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Mario Soares, Portugal's Beacon for Democracy

Mario Soares, Portugal's Beacon for Democracy

The former president of Portugal provides a model of vigilance in defense of freedom and devotion to the values of justice and human dignity.

Carl Gershman

In 1974, the year of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution, I became executive director of Social Democrats, USA (SD). Though we were a small organization, we were closely allied with the AFL-CIO, the major U.S. labor federation that was America’s de facto mass social democratic movement. Like the AFL-CIO, we supported democracy around the world and strongly opposed both communism and right-wing authoritarianism.

The mid-1970s were not a good time for democracy. The communists triumphed in Vietnam and Cambodia; military regimes had taken over throughout Latin America; Indira Gandhi had suspended democracy in India; and isolationism was on the rise in the United States. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said that democracy was where the world was, not where it was going.

Portugal emerged quite suddenly as the epicenter of the global struggle for freedom. When Mario Soares visited the State Department as Portugal’s new foreign minister in late 1974, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told him that Portugal was lost to the communists, and that Soares would be his country’s Kerensky—the hapless Russian Menshevik leader who was deposed by Lenin in the 1917 October Revolution. Soares protested that he didn’t want to be Kerensky. Kissinger shot back, “neither did Kerensky.”  

But Kissinger sent Frank Carlucci to Lisbon as U.S. ambassador to get the communists out of the Portuguese government and to keep them out. When Carlucci got on top of the evolving political situation in Portugal, he realized that Kissinger was too pessimistic. Carlucci advised Washington that the Socialist leader Mario Soares was “the only game in town,” leaving Kissinger to grumble to his staff: “Who sold me Carlucci as a tough guy?”

For our social democratic movement, the struggle for democracy in Portugal was a symbol of hope in a dark time. The fact that it was being led by Soares and the Portuguese Socialists increased our enthusiasm since, like them, we were fellow members of the Socialist International and committed to fighting communism as the foremost threat to democracy. 

During May and June of 1975, when the conflict between socialists and communists came to a head in Portugal, we organized three demonstrations in New York. The first immediately followed the May Day rally in Lisbon, when the socialists broke through communist barricades, shouting: “Socialism, yes! Dictatorship, no!” That was the slogan we, too, chanted as we marched from the Portuguese tourist office in midtown Manhattan to the Portuguese Consulate and UN Mission.  

Our subsequent demonstrations on May 22 and June 23 coincided with mass rallies in Portugal protesting the closing down of the independent newspaper Republica by the communists. Famed civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, our national chairman, read a statement calling for the immediate reopening of Republica, saying the Portuguese communists

have shown themselves to be totalitarians in the true Leninist tradition. The eyes of Americans and Europeans are now focused on Portugal.  If the Communists, aided by Moscow, behave in Portugal today as they behaved in Prague in 1948 and in Petrograd in 1917, socialists and other democrats throughout the world will draw the inevitable conclusions about communist objectives today.

We also issued an “Appeal for Democracy in Portugal,” signed by over 100 leading intellectuals and trade unionists, that was prominently displayed in The New York Times and other newspapers and periodicals. In January of 1976, not long after the abortive November 25 leftist coup that marked the defeat of the communists, Soares visited Washington and stopped at AFL-CIO headquarters. He came to see its secretary-treasurer, Lane Kirkland, a friend of mine and a strong supporter of the SD. Kirkland asked me to join the meeting. There, Soares invited me to visit Portugal. I did so a couple of months later, bringing along a $2,500 check for the Socialist Party from the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union.  

When Soares visited the United States in 1977, a year after he had been elected Portugal’s prime minister, the SD held a reception in his honor that was attended by over 400 Social Democrats, trade unionists, intellectuals, and UN ambassadors. It was a victory celebration for freedom and democracy in Portugal. I remember how warmly everyone cheered when Rustin told the gathering that 

after the fascists were overthrown and a new set of tyrants tried to snatch away from the Portuguese people the freedoms they had just won, it was Mario Soares who stood up to the communists and said, “There will be no Czechoslovakia here, there will be no Poland here. Socialism, yes! Dictatorship, no!”

In his remarks at the reception, Soares lauded the Portuguese people for resisting the communist threat. When the communists were “on the brink of occupying the whole state machinery,” he said, 

when they controlled the mass media and infiltrated the armed forces … and were on the brink of forming a new political police, it was the spontaneous resistance of the people who, as by a miracle, came out into the streets, and … in the factories, in the schools, and in the fields unanimously struggled to defend the threatened freedom…. 

“This was a spontaneous movement,” Soares continued, “since the Portuguese people had had the experience of fifty years of dictatorship and were not willing to return to a new dictatorship.” 

Soares praised the support that the Portuguese people had received from the world social democratic movement as the “greatest moral and political strength which exists in the world today.” Nevertheless, he was an increasingly rare anti-communist voice in the Socialist international, as Willy Brandt and other socialist leaders in Europe had adopted a neutralist position in East-West relations. A month before our SD reception, Soares told The New York Times that “we have shown that we are the only ones in Europe who have struggled with the Communists—and won.” Soares added that “between Soviet socialism and capitalism, I have no trouble choosing capitalism,” thereby aligning himself with Milovan Djilas, Leszek Kolakowski, and other anti-communist dissidents who had expressed the same view.

In 1987, after Soares had become Portugal’s president, and after I had become the leader of the fledgling National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in Washington, D.C., Soares made a surprise appearance at our first international conference, accompanied by Frank Carlucci, then the U.S. National Security Adviser under President Reagan. Soares felt right at home, saying that he could recognize in the gathering “a number of old friends, freedom fighters from a long time back who are still suffering under the throes of dictatorship” in the Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Chile, South Africa, and other countries. His message was powerful and direct: Those in Portugal, he said, “were engaged for thirty-two years in a long struggle against dictatorship,” and “have won our freedom.” But now, he believed that they needed to continue to wage that struggle “with determination. Wherever we do not have freedom and liberty, we must continue to fight for it.”

A decade later, when Soares had retired from public office after two terms as Portugal’s president, the NED’s International Forum for Democratic Studies joined with the new Mario Soares Foundation to organize a series of lectures on the future of democracy. The lecture by Samuel Huntington that launched the series was an important event in Portugal. Huntington had become well known there for his seminal study that identified the Carnation Revolution as the beginning of what he famously called the “third wave” of democratization, the largest expansion of democracy in human history. Huntington dramatically opened his lecture by drawing a breathtaking comparison between the inauguration of the age of discovery by Portuguese leaders and thinkers five centuries earlier and the actions of Mario Soares and his colleagues in inaugurating another “new phase in human history, the age of democracy.”

But is it true that the Carnation Revolution inaugurated an “age of democracy?” It may have seemed so in the late 1990’s, the period immediately after the Cold War that Charles Krauthammer called a “vacation from history.” Yet some of the lectures collected in The Democratic Invention saw dangers lurking ahead—for example, in the spread of globalization, which could exacerbate inequalities and introduce new divisions in the world, and even in the erosion of moral and cultural standards in the long-established democracies of the West, leading to conditions (so painfully evident in the United States today) of what Gertrude Himmelfarb called the “decline of civility, the vulgarization of high culture, and the degradation of popular culture.”

It was Soares, though, above anyone else, who emphasized the vulnerability of democracy, which he called “a frail and precious flower that needs care and permanent vigilance.” Soares warned that liberal democracy was no more secure in the triumphal aftermath of the fall of communism than it was in the early 1900s, when the delusory optimism of Woodrow Wilson and others about the future of democracy was followed by the carnage of World War I and the subsequent rise of fascist and communist totalitarianism that unleashed a frenzy of unimaginable violence, including the Holocaust.  

Soares spoke as “an old fighter against dictatorship,” who had been arrested twelve times under Salazar, and who’d been tortured and forced into exile. He emphasized the importance of liberty to a “generation that knows what it means to be subject to dictatorship and deprived of basic human rights.” This “painful experience of almost half a century,” he said, “makes it a moral imperative for us to fight, day after day, to perfect our democracy” and to “share our experience with the younger generations, so that they can understand that life without freedom makes no sense.”

Soares’ awareness of the unending threat to democracy, and of the need to fight for freedom wherever it is threatened, made him not just the father of Portuguese democracy, but a figure also of singular greatness.  

His wife, Maria Barroso, was clearly his political partner in every respect. A famous theater and cinema actress, Barroso was a co-founder of Portugal’s Socialist Party in 1973 and an ardent foe of the Salazar dictatorship. She was also president of the foundation dedicated to honoring the memory of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, Portugal’s Raoul Wallenberg, who was the Portuguese consul general in Bordeaux when the Nazis invaded France in 1940. He was punished by the Salazar regime for signing visas for tens of thousands of refugees—as many as 10,000 of them Jews fleeing the Holocaust.  

Sousa Mendes died in poverty in 1954, socially banished and disgraced. But interest in his epic story of courage and conscience grew after 1966, when he became the first diplomat recognized by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. In 1995, at a week-long national homage to Sousa Mendes, President Soares proclaimed him “Portugal’s greatest hero of the twentieth century.” Mario Barroso paid homage to him at the United Nations, when she read in his honor the poetry of Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, a fellow socialist and fighter for justice who was called “Lisbon’s poetic soul.”

We are now at a very dangerous historical moment. The world’s autocratic and lawless countries—what Iran calls the Axis of Resistance—are more united and aggressive than ever. Among established democracies, above all the United States and now including even Portugal itself, a populist and illiberal reaction to accelerating globalization and technological change has been gaining momentum. And in the wake of the October 7 attack on Israel, there is the rising menace of antisemitism that Irwin Cotler, head of the Raoul Wallenberg Center in Canada, has called the “bloody canary in the mineshaft of global evil” — an evil that never remains local.   

It is unrealistic to expect that events in Portugal will spark another “new phase in human history” that could reverse or alter current trends. But it is not unreasonable to believe that the legacy of Mario Soares and Maria Barroso could point a way forward in this perilous moment. They provide a model of vigilance in defense of freedom and devotion to the values of justice and human dignity, an example of simplicity and strength. The challenge is for the world’s democracies—or at least some of their leaders and others engaged in the political and ideological battle for democracy—to find the wisdom to appreciate their example and the will to follow it. 

Carl Gershman, a senior fellow at the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights, retired in 2021 as the founding president of the National Endowment for Democracy. This article is based on his remarks at the Estoril Political Forum on June 3, 2024, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution and the centenary of the birth of Mario Soares and his wife Maria Barroso.

Image: Mário Soares casts his vote for the Portuguese legislative election, October 26, 1969 (Source: