Lost in Salazar's Portugal

What is left of »Estado Novo?« Oriente Train Station, in central Lisbon. The July sun is burning our necks. We move around, hunting shade as hungry bears seeking honey. Women and men constantly walk along the platforms at slow pace, waiting for their departures, reminding of desert hikers desperate for a mirage. I am on my way to the heart of Portugal, to track down a statue of the country's last dictator.

I board my train late in the afternoon, heading towards Coimbra; a city best known for its university where political potentates, both right-handers and left wing politicians, and prominent artists have studied. Portugal’s last dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar, was raised in these parts, and studied at Coimbra University. He died in 1970; four years prior to the »Carnation Revolution,« that saw Marxist military commanders bring down  the country's Fascist dictatorship in a nearly bloodless coup.

Salazar was a politician somewhat unique in the 20th century; he sprang out from the Catholic ranks and maintained conservative worldviews about man’s place in society. His political career started as an intellectual and teacher, he also kept a low profile throughout his years in power, where he remained for nearly half a century, before a stroke forced him into retirement.

The so-called »New State« he founded was built on three pillars: The Catholic Church, Portuguese colonialism, and the military. All three defended Portugal’s right to maintain oversea territories during a political tide when the rest of Western Europe, in the 1950’s and ’60’s, went through a time of decolonization. The Portuguese colonies in Angola, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, São Tomé e Principe, Macau, Goa and Timor were hardly any cash cows for the State; colonial wars at three fronts drained the finances, and during a time of awakening and liberation in the rest of the Western world, Portugal instead became a symbol of a country seduced by its past, where the idea of the eternal Empire sang the lead.

I get off the train in Vimieiro, which is where Salazar was born in 1899. The tiny village is situated a stone’s throw from the Dão River, which separates Vimieiro from Santa Comba Dão, a town with 12,000 inhabitants. This part of Portugal feels like a no-man’s-land; the forests are thick and there are no signs of the industries that occupy larger parts of the south. Here, the silence is both a prominent and dictating force; anyone who doesn’t obey it might get lost in the woods.

The sense of isolation is palpable, and when people get off the train after their transfers in Coimbra, they seem to be engulfed by the forest. It’s a long way to the coast–the Spanish border is closer at hand–people have but themselves to rely on here, and most the region’s population used to survive as farmers.

It’s already late at night; the statue of Salazar must wait until tomorrow. It gets dark quickly, I can hear the traffic from the highway on the other side of the woods–I also hear the collective howling of a pack of dogs. My thoughts return to Portugal’s former dictator while I walk towards the hospedaje–bed and breakfast; Salazar got the chance to study thanks to a relative who had good contacts at Coimbra University. For a child who grew up in the poor Portuguese countryside at the turn of the previous century, it meant a lucky strike; becoming a priest not only meant a stable income from the State in a fragile society where such things were looked upon in envy, it also earned you a social position. Salazar dedicated all his time to teaching before ending up as a politician in the late 1920’s. He never got married, and he never had any children.

In the early 1900’s, Portugal was in a state of political turmoil; the weak Monarchy collapsed in 1911 and paved way for a Conservative political alliance, which later named Salazar Prime minister in 1932, a portfolio he held on to until a stroke forced him to retire, two years before his death.

The next day, I catch a ride with two young female twin sisters to the cemetery outside Santa Comba Dão, where Salazar is buried. I get in to the back seat, and find myself surrounded by Lidl groceries.

»We had to do a little shopping,« one of the twin sisters explains with a laugh. »You okay back there?«

Sure, I yell back; the loud music from the stereo and the wind bustling in through the open car windows drown my voice. They join me for a walk at the cemetery; they were born long after the Carnation Revolution, but went to school realizing that Portugal had done little to address the conflicts of its bloody past, leaving everyone to their own conclusions, mostly based on stories from their own backyards. And here, in the region where Salazar was born, those impressions are based on melancholia and old-fashion right-wing propaganda. In these parts of Portugal, all generations look upon the late leader in reverence. Sure, Salazar was a tough guy, some might agree, but under his guidance, at least Portugal »wasn’t a failed state, like today.«

»He did some good things for Portugal,« the twin sisters explain, finishing each other’s sentences. »That’s at least what we’ve heard.« I ask them what good Salazar did for Portugal; they look at one another, then mention the stability and safety and fall silent.

The tombstone is simple and modest; a large cross covers the top. On a plaque behind it, I read: »Here lies a man who was loved by millions of Portuguese.« The twin sisters tell me an intriguing story: at one point, after the »Carnation Revolution,« the remains of Salazar’s body was secretly removed from the grave and taken to another site. Why did they remove the body? I wonder. »No idea,« they reply.

If Salazar’s remains were removed from his last resort on Earth, was he loved or hated by those who removed him?

Prazeres Silva is a stern and stocky woman in her late forties with strong gaze and sharp opinions. She was born in Vimieiro but lived in Switzerland while Salazar ruled in Portugal.

»I still miss the clean mountain air from the Swiss Alps,« she says.

Today, Prazeres runs a small bar, and she looks at me with high eyebrows when I address the theory of Salazar’s removed body. Then, she kills the theory with a couple of witty sentences; »Of course the body’s not there! The man died in 1970, which was 44 years ago–now the body’s just dirt. You want another coffee?« I nod, and pour another one-euro-coin on the counter. I try to make it dance, without success. In the background, the radio plays golden Portuguese songs about lost love.

I ask Prazeres about Salazar; she confirms that here, in the rural parts of the country where he was born, people seem to prefer taking a firm stand in defending his legacy. Although she didn’t live in Portugal during most of Salazar’s reign, she’s positive that things were better back then. »At least, one could feel safe«, she says. »In modern-day Portugal violence and fear dominates the world.«

I then ask Prazeres about Salazar’s statue in central Santa Comba Dão. She looks at me in wonder. »The statue? Boy, that’s long gone.«

I arrive forty years late, it turns out. It was the years after the revolution in 1974, that the statue of the benevolent dictator was ousted from its position in central Santa Comba Dão, forever watching over his fellow countrymen sitting in a chair that pretty much resembled a king’s throne. The statue of absolute power disappeared; no one knows where it went.

»But his house is still here,« Prazeres says, trying to cheer me up. »It’s just up the road from here.«

I finish my coffee and take my leave.

During my walk, listening to the ever-present breeze dancing Portuguese fado with the trees, a sudden feeling of shame hits me. While I was planning for my trip coming to the heart of Portugal, all I could see was a statue of a long-gone dictator. Why was that? One simple double search on the Internet would probably have confirmed that the statue had been dismantled back in 1978. Sloppy researching, the simplest mistake an investigative journalist is capable of? Perhaps. A bizarre hint of intuition–well, not even close.

Perhaps I preferred not knowing everything about the fate of Salazar’s last statue beforehand. Would I have made the effort even coming to Vimieiro had I already known about its departure? The answer is most likely no, I realized: I would never have come. Which is a real pity that made me feel even more ashamed. The instant sources of knowledge that the likes of Google can provide us with within a matter of seconds is valuable in almost all cases, but it has also got the ability to slacken a freelance reporter’s quest for a statue that no longer is.

The house where Salazar grew up is a one-story hovel, situated along the roadside leading to the highway. The poor condition of the house reminded me of a comparison I’d heard a few days before: »It’s like Portugal,« a woman said, pointing at a closed shop; »Abandoned.« Nothing but a frayed green plaque gives you any hint that this is a historical site in Portuguese history: »The birthplace of Dr. António de Oliveira Salazar, a man who governed and never robbed.«

Someone has placed a red rose next to the plaque.

In one of his most famous speeches, Salazar explained how »grateful« he was having been born poor. Salazar has been described as a shy and quiet child who took life very seriously. He seldom played with friends; instead he preferred long walks in the woods, with his dog as sole company. I sit down on a bench outside the house and watch this part of the world pass by. Nowadays, at least the road is paved, which it wasn’t during Salazar’s childhood. A thistle grows out of the threshold in stone. I dare not touch it, fearing it might sting me.

I walk further up the street, studying all four abandoned houses still belonging to the Salazar clan. I can see that one door is ajar on a French balcony on the second floor on one of the houses. It’s impossible to see anything inside, only darkness. Everything’s closed. No one has tendered the little gardens next to the thresholds: branches and bushes have grown into each other.

Is no one tendering Portugal either?

The comparison strikes me as a bit unfair. But at second thought, that is what people have been asking not only themselves and their politicians and the I.M.F., but also the rest of the world, without getting a proper answer. Nor here–on the doorstep to the last real believer of a Portuguese Empire–is the answer to that question nowhere to be found.

Across the street, the closest »neighbor« to the Salazar houses, its owner, Juan Carlos, a middle-aged man born and raised in Vimieiro, shows me around his aluminum workshop. I ask him what it’s like to be working across the street of the birthplace of the most important political figure in Portugal’s modern history. Juan Carlos smiles at me, as if he felt sorry for me: »You considering us being neighbors? The poor man died long before I even opened this workshop.« An old-fashion radio with a tall antenna plays classic songs from the 1980’s; the crispy sound from the radio creates a fascinating echo hitting all the pieces of aluminum lying around.

»A few years back, our local politicians tried to turn Salazar’s old house into a museum. But the government in Lisbon wouldn’t let them,« says Juan Carlos and shrugs. »In Spain, Franco’s got his museum, why couldn’t we have one? Portugal will lose its identity, at least if our fate lies in the parliament of the European Union.«

Juan Carlos looks at me, hoping for some support. He says: »If we can’t be who we really are, then who are we supposed to be?«

I return to Prazeres’ café. Everyone’s attention has turned to the TV set on the wall. The outside world makes itself noticed in the shape of a war in Syria, the never-ending Israel–Palestine conflict, Portugal’s ever-lasting love for soccer. An old man asks for permission to sit down next to me outside the café. The man turns out to be an ex-soldier of the Portuguese army, who was dispatched to Angola during the 1960’s, where he fought against nationalist rebels. Thick and white side-whiskers decorate his face, and his eyes are constantly pointed towards the sky, as if he’s expecting something to fall. He doesn’t notice my presence, but nonetheless enjoys talking about his memories from the war.

»I was sent to Angola three times,« he says. »Colors–that’s what it’s all about. At least in Angola: black or white.«

I can’t stop it, but while the old man keeps talking about his war memories–clearly still a personal trauma–my own thoughts turn to Angola’s first independent president, Mr. Agostinho Neto, a doctor who was also a poet and a writer. One of his poems comes to mind, called »Night.«

I live

In the dark quarters of the world

Without light, without life.

They are slave quarters

Worlds of misery.

Dark quarters

Where the will is watered down

And men have been confused

With things.

The man keeps talking to himself (and me) for a little while, constantly casting at least one eye at the sky; then he glances at his watch and realizes that it’s already two o’clock. »Sorry, I’ve got to go now … Ciao!« The man walks down the street, like a nervous breeze.

I order another coffee.

Later in the evening, I listen to the rain outside the hospedaje. The owner, Feizal Mussa, explains why times are bad now. »We haven’t seen a soul here, neither foreigners nor Portuguese tourists. No one’s coming here. No one can afford anything but day-trips in this country anymore.«

His entire life has been in motion, constantly on the move on his way somewhere. »It is the movement that shapes you into who you really are; what you experience and witness.«

Feizal arrived to Vimieiro with his wife, Fátima, and their daughter, Nadine; they couldn’t afford to continue living in Lisbon, and since Fátima grew up in this parts of Portugal, they decided to invest in a bed and breakfast business and open a restaurant in another village, a few kilometers from Vimieiro. Now, they just must wait and see. »No sudden movements,« Feizal explains. »We have to sit still and not rock the boat. This crisis will pass eventually, we hope. We just don’t know when.«

He grew up in Portuguese Mozambique, a son of Muslim immigrants from India. When Mozambique got its independence in 1975, the family moved to Lisbon. In colonial Mozambique, Feizal grew up with the image of Portugal being a global Empire. »First, Portugal considered itself being the center of the Universe, after that, it was told to be the navel of the Planet–and after that, Salazar said that Portugal’s colonies made the country an important ‘Global Empire.’ Today, Portugal considers itself being the Master of handling crisis, because we, like few, have lived through so many of them.«

Feizal laughs; outside the hospedaje it has stopped raining. On the rug, next to us, a Persian cat has fallen into deep sleep.

»No,« he continues, »The only thing Portugal really masters, are its debts. And today’s debt is not primarily economic, but spiritual and cultural. Debts we have to pay not only for our own sake, but also for Portugal’s future generations.«

Feizal Mussa’s words regarding the Portuguese Empire gets even more interesting, since it was here, in Vimieiro, that Portugal’s last staunch believer in the »Global Portugal« was born.

The next day, I sit down for a talk with Rui Salazar, the nephew of António de Oliveira Salazar. Rui Salazar is a 65-year-old man who greets me with a loose handshake. He seems afraid of the world outside his house, and keeps two dogs busy guarding the property. During our one-hour talk, he constantly holds on to a bunch of keys. There is a security gate to every door in the house, and all windows are closed.

Rui Salazar is concerned about the path Portugal has followed since the fall of his uncle’s »Estado Novo.«

Rui Salazar is in favor of turning his uncle’s birthplace into museum, not only to remember the former dictator, but also his political project, Estado Novo. »I have in my possession some 60,000 objects, containing speeches, books, and other things that used to belong to António, and which should be of interest to anyone interested in Portuguese history. But our politicians won’t let it happen. They’re afraid of the truth.«

What truth? I ask him.

»That Estado Novo wasn’t as bad as people claim it was.« The museum, he adds, should be open to school classes and tourists, and should provide the public with another image of António de Oliveira Salazar. And if that argument is not enough, Rui Salazar points to the fact that this part of Portugal has nothing to offer the outside world. »We need something, this region has nothing, not a cinema, no theatre, no restaurants worth visiting. This place is slowly dying. We’re slowly dying here.«

A dead dictator’s heritage saves an isolated region from economic extinction?

The decolonization of Portugal’s oversea territories–which decreased the country’s landmass by 90 percent–was also a mistake, says Rui Salazar.

»Just look at those countries today, they’re just a mess. After we left, everything broke down, and now we don’t get anything out of Angola’s oil revenues, for instance. The colonies should have met the same fate as the Azores and Madeira, a status of autonomy, where we would have maintained a presence and influence. But all that got lost in the so-called revolution in 1974.« I ask him if the situation regarding human rights in Portugal hasn’t improved since the Carnation Revolution? Rui Salazar falls silent, then takes a deep breath: »I don’t know, I really don’t know.«

He then mentions the increasing violence in Portugal, and not feeling secure nowadays.

»Under the Estado Novo, at least you felt safe and could walk the streets after dark.«

Before I leave Rui Salazar to his keys, closed doors and 60,000 left belongings from his famous uncle, he grants me a bottle of fine Port Wine, and a laminated photo of António de Oliveira Salazar. Next to the photo of Salazar, italic characters proclaim: »Salazar: The worker of the Homeland.«

I walk across the bridge that separates Santa Comba Dão from Vimieiro. I follow a steep little road of cobblestone up to a ridge, where I catch my breath while overlooking the river. The site where Salazar’s statue used to stand, until 1978, is a humble and peaceful square at the heart of Santa Comba Dão. No one has could answer the question where the statue has ended up; if it was destroyed, or merely locked up somewhere, deserted.

Nowadays, a monument commemorates Portuguese soldiers born in Santa Comba Dão, who died defending the dying Empire during the Colonial Wars in the 1960’s. The name of each soldier stands next to the name of the colony where he died: Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, or Angola. The Portuguese army’s tactics was to drop napalm on areas where the nationalist movements were thought to be hiding, but it also meant leaving band of Portuguese soldiers in the jungle, fighting guerillas while burning and destroying as many villages they could before they got picked up a week later. Many died as cannon fodder, defending something that was already lost.

On iron pillars, given dates explains when the Portuguese colonies were founded, and when they were granted their independence. One might call this a quiet and respectful gesture, but the lack of understanding regarding Portugal’s colonial atrocities seems to guard the monument like an armed soldier. Could that invisible soldier be the ghost of Salazar himself, ever-present at the site of his former throne?

I find more peace in the Catholic Church, next to the plaza. There is nobody there, I walk all alone up the altar and stare at Jesus, suffering on the cross. Inside the Church, the dust dances in the dampened air.

Next to the plaza, Santa Comba Dão’s tourist center provides me with information regarding the region’s history. Fishing, camping, long walks in the woods. About the political history of the region–or more specifically, Santa Comba Dão and Vimieiro–very little is said. I ask the woman behind the information counter if people in the city would like to see a Salazar statue re-installed.

She hastens, but then nods. »Yes, many people born and raised here believe that Salazar was a good man, he’s been given a bad rap. I, personally, would like to see a statue of Salazar back where it belongs, but I think it’s too soon today.«

I ask her: Too soon for what?

The woman shrugs, and then says, »Our political climate isn’t ready for Salazar’s return. Not yet.«

I turn around and notice a plate on a paint easel. The plate pictures Salazar’s face in profile made of words from a famous speech he gave during his hay-days in the 1940’s. It’s clearly a piece of art commemorating the Empire’s lost leader, and a sight one would find impossible to witness in Lisbon or Porto. But here, in a town where Salazar had his own statue until after the fall of Estado Novo, the love affair between him and his faithful champions is still glowing.

An old air-conditioner at the wall coughs and makes a loud restart; it sounds as if it’s about to fall and land on the souvenir shelf. »It’s such an old piece of junk,« the woman at the counter says with laughter. »Almost useless. Can I assist you with anything else?«

No, thank you, I reply.

Still, so many questions remain. Questions regarding Portugal’s relationship with its past, and its image of itself. I remain quiet and just stand there, looking at the plate picturing Salazar’s face. The statue may be long gone, but inside Santa Comba Dão’s tourist center Salazar’s gaze continues to observe the world.

As a last hidden resort for the memory of a fallen emperor.