by Sebastião Bugalho
He continues to go to work every day. At the Sacramento office, always accompanied by Maria Cavaco Silva, he does not miss a report from the European Commission or a study by Banco de Portugal. He continues to write, sometimes memoirs, now scientific articles as an economist, and maintains a distant but attentive vigilance over the country’s life. His new book – A Modern Social Democracy Experience – is, in his words, different from the rest. Cavaco, at 81, remains an active voice in the State Council and punctuated his post-presidency with remarkable positions: the replacement of the Attorney General, euthanasia or, more recently, the mandatory discipline of Citizenship and Development. In this interview, he recalls the first conversations with Sá Carneiro, the Figueira congress, the nights he wiped out the final edges of the ’89 constitutional review with Constâncio and Vitorino and the projection of the great public works of their Governments, which fill the chapters of the your last publication. In it, as throughout the conversation, there is a constant: the family. On the eve of celebrating 57 years of marriage, he describes family life as “a permanent joy”. In his spare time, he likes to watch Netflix. In politics, 35 years after the first victory, Aníbal Cavaco Silva takes “pride” in what he has done. This is part of your story.
In his latest book, he states that only his governments were truly social democrats in Portugal …
I was ten, more than eight with an absolute majority. These were unique conditions for applying this social democracy. Imagine Dr. Passos Coelho, obliged to apply a program to remove Portugal from bankruptcy, which was the legacy he had received from the previous socialist government. It had to be subordinated to a program that had been negotiated by the Government that preceded it. I was ten years old … I was lucky … José Manuel Barroso had a very short government, Pinto Balsemão had a very short government and the same happened with Santana Lopes. I … some say it is fortunate that I became Prime Minister at that time … But I arrived because I won elections … Notice that our social democracy has an originality in its application, which is the fact that we start from a nationalized society without this being the result of a will of the people. While other countries admitted nationalization as a result of going to the polls, the popular will, not here. All this nationalization of the Portuguese economy and society had taken place without listening to the Portuguese, without a democratic force behind it. It was this nationalized country that I received 35 years ago, when I was elected Prime Minister for the first time.
And do you believe that your grandchildren will ever live in a Portugal with social democracy?
I continue to say that the principles of social democracy are very topical. Let us look at them: Has social consultation lost its relevance? Access to health care? Equal opportunities? Justice in income taxation? Social justice and solidarity? The defense of the Environment and spatial planning? These are extremely topical principles. If a government has the opportunity to apply them, I think it would be the best response for Portugal and that we would be able to get closer to Europe’s average income more quickly. At this moment, Portugal is at great risk: to be, if things do not turn around soon, the red lantern in terms of development in the countries of the euro zone. Who is still behind us? Latvia, which currently grows faster than Portugal. Greece, recovering from its situation. Slovenia, Slovakia, Malta, Estonia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic are all ahead of us. As a Portuguese, I would feel great sadness to see Portugal as Europe’s red lantern. Hence the great responsibility of today’s governments – and of today’s politicians in general, including the opposition – to reverse this situation. Portugal has been falling on that list of countries in the European Union and the euro-zone. In a study by Banco de Portugal published at the end of last year, it is read that income per capita based on the purchasing power parity in 2018, compared to the european average, it was lower than what i left in 1995, when i ended my duties as prime minister. I am not the one who says it … It is Banco de Portugal.
And how to reverse this situation?
When we look at the European reality, we realize that coalition governments predominate. Therefore, it is not always easy to maintain the application of a coherent and consistent set of the principles of social democracy. But situations can be found in which the majority of the dominant guidelines in a government are social-democratic … Sá Carneiro had a fundamental quality to direct a social-democratic government: he had leadership capacity. This is critical to applying a re-for-miss agenda. Reformist.
Do you believe that a coalition government in Portugal would achieve this reformist streak?
In Portugal? If you ask me for the future, I say yes … Right now, in times of pandemic … I don’t want to make assessments of the Government’s performance. But if you look at the government that preceded this time – the so-called ‘contraption government’ – and taking as a reference the principles of social democracy, I think it would not be difficult to write a book demonstrating that the values of social democracy were applied very little or almost nothing.
In what sense?
In the case of health, for example, one of the fundamental principles of social democracy is to place the interests of users at the center of health policy, ensuring quality services. In the four years of government of ‘contraption’, this did not happen: underfunding, the reduction to 35 hours … All of this is public knowledge.
Do you believe it will have consequences for the management of the pandemic?
The pandemic poses enormous challenges to the governance of any country. For that reason, I am sorry, but I avoid publicly commenting on the Government’s action during this period. Being away from active politics, I do not want to comment on the political forces that are in governance or the political forces that are – or say they are – in opposition.
But staying, then, speaking of the Government to which he took office, which governed from 2015 to 2019. He feels that the fact that he forced the written commitment of a series of safeguards between the PS and its parliamentary partners contributed to the political stability that lived in those years? Do you feel you are the author of this stability, which does not exist today? At the launch of the book, he criticized the ‘sterile and inconsistent tension’ that we are currently experiencing
Well … I repeat again that I do not want to comment on current political and governmental life … What I can answer you – and which I confirmed in the memoirs I wrote – does not entirely coincide with what you are saying. Dr. António Costa had signed a document which they called ‘joint positions’, with Bloco de Esquerda, PCP and Os Verdes. He handed me those documents, I analyzed them and found some important omissions. At the time, I wanted to provide myself with the maximum guarantees on the part of the Prime Minister so that, by taking office from that Government, it would achieve a certain stability, a certain durability and a certain international credibility. Whether or not it was then, it is no longer my responsibility because I stopped being President of the Republic … But it was essential that Portugal’s international commitments were respected – in particular with the European Union, in the Euro-zone, and in Defense, in NATO. Before nominating the Prime Minister, I also handed him a written document, asking him to confirm a series of doubts I had about motions of trust, social consultation, the financial system, and he answered me, also for written. My choice at the time was not an easy one, as I could not dissolve Parliament. And to leave the Government that had not passed the Parliament in management, waiting for the next President of the Republic to arrive and to make a decision after him … I thought I shouldn’t do that.
In his post-presidential period, he wrote three books in four years, gave two major interviews, took a public stand on his party’s electoral results and accepted an invitation to speak at JSD’s summer university. Would you call it an active post-presidency?
Not really … I have been quite restrained. I also went to present the book by a man who worked with me, Joaquim Sarmento, who I consider to be one of the Portuguese economists with the greatest knowledge of public finances and with strategic thinking for Portugal. But I have declined dozens of invitations to speak and to write. I have avoided. The statements I made were very limited … The non-renewal of Joana Marques Vidal … Euthanasia … I believe that this is one of the most serious things that Members are currently facing: the question of life and death. We must bear in mind what has happened in a country like the Netherlands, in which a doctor, who had initially been in favor of euthanasia, gave an interview, which came out here in Portugal, in which he says he has witnessed pressure from family members and doctors to elderly people accepted to be killed. I believe that this is one of the most morally grave things that our Parliament could do. There are no more than a dozen countries in the world that allow it. And are we, who are almost the last in terms of development in the eurozone, with the poverty we have and the deaths of elderly people in homes that have been, to pass a law that eases the pressure for the elderly to let themselves be killed? It is something that I cannot morally conceive that the representatives of the Portuguese people will accept.
In the book, through a humorous episode between snakes and frogs, he says that European good intentions can sometimes produce bad results. Did you detect this trend in more structural aspects?
I was Prime Minister – and perhaps I was also lucky there – at a time when those who are the great European countries had a particular attention to economic and social cohesion. In general, the proposals presented by Jacques Delors were accepted – and well accepted – to substantially reinforce solidarity in relation to the least developed countries, of which Portugal was a great beneficiary. The approval of a Special Program for Portuguese Industry, which is now even wanted to be revived, a program for the modernization of the textile industry, a special program for the Azores and Madeira … There was always a special attention to provide the community budget large amounts of money to support cohesion countries. But, you see, the support programs for Portugal after my government were even bigger than those I received at that time … So, don’t say that the works we did were due only to community funds. Of course, they were important. But the eng. Guterres received even more and Eng. Socrates certainly received no less.