New hope for Armed Forces

President Marcelo talks of their “crucial importance”.

In a sabre-rattling day for Portugal’s Armed Forces, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa has promised the country’s military “greater dignification”, more investment and generally much better days. “Societies in crisis have the most difficulty in understanding the crucial importance of the Armed Forces,” he told a throng of thousands that gathered in the tentative sunshine before the majesty of Mafra’s national palace on Monday.

Days before, the country’s news services proclaimed that (finally) a woman was going to be promoted to the post of General in the Armed Forces.

Billed as a “significant step in women’s integration into the military”, it is the first time that any woman will have risen this high up the ranks.

With his Air Force ‘assessor’ also a woman, Marcelo is continuing to show the country a new way forwards.

Indeed, he received a group of ambassadors in Belém the other day – all of which were women – to declare he is “almost a feminist president”.

Newspapers enjoyed the word “almost” to suggest Marcelo is indeed an “almost everything president”, so enthusiastic have his first two weeks of tenure been.

Certainly, the military were lapping it up. A speech by Major General of the Armed Forces, Pina Monteiro, explained that his men hoped for “an affective proximity” to their new Head of State that both “stimulates and promotes” conditions that are “indispensable” for any military force.

“We want to preserve and if possible reinforce the role of the Armed Forces in national society,” he added.

And Marcelo gave every indication that this is exactly what he wants, too. Promising to be “attentive, serene and interventionist”, the president traced three “fundamental” ambitions.

“Affirmation of the Strategic Concept of National Defence, renewed consideration of military statutes and investment in the Armed Forces”.

Expresso stressed that on the first point, Marcelo promised to remain faithful to the broad lines of Portugal’s external policies, in particular with regard to NATO, the EU and CPLP (community of Portuguese speaking countries) – making no reference to the United Nations.

With regard to “valuing military careers”, he reiterated that the “continuous construction of a more fraternal nation” could “never be without the relevant contribution of military women and men” (yes, he used the words in that order).

And when it came to investment, he simply said it should mirror the requirements of a country that needs its armed forces “duly equipped and qualified”.

“A country that always has an international dimension should assure the best operational conditions for its Armed Forces,” he told his audience.

They were fine words on a fine occasion that diplomatically avoided too much looking back at budget cuts and difficulties of the past that not so long ago saw Air Force chief Araújo Pinheiro say his institution was “at breaking point”.

Thus, using the occasion to do his utmost to rally the national spirit, Marcelo reminded the crowds that “this country is the work of soldiers” – evoking the “old fighters who affirmed the desire to seek liberty in the 19th century, just as they wanted to construct democracy in the 20th century”.

As Expresso remarked, it was a clear allusion to the “captains of April 25 (1974)”, the day Portugal’s military overthrew 37 years of Salazarian dictatorship.

“They never failed the call of Portugal,” Marcelo continued, stressing now is the time to “explain that the Armed Forces are not memories of a past without future, just as they are not superfluous or unnecessary. On the contrary, almost nothing that brought hopes and dreams for a better future was realised in Portugal without their contribution.”

If this had been a recruitment speech, the Armed Forces could not have hoped for anything better.

As Expresso added, the event was attended by hundreds of local schoolchildren to whom Marcelo directed his message that the Armed Forces were a “mobilising example of personal and community realisation”.

The celebrations which went on to see parachutists decked out in Portuguese flags fall effortlessly from the sky, an impressive F16 fly-past, and thumping military band renditions were reminiscent of those laid on for Portugal Day, which this year, in accordance with the presidential penchant to break with tradition, will be in Paris, among the huge community of Portuguese emigrés.

Alongside Marcelo was prime minister António Costa who went on to help the new head of state plant a magnolia tree in commemoration of World Tree Day in the palace gardens – a joint effort that the nation’s media took to interpret that the Socialists’ (not-so-credible) budget will be passed by Marcelo after the Easter holidays.

The only fly in the ointment came from a different quarter altogether. Commemorating World Tree Day her own way in Alcobaça on Monday, biologist Raquel Lopes told schoolchildren “this is not the time to plant trees” as the weather is still not perfect and young plants could easily die.

By NATASHA DONN [email protected]

Photo: Military ceremonies by the Armed Forces to welcome President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa in front of the Mafra National Palace on March 21