US defence secretary Chuck Hagel confirmed today that 500 personnel are being pulled out of the Lajes air force base on the Azorean island of Terceira.
The announcement, which will have huge repercussions on the economy of the island, came on the same day the US announced it would be closing down three further bases in UK.
It also flew in the face of the increasing diplomatic efforts made by foreign affairs minister Rui Machete to stave off a mass military exodus from Terceira, where around 700 Portuguese are directly employed on the base, and many others more rely on it for business.
According to the Portuguese-American Journal last year reduction of the US force at Lajes could result in at least a 40% increase in unemployment on Terceira island, and a “1.5% reduction in GDP for the Azores as a whole”.
Earlier this week, Machete warned that relations between Portugal and the US “could become strained” if there was not a “positive result” in what he described as the “long and complex process” of negotiating America’s continued presence.
Thus today’s announcement will take some swallowing. It came with the news that the US is pulling out of the UK’s Mildenhall, Alconbury and Molesworth airbases – again at the expense of many local jobs.
Hagel said the decision to pull out signified a “light withdrawal” of America’s military presence in Europe. The fact that it came the day after Europe was shaken by the terror attack in Paris will very possibly not sit well with bystanders – but there is hope at least for Terceira.
According again to the website of the Portuguese-American Journal, it appears that the Chinese “might be interested” in taking over Lajes “if it becomes vacant”.
Reporting back in 2012, the site wrote that Chinese premier Wen Jiabao had made a technical stop at Terceira’s airport – “an indication that China may be considering to replace the US presence on the island”.
But whether things have since changed or developed from there remains to be seen.
Lajes has been host to the Americans for more than 70 years.
By NATASHA DONN [email protected]