Friday, May 22, 2015

Americans Start to Leave Air Base in Azores, and Locals Fear Economic Impact
New York Times
MAY 21, 2015

LAJES, Portugal — Above the mirror in his barbershop, João Rocha has an old picture of American airmen filling all the seats and getting, of course, crew cuts.

Far fewer Americans are showing up these days, he said, and soon probably none. “It’s really bad for everybody here that the Americans are leaving,” Mr. Rocha said.

By the end of the year, the Air Force plans a major downsizing of its base here on Terceira Island in the Atlantic’s Azores archipelago, as part of broader cuts in American military spending and as mid-Atlantic stopovers drop down the list of Washington’s military priorities.

The number of personnel at the base is expected to drop to 165 from 650, while the number of Portuguese workers will be cut in half, to 400. The local municipality expects the loss of 1,500 indirect jobs and a cut of 6 percent in the island’s gross domestic product. Air Force officials here said the goal was to offer employees an early retirement package and to avoid firing staff members.

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Local politicians, however, are warning that the American cuts will have devastating social and financial consequences, as Lajes Field has long been the cornerstone of the economy of Terceira. Roberto Monteiro, the president of the municipality, condemned the downsizing and forecast that more than 10,000 of the island’s 56,000 inhabitants would emigrate over the coming decade to find work elsewhere.

“It’s immoral and unjust that the U.S. government assume the local economic impact of their decision isn’t their responsibility,” Mr. Monteiro said.

Terceira’s military importance dates to World War II, when it was first used by the British to fight German submarines and later by the United States to deploy troops in North Africa and Europe. The base then remained a significant transit hub in American interventions overseas, including during the Berlin airlift and Operation Desert Storm against Iraq.

Col. Martin L. Rothrock, who is the commander of the 65th Air Base Wing stationed here, said the cuts were intended to save “at least” $35 million a year and were motivated by “a combination of strategic priorities and budgets.”

In addition, he said, “technology is a factor,” as more fuel-efficient planes and in-flight refueling have reduced the need for an Atlantic stopover.

Still, Maj. Gen. Manuel Teixeira Rolo, the Portuguese commander of the Azores air zone, said in a separate interview that the size of the American cuts was a surprise, particularly since the United States recently increased its presence at two military bases in Spain. He also disputed American arguments about the base’s dwindling relevance, saying that more American aircraft landed at Lajes than the average of two planes per day claimed by the American command.

“We’ve been there for the U.S. when they needed our support, so it’s now very difficult for us to understand this tough position from their side,” General Teixeira Rolo said.

At its peak, in the late 1950s, the base had about 3,000 American military personnel. At the time, the American base reshaped the island of Terceira, particularly since Portugal was under a dictatorship that lasted until 1974. For instance, the base’s American television channel was Portugal’s first television broadcaster, started in 1954, before the creation of Portugal’s own national television company.

Growing up with parents working on the American base and watching Walt Disney cartoons on the American television channel, many residents speak English far more fluently than people in similarly isolated parts of Portugal. Several local families fly both the American and Portuguese flags outside their home and eat turkey at Christmas, rather than cod, Portugal’s traditional dish.

“When I go to the United States, nobody can believe I’m from Portugal,” said Agostinho Silva, who is better known as Gus and grew up speaking English because both his grandmother and mother worked at the base. Mr. Silva now manages the base’s gym.

Fernando Dias, a local who works as a welder at the base, and his wife, Sara, who works with painters there. "Everybody is just nervous," he said.

Even with their language and other skills, however, many of the base’s Portuguese employees will struggle to find alternative work, and not just because the unemployment rate in the Azores is already almost 15 percent. “You can be the best electrician here, but you’re not certified to work in Portugal if you’ve learned U.S. standards,” said Bruno Nogueira, the president of the base’s workers’ committee. “Some qualified people are worrying about having instead to flip burgers.”

Already the American presence on the island has declined significantly. Since last year, Americans have not been allowed to bring their families along during their station here. On a recent daylong visit, not a single aircraft landed on the base.

“It’s like a sleepy base right now, with everybody waiting to see what exactly is going to happen,” said Fernando Dias, who works on the base as a welder while his wife, Sara, is employed in the paint department. The couple have three young boys, and Mr. Dias said he had no idea how the family would manage financially if they lost their jobs on the base. “Everybody is just nervous,” he added.

Some residents said that the cuts could generate resentment toward Americans. There was some minor vandalism a few years ago when the base announced a much smaller round of job cuts.

Still, Mr. Nogueira said the reaction to the American downsizing was “not anger, but about feeling sad, also because we got used to having these American guys around us.” The service members won over residents by helping repair buildings and other infrastructure after a major earthquake in 1980.

In the nearby town of Praia da Vitória, Álvaro Agostinho Da Rosa, a pensioner who used to cut the grass around the airfield, said the base had given him not only work but also “lots of fun,” playing cards and snooker and bowling with American airmen.

“I’m wearing the American flag on my head every day,” he said, pointing to his “U.S.A.” cap. “If they really leave, I want to go with them.”

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