How the U.S. Can Learn From Portugal

By Randy Ataide

I just returned from several weeks in Portugal, which is my sixth trip in the past five years. These trips have allowed me the opportunity to visit many towns and regions outside of the two dominant cities of Lisbon and Porto, and spend time with a variety of Portuguese citizens. It is an ancient country, from its Roman ruins to splendid palaces, cathedrals and castles, and it should make any American realize how short our own history is.

Today, as a peripheral country of the European Union and broader global economy, Portugal is at a crossroads. Kenneth Wattret, the chief euro region economist at BNP Paribas in London stated in April 2010 that ”The reason we’re concerned about Portugal is not because its public sector debt ratios are excessively high; it’s more that the Portuguese economy doesn’t really grow.” This small seafaring country which once controlled much of the world, dominating the trade routes to Japan, India, Africa and South America, is now the fodder of economic and political pundits, being labeled one of Europe’s “PIGS” (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain), a poster child of European government mismanagement, bloated public sector and pension systems run amok.

Last week, over lunch (fresh sardines!) in Lisbon with a Harvard classmate who is a prominent entrepreneur in Portugal, we talked about our respective countries. He shared with me that while Portugal has made much progress since the long oppressive reign of António de Oliveira Salazar (1932-68), often simply referred to by Portuguese as “the Dictator,” he took special note of the lack of capacity and willingness of Portuguese to take risks of any sort in any business. While there are other factors (colonialism, wars, etc.), the contemporary view is that  Salazar and his government machinery created in the Portuguese a mindset that the government would take care of everything if the populace just gave them their votes and acquiesced to its policies. It is frequently said that what Salazar did was to keep the country occupied with “Football, Fado and Fatima” (Portuguese sports, music and religion, respectively). What Salazar actually did was disembowel the inherent Portuguese entrepreneurial spirit, leading to a population ill prepared for the global world.

As Americans, what do we draw from this? While we must be careful to not attempt to overreach in the analogy, it seems clear that when people lose their inherent skepticism towards its government, regardless of its particular form, that with time the people inevitably are harmed. The rulers invariably win over the ruled. I am reminded of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political thinker who over 160 years ago said I cannot help fearing that men may reach a point where they look on every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a toilsome trouble, every social advance as a first step toward revolution, and that they may absolutely refuse to move at all.” (Tocqueville also said “Socialism is a new form of slavery” but that is a topic for another day.) Tocqueville accurately predicted the Portugal of 2010.

I am convinced that the future of Portugal rests not in the hands of its political leaders but its ordinary people, who get up early and stay up late trying to secure a better future economically, socially and culturally for their family and communities. In many instances these are the entrepreneurs, those strange and restless personalities who undertake opportunities where they find it. They will likely not create the next multi-national company, but they can create something better than they have at the moment. And in Portugal, and perhaps here in the U.S., we need to encourage those who do this, in all their variant forms and contexts. If not, and we choke off these restless spirits, we may find that the painful acronym has grown to “USPIGS.”




6 responses to “How the U.S. Can Learn From Portugal

  1. I found your evaluation to be uplifting considering the current plight in Portugual:

    “In many instances these are the entrepreneurs, those strange and restless personalities who undertake opportunities where they find it.”

    Did you see any notewhorthy examples of “ordinary people” who have undertaken opportunities in Portugal?

  2. Although interesting article, I just want to add that I am sick of seeing in the news how wrong the “predictions” of economic consultants of “recognised” multinationals are… and then after a few months nobody says how wrong they were!! I’ve been noticing this for at least a year, saying that Portugal is on the way to its “deepest depth” like Greece, bla bla bla. Maybe… maybe not. I am sure not.
    A couple of months ago a dutch friend of mine emailed me asking “How things are doing over there in Portugal” like asking “are you OK?” in a paternal worried tone… And I think to my self… what a hell of image these people are having from Portugal… Far far from what I see… Brand new cars, full Football stadiums, fully-booked entertainments, discos full of people… bla bla bla… unemployment? sure!! it grew 1-2% since 2-3 years… Is this crisis? I can’t fill the place for secretary in my university! 10% unemployment? why not? have anybody checked how many jobs are to fulfil? How many epople workds for 2 weeks and then prefers to be again under unemployment subsidy? 10%? maybe 3-5% I am worried… the rest 5% I feel that are people who really doesn’t want to work.

    I am not able to translate the word “Macambuzio” which is on the written words by Guerra Junqueiro ( but I let you have a look at it…
    Like Guerra Junqeiro you may also have a look at Fernando Pessoa ( and others (e.g. which all mention in some part of their works how the portuguese were ALREADY like we are now… EVEN before Salazar… Although not in favour of Salazar rationale, he reached the power not “just by chance”. There was a reason for that… I let you guess what was that…

    In the Roman times, the romans already say at the time : “Those Lusitans, a people that does not allow to be ruled nor do not know to rule themselves…” (try to google-translate this to have a brief overviview…

    well hope you enjoy, perhaps a bit boring… sorry for that…

  3. Yes, I did see some examples in various towns. One was a small hotel in the far north that had incredible customer service–they clearly understood their value proposition and everything that I could see that they did was based upon this focus upon making the customers pleased. For example, the waiter at the breakfast remembered all of our nuances for our meal–the type of coffee, eggs and yogurts. He made each of us feel like royalty for a breakfast included in the room. My review of Trip Advisor of the Hotel Toural in Guimaraes confirmed my observations and experiences–many others felt the same. This was not a “brand name” hotel but a small traditional hotel focused on excellence.

    But the best example is the Ideal Restaurant in the small town of Loures, just north of Lisbon. Located adjacent to the firestation in a lower/middle class area, Ideal is known by the locals as “Bombieros” which is Portuguese for firestation. At first glance the restaurant is innocuous–and there is nothing that would draw the casual observer in.

    But once you enter in, past the Portuguese interpretation of a “Cheers” bar and the roaring grill loaded with chicken where the neighborhood picks up their dinner, you enter a sanctuary of classic Portuguese dining: familyl style tables, white linen, china–not elegant but simply clean, well-organized and friendly.

    The staff in this small inexpensive restaurant rivals the finest service and food at any four star hotel. (If I could take my entrepreneur students there I would.) As with the Hotel Toural example, the staff is quick, efficient, attentive without being annoying–and quick to recommend small items and specials that may be of interest. The food is traditional but superb but what is clear to me is that they have achieved two of the three value propositions available to businesses: operational excellence and customer intimacy. (The third is products leadership and as much as I love their food, I can’t classify BBQ chicken as a product innovation!)

    I think entrepreneurs focus too much on entrepreneurial cliches: first mover, innovative products, technology, etc. What about simply doing the small things in an excellent way? If you cannot master the basics of the elements of a business you will not master the more technical, strategic, visionary elements.

    “Sweat the small stuff.” It is in Portugal and elsewhere, albeit not enough. But the principles of excellent small businesses transcend cultures, settings and sectors.

  4. I fully understand your comments and observations…
    Portugal has many defects (like any other country) but once born here, you will have problems (mostly sentimental regarding those little things you mention and well being)
    I lived 7 years abroad, and I am glad to return to this little charming country were many things go wrong (organizationally speaking), but with plenty of choices to enjoy life, specially on tourism were I feel great and greater year after year with the quality offered. So nice to be close to good choices… Nevertheless, Portuguese usually think that outside Portugal is “better”, perhaps still a “braindamage” from Salazar….
    I let them go… (less people on the good spots 😉 )

  5. Can I just say what a relief to find someone who actually knows what theyre talking about on the internet. You definitely know how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More people need to read this and understand this side of the story. I cant believe youre not more popular because you definitely have the gift.

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