Former president of the American Club of Lisbon reveals the highlights of her time in charge
BLAINE TAVARES has just retired after 12 years as president of the American Club of Lisbon (ACL), handing over the reins to the club’s former vice-president, Buck Buchanan. The ACL is an organisation aimed at promoting understanding and friendship between the United States and Portugal. Currently, there are close to 500 members of the American Club, three-quarters of whom are Portuguese. Americans form the second biggest group but any nationality can join. Blaine Tavares accepted the presidency of the ACL in 1994, becoming the first woman president in the Club’s history and its longest serving president. She was also president at the time of the Club’s 50th anniversary. Blaine spoke to The Resident’s Gabriel Hershman about her eventful presidency.
Are you Portuguese?
No, I first came to Portugal on vacation in the late 1960s. After a six-year, on-off courtship, including 18 months in Mozambique, my Portuguese husband and I were married in New York. We settled in Portugal in September 1973. As laws applying to women were quite restricting at the time, I opted not to acquire Portuguese citizenship by virtue of my marriage. I could not have foreseen that a revolution would take place only months later and that things would change so dramatically.
Do you have a favourite speaker from your 12 years in charge?
I think I’ve presided over more than 100 club lunches. So, to pick out my all-time favourite would be very difficult. But, two of the most memorable were Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations, and Portuguese comedian Herman José.
We have had a host of presidents, prime ministers, government ministers, journalists, economists and business leaders, including the Commissioner of Expo 98, and the Governor of the Bank of Portugal. In addition, the three main candidates for the Portuguese presidential elections (Cavaco Silva, Mário Soares and Manuel Alegre) addressed last year’s three final luncheons.
Unfortunately, we have not had many American speakers during my presidency, with the exception of a few US senators, congressmen and a couple of well-known journalists.
It has been a tremendous privilege to sit next to such high-ranking politicians and be able to talk to them for an hour. How many people would love to have even 10 minutes with a Prime Minister or the CEO of a leading multinational, talking about politics, the economy or just plain chewing the fat? By the way, we have never paid a speaker; neither will we, nor can we!
You mentioned that you had three of the main presidential candidates. Does the American Club tend to prefer conformist type politicians? Would you have asked Jerónimo de Sousa (the Communist Party Secretary General), for example?
Following the 1974 revolution, the American Club earned its reputation as being the only open forum for speakers spanning the entire political spectrum. People like Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho and Admiral Rosa Coutinho (both key left-wing players in the 1974 Revolution and subsequent events) drew large audiences in those days. But, you must remember, the purpose of the ACL is to bring people together and the way we accomplish this is by having luncheon speakers our members want to hear. Nowadays, if we were to go to the far left, none of the members would come, thereby defeating the purpose of the club!
Do you have any speakers that you remember because of unexpected incidents on the day?
Well, Durão Barroso (PSD Prime Minister between 2002 and 2004 and now President of the European Union) phoned moments before he was due to arrive, saying he had hurt his back and would be late. During lunch, his seat was empty, but, never one to break a promise, he appeared at 2pm just in time to deliver his speech!
At the Minister of Finance Sousa Franco lunch, Rui Machete (former deputy prime minister and prominent law professor) stepped up to greet him and fell backwards down the 50 centimetre space between the dais and the wall, breaking his ankle! I stepped up to the microphone and couldn’t resist saying, “I’ve always wanted to say this: is there a doctor in the house?”
Did you have any speakers who flopped spectacularly?
I did have a speaker who was supposed to speak in Portuguese, as most do, and all of a sudden he decided he was going to speak in English. But his English was absolutely abominable! Even English people in the audience could not understand half of what he was saying. On another occasion, we had a speaker, a well known political analyst, who was falling-down drunk! He had been belting down drinks before and during lunch and his slurred speech was an embarrassment.
Do you think Americans find Portugal attractive?
I think that those Americans who know Portugal well tend to fall in love with the country. And Americans who visit Portugal find it enchanting.
Do most Americans in Portugal tend to live around Lisbon and Cascais rather than the Algarve?
Yes, but until the mid-eighties there were a lot more living here. Then some of the American companies got wise and realised they could hire a Portuguese employee or other European who could do the job for half the price and do it just as well. So that all changed. A lot of our friends at the time were general managers of large American companies. We still keep in touch and, in fact, met for a reunion in 1993 – ‘Saudades I’ – and again this past year in Provence – ‘Saudades II’, as we call the get-togethers. Our third reunion will take place here in Portugal, which goes to prove that this country does create a very special link with people.
But do most Americans still tend to think about visiting or living in other European countries?
All the hype is about London, Paris and Rome. So, when Americans do “The Grand Tour”, that’s where they’re usually headed, unless they’re particularly savvy travellers. But once the interest in Portugal is sparked, then they really love it.
Aside from monthly lunches, tell us a little more about the activities of the American club.
We have participated in many social events throughout the years such as gala dinners, election night dinners, Halloween evenings, golf tournaments and American fourth of July community picnics. Then, there is our awards programme, a prize given to two young Portuguese people each year who, through their work, promote an intercultural exchange between the United States and Portugal. The award includes a three-week trip to America to further their research.
In 2003, the ACL became a founding member of the Association of American Clubs (worldwide), opening the doors to new members around the globe and beyond the confines of the Lisbon community.
What were the most difficult moments during your presidency?
After 20 years in the same office, the ACL suddenly found itself homeless in 1996, without equipment and no money to rent office space. My first decision was to ask the Sheraton Hotel if they would give us a room to set up an office and they kindly agreed. Second was a fundraising drive to the membership for cash donations, services and equipment to furnish the office. Keep in mind that the Club had never before reached out to the membership for anything, nor had we ever requested sponsorship of any kind. So this was a groundbreaking move and, fortunately, a successful one. The Sheraton has been our home ever since.
Another difficult moment was in the spring of 1998 when we realised that the Embassy would not be organising the annual fourth of July picnic, as they had done for decades. In six weeks, with no records, no money, and only the memory of past picnics to go on, I put in 12 to 14 hours a day to put the event together. Approximately 600 people attended that year.
What do you hope for the future of the club?
I know that my successor (Buck Buchanan) is going to do a really superb job! Buck has lived in Portugal and been vice-president of the Club for a number of years. He knows a lot of people in the American and Portuguese community and I am certain that the ACL will grow further under his leadership.
• The American Club of Lisbon an be contacted on 213 529 308
Blaine Tavares honoured by Portugal’s President
BLAINE TAVARES has been awarded the Ordem do Infante D. Henrique (Order of Prince Henry the Navigator) decoration by Portugal’s President Jorge Sampaio.
The award, named after the famous Portuguese seafarer, is an honour bestowed on individuals who have distinguished themselves through their contribution to Portugal and its culture.
Dr. Carlos Monjardino, president of the Fundação Oriente, first suggested to President Sampaio that Blaine Tavares deserved the honour. During her 12-year presidency of the ACL, Blaine worked tirelessly to promote cultural and political activities within the international community in Portugal and to maintain strong ties with America.
Following the ceremony at Belém Palace, Blaine and other guests enjoyed lunch with President Sampaio. Among those in attendance were Sr. Mariano Tavares, Blaine’s husband, The Honourable Alfred Hoffman, American Ambassador to Portugal, Dr Charles (Buck) Buchanan, the new president of the ACL, Dr. Rui Machete, president of the Luso-American Foundation, and Anne Taylor Grave, the ACL’s executive director and director of public relations.