Portugal and Angola: Echoes of Universalism

November 7, 2013 Topic: IdeologySociety Region: AngolaPortugal

Portugal and Angola: Echoes of Universalism

Portugal's approach to its former colony says a lot about Western attitudes toward the developing world.


A small diplomatic crisis is currently developing between Portugal and Angola, its former colony. As with relations between the U.S. and the Arab world or between the UK and Russia, it reveals the structural problems of diplomatic relations between Western liberal democracies and the developing world.

In September, Portugese Minister for Foreign Affairs Rui Machete was asked by an Angolan radio program, Rádio Nacional de Angola, about ongoing investigations by Portugal’s Attorney-General’s Office (PGR) of high officials in the Angolan government with interests in Portugal. The Minister, perhaps in a Freudian slip, while stating that the executive branch has no control over the judicial branch, apologized for the investigations which he understood to possess little substantiation.


Portugal’s left-wing opposition immediately seized the moment to exploit the affair politically and demand the Minister’s resignation. One of the smallest and most radical of the left-wing parties—the Left Bloc—has consistently criticized the centrist governments for looking the other way on human rights issues in the African country. Angola is a major investor in Portugal, a preferential market for many Portuguese companies, and a favored destination for Portuguese migrant workers since the onset of the sovereign debt crisis. Centrist governments in Lisbon have courted Luanda, but the Left Bloc made it a point to boycott Parliament the last time Angola’s president visited.

In October the Angolan government retaliated against Portugal by temporarily cancelling the ‘strategic partnership’ that would have brought the first bilateral summit between the two states in the near future.

The crux of the issue is the structural difference between executive power in a democracy and in an authoritarian regime. There is virtually no difference between regime and state in Angola, where President José Eduardo dos Santos has ruled unopposed for thirty-four years. The interests of the regime are indistinguishable from those of the state. In many non-Western countries, if relations with a crucial partner country are susceptible to being damaged by some illegality, the executive power can rein in the judicial power. Many African governments have, for instance, chosen to not allow their courts to pursue Chinese business malpractice cases because the political connection with Beijing is too important.

Conversely, the West’s emphasis on rule of law systematically undermines relations with dissimilar regimes by allowing unfettered discretion to non-political entities.

In December 2010, the world soccer association FIFA announced that the 2022 World Cup would be held in Qatar. Since that announcement, the small emirate, whose leadership has, ironically, been admired for specializing in public relations, has faced a torrent of negative press: from allegations of corruption in securing the World Cup bid, to widespread criticism of its human-rights record, particularly on immigrant labor. In 2008, it was China in the spotlight with its hosting of the Olympics. The extent of the West’s indignation reached new heights with crowds demonstrating in major world capitals against China’s treatment of Tibetans and other general human-rights abuses.

What is at play in Portugal is similar to what happens in the UK with Russian émigrés. Russian domestic power struggles end up poisoning bilateral relations because political squabbles can be pursued in the UK’s open judicial system. In Portugal too, some elements of the Angolan opposition see an opening to fight the dos Santos regime by proxy, in either the free press or the free courts.

Traditionally though, the natural, realist compromise was for different regime types to focus on economic cooperation, leaving aside political differences. After the end of the Cold War, many liberals inclusively believed that free markets might promote the emergence of more liberal regimes. Many diplomats were ecstatic about finally being able to put global ideological competition behind them and refocus on pragmatic ties once more.

The West soon found, though, that economic prosperity did little for political reform. If anything, the civic compromise in the ‘imperfect world actually stipulated the maintenance of illiberal regimes so long as economic prosperity continued. The US found this to be the case in China, and Europeans discovered it with their ‘Neighborhood Policy’ in the Arab world and Eastern Europe.

Since then, a general divide has occurred within the West between those who believe such ideological differences have deeper cultural and structural reasons behind them and that there is no need to sour relations over something which is ultimately the prerogative of sovereign states to decide, and those who believe that it must be the West’s imperative to fight politically for such a democratic change at every opportunity.

The latter, persuaded that there is something objectively superior about the West’s political system, have promoted universalist doctrines such as ‘universal jurisdiction’ and ‘responsibility to protect’. The EU actually attempted to implement ‘negative conditionality’—i.e., to provide disincentives in order to deter bad governance and disrespect for human rights—in its pursuit of better practices, adopted arms export controls, and partnered with the US in sanctioning (outside any UN framework) regimes it perceives to not comply with its standards, such as the regimes in Zimbabwe or Myanmar.

Following the Arab Spring, the same voices were once again heard demanding political pressure but, as the revolutionary process turned sour, skepticism has once again dialed down the rhetoric.

In Portugal, as in Europe and the West in general, what remains is a post-1989 generation educated with a universalist May of 68 curriculum that is highly intolerant of other societies and cultures. Portugal’s hard-left-wing opposition is an overwhelmingly youth-oriented phenomenon, and it embodies the aspirations of the millennials, who have a deep incomprehension of the non-Western world. Perhaps the economic crisis and youth unemployment will yet teach pragmatism to the millenarian millennials.

Miguel Nunes Silva has an M.A. in European studies from the College of Europe and is an analyst for the geostrategy consultancy Wikistrat. He has previously worked with the International Criminal Court and the European External Action Service. His writing has been published in Small Wars Journal and Asharq al-Awsat. He also lectures at the Portuguese Atlantic Youth Association.

Image: Flickr/Dilma Rousseff. CC BY-SA 2.0.