A delegation of members of the United States Congress is visiting the Lajes Field, on Terceira island, Azores, on Saturday, May 9.
The visit is taking place at a time of tense bilateral relations between Portugal and the United States, following the US Defense Department announcing the downsizing of the Lajes Field on the island.
The plan includes the withdrawal of 500 US military personnel from US Lajes Field and the laying-off of an estimated 700 Portuguese civil workers. Lajes Field is the second largest employer on the island and downsizing the base will significantly impact the local economy.
The US delegation, led by US Ambassador in Lisbon, Robert Sherman, is meeting with the President of the Government of the Azores, Vasco Cordeiro, the Portuguese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Rui Machete, and other Portuguese government officials.
President Cordeiro said Friday that the visit confirms the importance the US military base in Terceira represents to the United States.
In February a bipartisan group of US lawmakers met in Lisbon to debate the Defense Department plan to downscaling its military outpost in the Azores and the implications for the bilateral relations with Portugal.
Last month, the President of the Government of the Azores, Vasco Cordeiro, accused the United States of being in “gross violation” of the spirit of the bilateral agreement held in Lisbon on February.
President Cordeiro was referring to lay-off notifications sent recently to Portuguese civil workers at the Lajes Field. The notifications were not expected to come so soon, while bilateral negations are still in progress.
A bilateral meeting, between Portugal’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Rui Machete, and United States government representatives, is scheduled for early June in Washington.
Early in January, the United States Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, had confirmed the Pentagon’s decision to downsize the US presence in the Lajes Field. The decision will save the Pentagon an estimated $35 million annually.
In 2012, citing budgetary constraints, the US administration had informed the Portuguese government that it would significantly reduce its military presence at Lajes Field.
The names of the visiting congressional delegation were not revealed to the press on Friday. Currently, there are three members of Portuguese descent in the US Congress, namely Devin Nunes, Jim Costa and David G. Valadao. Senator Patrick J. Toomey is also of Portuguese descent.
The Azores (population 250,000) is a region of Portugal composed of nine islands. The archipelago discovered by Portuguese explorers in the 15th century, became an Autonomous Region of Portugal in 1976. The government of the Autonomous Region of the Azores includes the Legislative Assembly, composed of 57 elected deputies, elected by universal suffrage for a four-year term; the Regional Government and Presidency, with parliamentary legitimacy, composed of a President, a Vice-President and seven Regional Secretaries responsible for the Regional Government executive operations. The Autonomous Region of the Azores is represented in the Council of Ministers of the Central Government by a representative appointed by the President of Portugal. According to the latest US census over 1.3 million individuals of Portuguese descent live in the United States, the majority with roots in the Azores. It is estimated that over 20,000 US citizens live in Portugal.