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On the eve of an Election: No new Monument to the Discoveries

I am often surprised by the passion that travelers show for Lisbon's Monument to the Discoveries, one of the most powerful bits of propaganda to survive the turbulent 1960s. I also wonder how many travelers fly into the Humberto Delgado Airport, not knowing who he was.

Today, as elections loom large in both Portugal and the US, I ask myself this: What would Portugal be like if in 1958 the man who won the Portuguese presidential election was actually allowed to win? How would the world be better if the Monument to the Discoveries had never been built?


The Padrão dos Descobrimentos stands on the banks of Tejo in the Belém district of Lisbon. It was originally built for the "Portuguese World Exhibition" in 1940 to celebrate colonialism, and was reconstructed in stone in 1960 by Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar's regime to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator. It was a powerful tool of propaganda as Portugal was asserting its "right" to stay in Africa as other nations were decolonising.


Two years before the stone statue was dedicated, the 1958 Portuguese presidential election marked a crucial moment. On the ballot was a choice between a transition to an authoritarian state or the reopening of the republic. Up to 1958 Portugal had a hybrid dictatorship, led by Salazar. Elections were held, but there was one party in firm control.


There were two main candidates in the election to replace President Francisco Higino Craveiro Lopes: Naval minister Américo Thomás, who was supported by the Estado Novo regime, and General Humberto Delgado, a charismatic military officer who ran as an independent. Delgado became known for his opposition to Salazar's regime and his advocacy for political liberalization. His rallies drew thousands, and his ideas were clear: Delgado openly challenged authoritarian rule and called for political freedoms, an end of censorship, and a more democratic system.



In the end, Américo Thomás "won" the election, with around 76% of the counted vote. But allegations of irregularities and electoral manipulation were widespread, and many believed that the election results were pure fiction. It would be the last presidential election Portugal would have for decades. Humberto Delgado fled in opposition to the regime, and his activism eventually led to his murder by the PIDE police. Portugal more and more became a police state where the wealth was held by a few, and thousands left seeking a better life abroad.


It is impossible to predict how Portugal would have evolved if Humberto Delgado had been elected president in 1958. We can only imagine a very different Portugal today.


Humberto Delgado might not have supported colonial wars, he called for a more democratic system, and he could have ended PIDE's reign of fear. If he had been elected president in 1958, Portugal might have evolved into a prosperous and balanced democratic state sooner, and not have seen the death of so many Portuguese and Africans in the colonial wars of the 1960s.


Delgado hoped to bring about political liberalization and end the oppressive nature of the Estado Novo regime. His presidency might have ushered in a more democratic and pluralistic political system that could have revived the republic sonner. That might have influenced future political leaders and set a different trajectory for Portugal's political development in the following decades.


Delgado also might have opposed the colonial wars in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau. His presidency might have led to a quicker end to these conflicts, altering Portugal's colonial past and relationships with its African territories - leading to freedom for those lands, and sparing the lives of thousands of war dead.


Delgado was critical of Salazar's isolationist foreign policy. His presidency might have resulted in a more open approach to international relations, potentially influencing Portugal's standing in the global community, and opening the nation to investment. Coca-Cola might have been served in cafes well before the 1970s.


Delgado advocated for social and economic reforms too. His presidency could have seen initiatives aimed at addressing socio-economic disparities and improving living conditions for the whole population.


The military coup on April 25, 1974, called the Carnation Revolution, led to the overthrow of the Estado Novo regime and the establishment of a democratic government. While Delgado's election in 1958 could have initiated changes so much sooner, we can only dream of" what might have been"s.


If Delgado had won in 1958 would probably have meant no Padrão dos Descobrimentos, they might have still named the airport after him. And I am ok with that. The lesson is pretty clear: Elections matter,and they work when we all vote for something.  This year, though, my youngest son will turn 18 and vote this year in a presidential election. My father turned 18 in 1958, and voted in the last presidential election of a generation. He went on to be called to fight in Guinea, a war that changed him, and brought him to the US. 


So, let's all hope that 2024 is not 1958. And look to the promise of an election based on hope, not fear rings as true as Delgado's words: "May Portugal stop being afraid."



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