Mario Soares – man of conviction
Late Portuguese leader who orchestrated Macau’s return to Chinese sovereignty never shied away from a fight over human rights
Former Portuguese socialist politician Mario Soares’ record of anti-fascism, anti-communism and anti-colonialism did not leave much room in the many obituaries for his part in the history in this part of the world. As Portugal’s president he negotiated with Beijing for the return of Macau to Chinese sovereignty in 1999. A survivor of persecution by a dictatorship for his political beliefs, seasoned by terms as a decolonising foreign minister and prime minister, he made relatively light work of the task of disengaging his country from the last but one of its foreign territorial interests. He is credited with bringing the handover forward by years from the original target date and entrusted the responsibilities of the last governor to his friend General Vasco Rocha Vierra.
Macau’s reuniting with the mainland was less complex than Hong Kong’s, so it was no surprise that Beijing’s representatives found the Portuguese more agreeable negotiating partners than the British. That was to be expected from Soares, who presided over the dismantling the last remnants of what was once one of Europe’s biggest empires, granting independence to African colonies before ending Portuguese administration of Macau and East Timor. But it was as father of Portuguese democracy that Soares, who died aged 92 last week, is best remembered. He was one of the last survivors of a generation of liberals who suffered in prison, exile and political defeat for their opposition to the fascist regime of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar.
By the time of the civil uprising that deposed Salazar’s successor Marcella Caetano in 1975, he had become a key political figure. As foreign minister he overthrew a pro-communist prime minister and, in 1976, won election as the first constitutionally elected prime minister after the revolution. Later he became the first democratically elected president in 60 years.
Known as a political fighter who always bounced back to his feet after setbacks, his advice to politicians 30 years ago, to keep battling for their convictions through the vicissitudes of victory and defeat, resonates today amid global uncertainties.