Secretary Kerry’s Priorities for Portugal

Thomas F. Stephenson (Ambassador to Portugal, 2007-2009)

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Portugal faces many of the same challenges today that affect all other countries in southern Europe, i.e. negative growth in GDP, high unemployment, excessive sovereign debt and too much dependence by individuals on the state for employment and financial support. One of the issues I was most concerned about when serving in Portugal was the apparent absence of a culture of risk taking and entrepreneurism. As a career venture capitalist, I consciously explored multiple sectors of the economy for signs of the type of aggressive new business development that could be the engine of economic growth and job creation for the country. Unfortunately, there was little to be found.

Both my successor and I have tried to use the resources of the State Department and the Commerce Department to help the Portuguese public and private sectors better understand the challenges they face on the entrepreneurial front and to make constructive suggestions and introductions to U.S. companies that might be able to help and participate. Happily, some progress is evident since I departed Lisbon in 2009, and as a long time senator from a very entrepreneurial state, I have every confidence that Secretary Kerry will encourage and cooperate where possible in furthering this progress.

Portugal, however, has an additional important economic challenge that we have recently precipitated, namely a significant reduction in force (RIF) at Lajes Air Force base in the Azores. It just so happens that I returned only last weekend from a trip with a group from Business Executives for National Security (BENS) to Lajes and then Lisbon to address the consequences of the RIF with the Regional Government of the Azores (RGA), our 65th Air Wing stationed there, our embassy in Lisbon and officials from the national government in Lisbon. We did this at the request of my successor and the Portuguese ambassador to the United States, and with the full cooperation of our base commander at Lajes and the European Command (EUCOM) HQ leadership in Stuttgart. While the president of the RGA took the aggressive position with us that replacing the hundreds of Portuguese jobs that will be lost as a result of the RIF is most definitely the responsibility of the United States, we responded that while we don’t have that responsibility per se, we are, nevertheless, highly motivated to do everything we can to help a very loyal friend and ally address a significant economic challenge.

After spending three days in the Azores and another two in Lisbon, before a morning of debriefing at EUCOM, I think it is fair to say that our group of experienced financial and real estate investors had some very creative proposals and suggestions for addressing the job losses and other dislocations that are resulting from the significant RIF at Lajes. Secretary Kerry is probably well aware of the Portuguese economic challenges in general and the Lajes situation in particular, as the sizeable Portuguese constituency in southeastern Massachusetts is unlikely to have escaped his political purview. Our recommendations were primarily focused on private sector initiatives, but there will, no doubt, be ongoing opportunities for the State Department to be helpful to this wonderful country and its people. While Lajes no longer plays the mission critical logistical role that it once did in our deployments to the Middle East and western Asia, it is still an important base for us and could play an additional meaningful future role if North Africa requires more significant military attention. Secretary Kerry has a number of more formidable and tumultuous priorities around the world than Portugal, but hopefully the country will stay on his radar screen as it struggles to overcome some economic hurdles which we, in part, have helped to create.

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