The Elite

Portugal Table of Contents

Before the Revolution of 1974, Portugal's elite could be divided into five groups; the nobility, the large landowners, the heads of large businesses, the members of learned professions, and high-ranking military officers. These elites were closely connected and intertwined in numerous complex ways.

The oldest group historically was the nobility. It generally traced its origins to the formative period of Portuguese history. The monarchy had frequently granted noble titles to the elite in return for loyalty and service. In modern times, this nobility continued frequently to use its titles of duke, count, or marquis. A title was a symbol of status and was often eagerly sought, although the younger, more liberal generation frequently scoffed at such titles. Some of the titled nobility went into the learned professions or high government service. In the modern age, a titled nobility seemed anachronistic, but in Portugal this elite lingered on.

A second group, often overlapping with the first, consisted of large landowners, or latifundiários. They were chiefly concentrated in the Alentejo, but other areas of Portugal, such as the Beira and Ribatejo, also contained large estates. Increasingly, this landholding element had become absentee landlords, settling in Lisbon and leaving their estates in the hands of managers. In Lisbon, the landed elites frequently diversified into business and industry but kept their estates, sometimes as profit-making enterprises, but most often as symbols of status. This elite was also in the process of being eclipsed when the Revolution of 1974 occurred.

More important than either of these first two groups were business people and industrialists. These elements had come to prominence in Portugal in the 1960s and early 1970s as Portuguese economic growth accelerated and the country industrialized. The business elite was often well educated and had emerged from the middle class. It filled the ranks of managers, administrators, and company presidents. Quite a number married, or their children married, into the nobility or the landed class. As Portugal continued to develop economically, the business groups gained in influence, particularly as the survival of the regime came to depend on a prosperous economy.

A fourth group among the elite consisted of the learned professions, including university professors. Medicine as a profession had traditionally enjoyed particular prestige in Portugal. Lawyers similarly enjoyed prestige; many of them went into government service or became managers of banks and major companies. University professors were also valued: Salazar and Caetano were both university dons, and their cabinets often included several professors. The high prestige stemmed in part from the fact that university education was so rare in Portugal and a professor far rarer still; it also stemmed from the need for technical expertise in the government. Because of the large number of university professors, Salazar's regime was often referred to as a catedratocracia, a term derived from the Portuguese word for university chair, cátedra.

The fifth elite was the military officer corps. These were men, often from middle- or lower middle-class ranks, who had made it to the top in a very important institution: the armed forces. Education and the military, in fact, were among the few means open to ambitious middle-class youth to rise in the social scale in highly class-conscious Portugal. The military officers did not always mingle well with the upper-class civilians, but the power and importance of the armed forces meant they had to be paid serious attention. In addition, many of the banks, large businesses, and elite family groups, as a way of protecting their interests, placed military officers on their payrolls.

These elites were closely interrelated. A landowner living in the city might go into business or banking; a wealthy business person or industrialist might buy land. They themselves or their children would acquire an education and enter the learned professions. Business elites formed groups in which they owned diverse holdings: typically, insurance, hotels, construction, banking, real estate, and newspapers. They hired university professors and military officers to help administer these holdings--or as an "insurance policy." Some members of the group held government positions--often carrying out private and public activities simultaneously. These groups were tightly inbred and often overlapping, with powerful political-economic-military connections.

The Revolution of 1974 largely destroyed this oligarchic system. Many of the old political elites associated with the regime were forced into exile, and others had their businesses confiscated. Almost all lost their positions and many of their holdings as a result of the revolution. Many members of the old elite eventually found their way back to Portugal and some began again to prosper in the late 1980s. But the strength of the elite was nowhere near so great as it was before 1974 and may have been ended permanently.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress