes Soares, was an educator and a liberal republican government minister before Salazar came to power and later a fierce critic of the dictatorship, which jailed him numerous times.

Mr. Soares took to his father’s path early on. He was first arrested at 19 as a leader of the democratic opposition at the University of Lisbon, where he earned degrees in philosophy and history. He obtained his law degree at the Sorbonne in Paris and set up a practice in Lisbon defending political prisoners.

He gained recognition — and the scorn of the dictatorship — for his work representing the family of Gen. Humberto Delgado, a popular opposition leader who was mysteriously murdered. Mr. Soares pushed the case in international courts, implicating members of the Salazar police, but the government eventually shelved the investigation.

His support of self-determination for Portugal’s colonies earned him even more hostility from the regime. While running in a controlled legislative election in 1965, he called for an end to the colonial wars and for negotiations with African nationalists. While the state branded him a traitor, public opinion was already embracing his anticolonial views, and his popularity grew.

Mr. Soares started an underground Socialist movement after becoming disillusioned with the leadership of the Communist Party, then the only organized opposition in the country. He began a tour of Europe in 1967 to drum up support from other Socialists, but he was jailed on his return and, in March 1968, banished without trial to the remote equatorial island of São Tomé.

About six months later, Salazar became incapacitated after a stroke, and Caetano, his successor, initiated a slow political liberalization of the corporatist state. One of his first acts in 1968 was to authorize Mr. Soares’s return to Portugal. (Salazar died in 1970 at 81.)

Instead of retreating, Mr. Soares continued his crusade against the dictatorship and its colonial wars, and within a year he was sent into exile again, this time in Europe.

In France, he secured part-time teaching jobs at the Sorbonne and the University of Rennes. He kept a modest apartment on the Left Bank in Paris, where he wrote about his struggles against fascism and bolstered the opposition among immigrants and other exiles. He also consolidated his ties with other Socialist leaders and announced the creation of the Portuguese Socialist Party during a conference in West Germany in 1973.

By the time the dictatorship fell in the bloodless Carnation Revolution of 1974, Mr. Soares had been jailed 12 times — serving a total of three years — and had lived in exile for almost five years. (A former inmate was quoted as saying that even in prison the ebullient Mr. Soares “was always in a splendid mood and made us laugh.”) When he arrived by train in Lisbon from Paris after the revolt, he was mobbed by thousands of supporters.

He first served as foreign minister under the military-controlled civilian government and led the decolonization in Africa, ending years of war in Guinea-Bissau, Angola, Mozambique and other territories. But the government grew more radical under the influence of the Moscow-aligned Communist Party, prompting Mr. Soares to pull his party out of the coalition in 1975.

He organized street rallies and, with the help of a moderate military faction, ousted the pro-Communist prime minister, Vasco Gonçalves. Elections were called in 1976, and Mr. Soares won, making him the first constitutionally elected prime minister after the revolution.

“What we believe in,” he said after his victory, “is a socialism in liberty, neither dictatorship of the left nor dictatorship of the right.”

He served during a politically tumultuous period that saw coalitions form and dissolve. He was the head of two governments until 1979, and then of a third from 1983 to 1985.

In February 1986, Mr. Soares, a paunchy 61-year-old whom the right-wing opposition had called “Fat Cheeks,” became the first democratically elected civilian president since 1926, ending 60 years of military oversight. He was re-elected in 1991 and left office in 1996. He ran again for president in 2006 but finished third.

Mr. Soares was an ardent bibliophile, amassing huge collections of books that he admittedly did not have time to read. He was also a lover of Portuguese cuisine, especially cod and fresh sardines.

It was during a stint in prison in 1949 that Mr. Soares married Maria Barroso, one of Portugal’s leading actresses, whom he had met at the University of Lisbon. The prison wedding was a show of defiance that led to her being banned from the stage by the Salazar government.

In 1968, when Mr. Soares was banished to São Tomé, Ms. Barroso, a founding member of her husband’s Socialist Party, and their 15-year-old daughter, Isabel, joined about 100 supporters to see him off at Lisbon Airport and were badly beaten by the police. Ms. Barroso later founded a private school and was elected to the National Assembly before becoming first lady. She died in July 2015 at 90.

Mr. Soares was known for his quick-thinking debating skills and inspiring political oratory, though supporters, including former professors, and detractors alike said that dealing with practical details was not his strength. He preferred to focus on big ideas and grand plans.

He was also partial to the good life, owning a mountain house, a beach house and an apartment in Lisbon when he took office in 1986. At the time, he declined to move into Lisbon’s lavish presidential palace.

But his heart was with the people, his admirers said — a portrayal he embraced immediately after his election to the presidency. With thousands of supporters chanting his name in the early morning, he strode to the balcony of a mansion he was using as his headquarters and, in victory, shouted, “I am here to unite the Portuguese and not divide them!”

Mario Soares, Portuguese leader who restored democratic ideals, dies at 92

Mário Soares, who fought from jail and in exile against Portugal’s entrenched autocratic regime and whose principled approach as prime minister and later president made him the father of modern Portuguese democracy, died Saturday at a Lisbon hospital. He was 92.

His death was announced by Portugal’s Socialist Party, which he led. The cause was not disclosed.

Mr. Soares was the most significant Portuguese political figure of the past half-century, as his country emerged from a repressive dictatorship in the 1970s and began to embrace democratic ideals.

He was arrested a dozen times and endured periods of exile without standing trial — as his father had before him — while waging a sometimes-lonely campaign against the one-man rule of António de Oliveira Salazar, who controlled Portugal from 1932 until 1968, when he was debilitated by a stroke.

The remnants of Salazar’s regime were finally toppled in 1974 in a largely peaceful military coup known as the “Carnation Revolution,” after flowers were placed in the barrels of soldiers’ rifles.

Returned from exile in France, Mr. Soares made a triumphant return to Lisbon, where he was greeted by thousands of cheering supporters. He then set about restoring democracy to a country whose last civilian head of state had been forced out in 1926.

After the 1974 coup, Mr. Soares became foreign minister in a government led by moderate factions of the Portuguese military. Within a year, he dismantled his country’s treasury-draining group of African colonies, including Angola, Mozambique and present-day Guinea-Bissau.

There was little hope, however, that he or anyone else could guide Portugal back into the western cultural and political mainstream. U.S. diplomatic leaders, including then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, feared Portugal would become either a Soviet satellite on the Iberian peninsula or another military dictatorship.

“The Portuguese wonder whether the American people approve the policy of support for dictatorships,” Mr. Soares wrote in 1972. “Washington is mistaken if it believes that such a policy will foster a liberal evolution. The very opposite occurs: the dictatorship becomes tougher and surer of itself; the situation then becomes explosive as the moderate opposition turns radical.”

Kissinger reportedly offered to help find Mr. Soares an academic appointment in the United States to avoid a fate of exile — or worse. But Mr. Soares was determined to bring reform to Portugal, which was beset by a host of economic and social problems and was among the poorest countries in Europe.

During his years in France, Mr. Soares helped organize Portugal’s Socialist Party, with a center-left approach not unlike those of parties led by Willy Brandt in West Germany, Olof Palme in Sweden and Mr. Soares’s close friend François Mitterrand in France.

He called himself a socialist, but Mr. Soares was no Marxist. He opposed totalitarian tendencies by hard-liners of any stripe.

“The preaching of Communist doctrine was no revelation, nor did it delude me,” he said.

Some of his fiercest political enemies were members of Portugal’s Stalinist-leaning Communist Party. In 1975, Mr. Soares demanded the resignation of the country’s prime minister, Vasco Goncalves, concerned that his strong ties to the Communist Party could plunge Portugal back into an authoritarian state.

The following year, Mr. Soares ran for the office of prime minister himself. He campaigned with his daughter serving as his driver and bodyguard.

“What we believe in is socialism in liberty,” he said, “neither dictatorship of the left nor dictatorship of the right.”

After winning a plurality of the vote, Mr. Soares moved to strengthen ties with the United States and Western Europe and thwarted yet another attempted Communist military coup.

“If the coup had succeeded,” he told the New York Times, “I would have been dead or in jail or back in exile, so I’m glad it didn’t.”

He was in office for just 500 days. His government lost a vote of confidence in the parliament, in part because Mr. Soares refused to compromise with the Communists.

Portugal struggled through economic and political chaos during the next few years, until Mr. Soares returned to office as prime minister in 1983. He was succeeded two years later by the popular centrist Aníbal Cavaco Silva, as Portugal began to attain newfound stability.

In 1986, Mr. Soares was elected the country’s first civilian president in 60 years. He was instrumental in engineering Portugal’s entry into what is now the European Union and took a larger role on the international stage.

He was called on to help settle conflicts in the Middle East and across Latin America. He was, among other things, a friend of both Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

In 1991, Mr. Soares was reelected to a second five-year term as Portugal’s president, a largely ceremonial position. He later served in the European Parliament and in 2006 failed in a third bid for Portuguese president.

By then, however, his country had undergone an economic revival, and the democratic ideals he had advocated since his youth were firmly in place.

Mário Alberto Nobre Lopes Soares was born Dec. 7, 1924, in Lisbon. His father was a cabinet minister in Portugal’s First Republic, which lasted from 1910 to 1926. He later founded a private school in Lisbon.

The younger Mr. Soares was first jailed in the 1940s while studying at the University of Lisbon. He and his wife, actress Maria Barroso, were married at a Portuguese prison in 1949, while he was he was jailed for subversion.

After an oft-interrupted academic career, he graduated from the University of Lisbon in 1951, earning a law degree there in 1957 and later studying law at the Sorbonne in Paris. He opened a law office in Lisbon.

Often harassed for his political views, he was exiled in the 1960s to the remote Portuguese colony of São Tomé off the west coast of Africa. Mr. Soares was invited back to Portugal after Salazar, the longtime dictator, fell into a coma in 1968. Within two years, however, Mr. Soares fled to France, where he taught in various universities.

His wife died in 2015. Survivors include two children, Maria Isabel Soares and João Soares, a former mayor of Lisbon.

Mr. Soares was a noted bon vivant and bibliophile, with a taste for scotch and a personal library of more than 10,000 volumes.

The proper goal of any government, he said after being elected president in 1986, is to “concentrate our energies on the fight to eradicate poverty, ignorance and intolerance.”

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