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New Kids on Trade Bloc: Portugal and Ex-Colonies

Twenty years after Portugal hastily left its five African colonies, it is now trying to repair relations with them to bolster its diplomatic prestige in the world.

A new commonwealth of Portuguese-speaking, or Lusophone, countries will be formed this week in Lisbon to give greater unity and voice to the more than 170 million Portuguese-speakers on three continents. The idea is that Portugal, Brazil, Angola, Sao Tome and Principe, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and Cape Verde will be stronger by acting collectively. "We will all benefit from this," said Antonio Monteiro, head of political affairs at the Foreign Ministry in Lisbon. "We have common interests that are economic, cultural, and political. By working together we can be more effective."

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Diplomats say the new organization, the Community of Portuguese-Language Countries (CPLP), could enhance commerce and investment as well as encourage cooperation in policing and media ventures.

They say the CPLP is indicative of regional and cultural alignments taking shape in the post-cold-war world order.

A driving force behind the initiative is Portugal's desire to maintain its trade and linguistic links with its former African colonies, where France and Britain have been making inroads.

Portugal abandoned its colonies in Africa in 1975 after a undergoing a coup at home and realizing that it could not win its long colonial wars. In recent years, Lisbon's sphere of influence over Africa has been declining. With dismay, Lisbon has watched Mozambique join the British Commonwealth and Guinea-Bissau flirt with the French-African economic group.

The Portuguese language has been declining everywhere except Brazil since Portugal began to disengage from its 500-year-old empire. This is especially true in the Indian state of Goa, Portugal's former possession; Macau, the island territory to be transferred to China in 1999; and East Timor, which Indonesia annexed in 1976.

Brazil, independent since 1822 and home to three-fourths of the world's Portuguese speakers, was also a prime force behind this initiative because of its drive to seek new markets in Africa.

Some Western diplomats are skeptical about the CPLP because they say its objectives seem vague. They also say its members' scant resources limit the group's political and economic impact.

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Portugal is one of European Union's poorest countries, and Mozambique, Sao Tome and Guinea-Bissau are among the most impoverished in the world.

Portuguese officials admit to modest ambitions and say they cannot even hope to strive toward the type of influence that France exerts on 14 African countries, where military intervention is common and a single currency is propped up by Paris.

This Lusophone union will also differ from Britain's 52-member Commonwealth, not just in scale, but in being less politicized.

The legacy today is that both Africans and Portuguese talk about feeling at home in each others' countries. "This community will be more like a family," is a common refrain by CPLP delegates.

Delegates stress, however, that they will not be pressured by the CPLP to give up membership in other regional organizations.

On the diplomatic side, delegates say Portugal will now be in a stronger position in the European Union to lobby for the interests of the other six CPLP countries. In return, Lisbon is getting more backing from the others to pressure Indonesia to grant self-determination to East Timor.

Interest in the new bloc was evident even before the official signing ceremony, to be held tomorrow in Lisbon. Equatorial Guinea, a Spanish-speaking West African state, has approached CPLP delegates about possibly joining the new group.

Participants say this group is proof that Portugal has finally repaired its relationships with its former African colonies. They said that such an initiative would have been impossible even 10 years ago, when Angola and Mozambique were embroiled in civil war, and resentment was rife against their former colonial minder.

"Psychologically and institutionally there were no conditions to form such a group then," a Mozambican official said. "But the world is a much changed place now."

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