Perhaps no European country went through such radical change so fast. From 1933 to 1974 Portugal was under a right-wing dictatorship that kept it isolated from the rest of the world and stunted much of its growth. By 1960 77% of its population still lived in the countryside under a rigid social hierarchy in which the illiterate peasants obeyed wealthy landowners and women were encouraged to stay at home by the traditionalist regime. During the 1960s-1970s, the dictator Salazar got the country embroiled in a bloody war in its colonies in Africa (mainly Angola) and over a million young Portuguese emigrated to avoid the draft. As the Portuguese writer Maria Filomena Mónica puts it, it was better to be a construction worker in Paris than to die in the swamps of the Guiné in Africa.
In 1974 a coup ended the dictatorship. In the early 1980s, as Alison Roberts describes it, Portugal’s image was still one of “genteel decay”. Money was scarce and emigration to northern Europe or America continued. But democracy, the end of the wars in Africa, and Portugal’s arrival into the European Union in 1986 helped revolutionize the country. EU money poured into infrastructure – the signs are still obvious today in the network of brand new highways that crisscross the country as well as in the modern public transit system. The newly elected social democratic government led by Aníbal Cavaco Silva had more doctorates among them than the British cabinet had bachelor’s degrees. Portugal had the lowest literacy and numeracy rates among adult population in western Europe. Within 5 years, however, literacy and numeracy rates among 18 year-olds had surpassed that of England.
The speed with which Portugal emerged from a “third-world” status was startling. Families can now afford to heat their homes in the winter, sewage systems have been installed, tuberculosis and other diseases linked to poverty have declined markedly, gap between the rich and the poor have narrowed, and inflation is among the lowest in western Europe.
The arrival of the eastern European countries into the EU has been a challenge to Portugal, as it lost much foreign investment to those countries. Unemployment has began to rise. But I believe that Portuguese industriousness and adaptability will win and they will be able mount this challenge to their economy.