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Portugal: Fifty Years Since the Carnation Revolution

From today’s perspective, fifty years after the revolution, how can we assess its legacy?

Courtesy of John Green

Fifty years ago, on April 25, 1974, Portugal was shaken by an earthquake. Not a geological earthquake, like the one in 1755 that razed Lisbon to the ground and killed around 50,000 people, but a political one, with only four victims. It was an uprising that would overnight bring Europe’s longest lasting fascist dictatorship tumbling down.

Shortly after midnight on April 25, the popular song “Grândola Vila Moreno” (Grândola, my swarthy town) rang out over the airwaves of a private Portuguese radio station. To the nervous soldiers in their barracks listening out for it, this was the signal for them to start the engines of their tanks and armored cars and begin their revolt by rapidly taking Lisbon, the capital, and other large towns by storm. Within only a few hours, the hated fascist regime of over forty years had collapsed. The coup sent shockwaves around the world.

It caught everyone by surprise. Portugal’s dictatorship had collapsed in an almost bloodless coup and the dictator, Marcelo Caetano, fled the country—four civilians shot dead by the fascist secret service, the General Security Directorate, on the morning of April 25 were the only casualties. This left-wing military coup would usher in a genuine revolution, which became known as the Carnation Revolution, after the many red carnations that the rebellious soldiers placed in their gun barrels to emphasize its peaceful nature. It was a revolution that shocked establishments throughout the Western world but gave inspiration to the left and those fighting for freedom worldwide.

António de Oliveira Salazar had been prime minister since 1932. Having come to power under the National Dictatorship, he reframed his regime as the Estado Novo (New State), a corporatist dictatorship. In 1968, he resigned for health reasons and handed the reins over to Caetano, who continued the dictatorship.

Between 1961 and 1974, Portugal had been waging wars of attrition against liberation forces in its overseas colonies. At their height, those colonial wars were consuming up to 40 percent of the Portuguese budget. They were costly not only in monetary terms, but also in terms of lives lost. The obligatory conscription of young men into the army with mandatory two-year tours in Africa was strongly resisted, many preferring exile to army service. Apart from many ordinary soldiers, a considerable number of young officers, usually from middle-class families, were also losing their lives in what were widely seen as unwinnable wars, creating increased resistance to the wars at home across classes. Disaffection within the army was spreading and finally triggered the overthrow of an intransigent and ossified regime.

In February 1974, Caetano had decided to remove military officer António de Spínola from the command of Portuguese forces in Guinea-Bissau in the face of his increasingly vocal dissatisfaction with the direction of Portuguese colonial policy and its military strategy. He had published a book, Portugal and the Future, which expressed his political and military views on the colonial wars. This inspired several military officers who opposed the war, such as Francisco da Costa Gomes, Vitor Alves, Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, and Vasco Lourenço, to set up the clandestine Movement of the Armed Forces (MFA) with the aim of liberating Portugal from the fascist Estado Novo regime and introducing what they saw as necessary reforms.

The date chosen for the coup was April 25. Two secret signals were to be broadcast over national radio to trigger the military uprising. First, “And After the Farewell” (Portugal’s entry for the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest), to be aired at 10:55 pm on April 24; and second, the broadcasting on Rádio Renascença of “Grândola, Vila Morena”—a song by popular folk singer José Alfonso, who had been banned from Portuguese radio—at 12:20 am on April 25. “Grândola, Vila Morena” would become the unofficial anthem of the revolution. The strategy was to initiate rapid, multiple strikes and take over strategic points of power in the country, avoiding loss of life at all costs.

The need for secrecy meant that only a few trusted officers in the armed forces were apprised of the coup plans. As a result, the rebel officers had no certainty that the majority of the armed forces would welcome and join their uprising. However, as it was largely a conscript army made up of ordinary working men, most did side with the rebels. Only the oppressive forces of the state—the Estado Novo’s political police, the International and State Defense Police, later the General Security Directorate—offered any opposition, albeit only token opposition. These repressive forces were the ones that had persecuted opponents of the regime, imprisoned, tortured, and killed them, so had little support among the people.

On the morning of April 25, despite repeated radio appeals from the “captains of April” (the MFA) advising civilians to stay at home, soon after dawn tens of thousands of people swarmed onto the streets of Lisbon and expressed joy over the end of their forty-year nightmare.

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One central gathering point was the Lisbon flower market. Here, some of the soldiers began placing red carnations in their rifles—an indication of their peaceful intentions and a May Day icon, given that May Day was less than a week away—and many others followed suit. Images of soldiers with carnations in their gun barrels were transmitted around the world and lent the revolution its name.

No mass demonstrations had preceded the coup, but spontaneous civilian involvement rapidly turned the military coup into a popular revolution. Although initially led by radical army officers, rank-and-file soldiers, workers, and peasants readily joined the uprising using the language of socialism and democracy.

Although on the surface it did appear to be a purely military coup, this is deceiving. The Portuguese population, despite having lived for decades under an oppressive state apparatus, had not done so passively. Over the years, opposition forces had attempted unsuccessfully to bring about change. An active Communist Party had continued to work underground and had built up a significant following, particularly among agricultural and industrial workers and small left-wing groups had also carried out acts of protest and opposition.

During the period of dictatorship, tens of thousands of young people had been driven into exile by the rampant poverty, lack of work, and political oppression; many returned once they heard that the old regime had been toppled.

Caetano found refuge in the main headquarters of the Lisbon military police, but the building was soon surrounded by units of the MFA. He agreed to capitulate but insisted on handing over the reins only to General Spínola, allowing him to assume a prominence he would otherwise not necessarily have had, contrary to the plans of the more radical leaders of the MFA. The formation of the Junta of National Salvation in the days following the revolution allowed Spínola to take on the interim role of president. Although he had become the figurehead for dissatisfaction within the military, he was nevertheless very much a member of the ruling class, a conservative man whose only aim was to introduce a certain political liberalization so the civilian leadership could adopt a more “realistic” military posture in the colonies. Despite this, many of his co-conspirators and fellow officers had a much more radical vision of what the goals of the revolution should be.

The core of mainly young officers that led the revolution had formed the MFA and were responsible for setting up temporary post-revolutionary structures to run the country, in collaboration with leading civilian democratic forces from across the political spectrum, until free and democratic elections could be held. To avoid civil unrest, a determination to create and maintain unity between the armed forces movement and civilians emerged, and slogans emphasizing this unity would echo around the streets, at public gatherings, and political rallies in the days following April 25.

The revolution had taken the world, including the United States, by surprise. The United States had a strong presence in Portugal through NATO’s Joint Force Command Lisbon, one of the largest bases in southern Europe and responsible for the Iberian Atlantic area.

Initially, many on the left had illusions that the country was indeed undergoing a socialist transformation into a workers’ state. Seen from the narrow perspective of Lisbon, it could appear that such a vision was plausible: on May Day of that year, tens of thousands packed central Lisbon waving red flags and chanting revolutionary slogans; workers were occupying factories and turning feudal estates into cooperatives; and there were calls for the nationalization and expropriation of businesses with strong links to the dictatorship. The atmosphere was reminiscent of Petrograd in 1917, when the Russian Bolsheviks took power.

Once the success of the coup had been broadcast around the world, many of those living in exile began returning home to join the movement. Álvaro Cunhal, general secretary of the Communist Party, flew in from Moscow. The leader of the Socialist Party, Mário Soares, returned from Paris, and others followed.

The Portuguese Communist Party had been the only oppositional political party to have maintained a continual presence—although a clandestine one—inside the country during the dictatorship. This had earned it a great deal of respect among sections of the industrial and rural working classes. The party was keen to preserve the emerging unity between the armed forces movement and the people to prevent the revolution from becoming a solely military operation, leading to the establishment of a military junta and was determined to maintain as broad a consensus as possible among the population at large.

On May 1, a massive gathering and rally was held in Lisbon’s Alameda Dom Afonso Henriques and the central stadium, attended by tens of thousands. Here, Cunhal stood alongside socialist leader Soares and military officers leading chants of “The people and armed forces united.” The stadium was a sea of Portuguese and red flags; everyone was singing and chanting. Though any onlooker could easily imagine that this vast crowd, in apparent complete and unshakeable unity, represented the country as a whole, this was not the case.

The coup unleashed a tsunami of activity throughout the country. The people did not wait to be told what to do. The first housing occupations took place on April 28; within a week, there were around one hundred strikes, many calling for saneamento—the purging of those owners and managers with links to the dictatorship. Hundreds of workplaces were occupied and over the next months, country estates owned by absentee landlords were taken over. Crèches, health centers, community organizations, and cultural centers were speedily set up. Grassroots democracy blossomed. European leftists flocked to join in and celebrate the renaissance of revolutionary ideas in the country.

Spínola, as interim president of the revolutionary government, remained in office from May 15, 1974, until September 30 of that year. Confronted by a clear left-wing momentum among leading officers of the MFA and the country more broadly, he tried unsuccessfully to intervene politically to stem the popular movements that were demanding more radical change—not just cosmetic change by the new, temporary government.

Spínola was not alone in trying to suppress revolutionary demands. The business and political elite of the old regime were not idly waiting while the revolutionary tide lapped at their feet. They were given moral and financial support by outside interests, including the powerful United States, determined to prevent Portugal from turning socialist.

Not long after his meeting with Nixon, on September 28, 1974, Spínola made a public appeal to the “silent majority” in the country and attempted to organize a large popular demonstration in the capital aimed at stemming the revolutionary tide. However, soldiers of the MFA and left-wing parties, led by the Communist Party, organized countermeasures and successfully blocked access to Lisbon with barricades and road checks at various access points around the city. The situation threatened to devolve into civil war, but at the end of the day Carvalho, the head of the Operational Command of the Continent, the military defense force, was able to announce that the MFA was in complete control of the situation.

After the failure of his call to arms and just four months in power, Spínola was forced to resign and hand over his post to Costa Gomes, a left-wing general more in tune with the aspirations of the radical officers and mood of the country. Spínola’s resignation was the result of a profound shift to the political left that the revolution had taken. Nevertheless, this confrontation reflected the fact that among those military officers who led the coup, there were still differences of opinion and political viewpoints; there was no unanimity.

Vasco Gonçalves, the interim prime minister, decreed “victory over reaction,” but the country faced another troubled year. In a memo to U.S. president Gerald Ford, Henry Kissinger wrote pessimistically at the time: “Perhaps the most important lesson from the weekend’s events in Portugal is the close coordination between the MFA and the Communist Party. Between them their control of the situation was so complete that in all practical respects the country was in their hands.”

General Gonçalves, who was indeed close to the Communist Party, had become prime minister in July 1974 and remained in office until September 1975. Under his leadership, the interim government proceeded to accelerate radical change, calling for the nationalization of Portuguese-owned capital in the banking, insurance, petrochemical, fertilizer, tobacco, cement, and wood pulp sectors of the economy, as well as the huge Portuguese iron and steel conglomerate Companhia União Fabril, major breweries, large shipping lines, most public transport, two of the three principal shipyards, radio and television networks (except that of the Roman Catholic Church), and important companies in the glass, mining, fishing, and agricultural industries. This was socialism in action.

These measures were deemed steps too far for the right wing, and with support from the United States and European Social Democratic forces, Spínola and other right-wing military figures mounted a last-ditch effort to stem the leftward trajectory of the revolution. On March 11, 1975, they mounted a coup to bring the government down. Two air force training planes attacked an artillery barracks, strafing them, while paratroopers stormed them. One soldier was killed and several wounded. It was a short-lived and botched coup attempt that was easily contained. Carvalho hinted that he believed the United States was involved. He told Portuguese reporters that the U.S. Ambassador, Frank C. Carlucci, “had better leave after what happened today.”

Spínola fled to Spain with his wife and eighteen officers. Several other senior Portuguese officers took refuge in the West German Embassy. Costa Gomes appealed for calm on radio and television. He said Spínola’s name headed a list of twenty-eight officers who were to be “arrested, tried and punished.” There was outrage in the armed forces and among those citizens loyal to the government. In central Lisbon, crowds attacked the headquarters of the conservative Center Democratic party, which was deemed a supporter of the attempted coup.  Although the coup was defeated, it served to further destabilize the situation and increased anxiety among the civilian population.

In the summer of 1975, supported by the MFA, many grassroots assemblies emerged and came to be seen as the highest political expression of popular power. It is estimated that about 380 factories became worker self-managed, and 500 co-ops were in operation by mid-1975. The struggles of the working-class and the associated social movements led to far-reaching social reforms, such as the creation of a health care system similar to the British National Health Service. All these events were taking place against a backdrop of six provisional governments, as the left and right battled for control of the process of transformation. There were also several coup attempts and, behind the scenes, NATO and right-wing machinations.

The United States and other international forces of the capitalist establishment soon realized that to counter the Communist Party and any genuine socialist aspirations, they needed to promote Soares and his party, which had no real commitment to socialism of any sort but purported to offer a non-Soviet route to socialism. Given its strong backing by European social democratic parties and the United States, the Socialist Party managed to gain rapid support. Confusing many, its loudspeaker vans toured the capital blaring out “The Internationale,” traditionally the anthem of the international communist movement, and Soares promised a “democratic” socialism, as distinct from the Communist Party’s aim, which he alleged would bring in Soviet-style communism. The country received visits from leading social democratic leaders, who queued up to visit the country: François Mitterrand, Willy Brand, and James Callaghan were among those who threw their weight and their money behind Soares and his Socialist Party.

A U.S. spokesperson described the situation at the time thus: “By 1975, the Portuguese Communist Party and other Marxist-Leninist groups had won virtual control of the government, and it seemed that all of the Lusophone and Ibero-American countries in South America and Africa would fall to communism as well.”

The United States was seriously worried about the possibility of a radical government becoming entrenched and were determined to nip it in the bud. To that aim, they immediately installed tough guy Frank Carlucci as their new ambassador to mastermind the counterrevolution.

Carlucci had been a career ambassador and foreign service officer in Africa and Latin America from the 1950s onward. But he would really make a major impact during the time he was ambassador to Portugal from 1975 to 1978. Carlucci was sent to Portugal during what he described later as “a period of utter chaos.” In fact, it was a period of calm and order despite the behind-the-scenes jostling for dominance; civilian life continued in an orderly fashion, with little violence. It was Carlucci and his cohorts who brought chaos. The right-wing press was full of stories of the imminent danger of a hardline communist takeover and fear was whipped up by the media. Communist Party premises were attacked and bombs detonated, with the aim of associating the Communist Party with violence and civil strife.

A critical part of Carlucci’s career had been spent during the 1950s and ’60s in Congo and Brazil. He had been involved in the overthrow of the democratically elected left-wing João Goulart government in Brazil, as well as in the murder of Patrice Lumumba in Congo.

Leveraging the United States Agency for International Development and other forms of U.S. soft power, Carlucci was a key figure in steering Portugal’s democratization process and engineering the election of Soares as its first prime minister. In an interview that Carlucci gave to the Gerald Ford Foundation later, he said: “If Portugal hadn’t gone democratic, it’s questionable whether Spain would have. And Spain set the pace for Latin America.”

In Portugal, Carlucci, unlike Kissinger, was willing to work with Socialist Party leader Soares not out of any sympathy for his avowed socialist outlook, but because, from Carlucci’s perspective, Soares was the only game in town capable of preventing the Communist Party and its allies from coming to power. Carlucci’s pay-off came when Soares became prime minister in 1976, cementing ties with NATO and instituting International Monetary Fund-approved austerity measures.

The combined forces of internal reaction, a powerful, deeply conservative Catholic Church, sophisticated U.S. destabilization tactics and the role played by the European forces of social democracy all helped create an effective campaign of demonizing the Communist Party.

On April 25, 1975, exactly one year after the coup, the first free elections since 1925 were held to establish a Constitutional Assembly, which would write a new constitution to establish a parliamentary democracy. This would have a strong socialist undertone and be the forerunner of elections later to form a new and permanent democratic parliament and government.

In the run up to this election, the Communist Party had campaigned to maintain a political consensus and expressed preparedness to work together with the Socialist Party, but was spurned by Soares. Unlike the Communist Party, Soares’s Socialist Party had no real base within the country and had been a relatively recent creation. It had been founded in West Germany only in April of the previous year and had been given substantial support by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (the fund of the West German Social Democratic Party). In the early days of the revolution, ex-chancellor Willy Brandt made secret visits to Portugal to give Soares advice and financial aid. Unsurprisingly many people saw a vote for the Socialists as a safer bet than one for the Communists. Even though a majority of the electorate voted for parties that claimed to be socialist, it was Soares’s Socialist Party that won the most votes and, with its allies in the Assembly, lost no time in denouncing the government of interim prime minister Gonçalves, whom it accused of left-wing extremism. The Communist Party’s strenuous efforts to maintain unity between civilian forces and the progressive military were in the end unsuccessful. Political differences within the MFA itself were also becoming more acute and would eventually lead to its splintering and dissolution.

Finally, in 1976, the first parliamentary elections were held, giving rise to the first constitutional government. The Socialist Party won 38 percent of the vote, the Social Democratic Party won 26.4 percent, the Portuguese Communist Party won less than 13 percent of the vote, and the right-wing Democratic and Social Center Party won less than 8 percent. The first constitutional government, led by Soares, took office. This was the first election in which universal suffrage was introduced and women were allowed to vote with the same rights as men. Succeeding governments amended the constitution and were able to erase almost all progressive elements introduced by the early revolutionary government of Gonçalves.

From today’s perspective, fifty years after the revolution, how can we assess its legacy? Undoubtedly, its greatest achievement was to accelerate the liberation of the former Portuguese colonial territories in Africa, India, and China. It also ensured that Portugal itself became a stable and pluralist parliamentary democracy. What it did not achieve was any permanent radical transformation of the country or the eradication of poverty and inequality—Portugal is still one of the poorest countries in the European Union. Succeeding governments have followed neoliberal economic policies and imposed austerity measures on the country. Nevertheless, the Carnation Revolution of 1974 remains a beacon for people around the world who are still struggling for radical change. The left can still learn lessons from that revolution, both from its achievements and its failings.

At the time, many on the left—and I was one of them—felt that Portugal would emerge as a new socialist country on the world map. It demonstrated people power—workers taking over factories, farms, and banks; trade unions operating freely; residents forming housing co-operatives, setting up nurseries, clinics, and so on. This appeared to be real grassroots socialism in practice. However, we certainly underestimated the strength of non-socialist forces in the military leadership who most clearly wanted a democratic system to replace the old fascist one but were not prepared to go as far as demanding full-bloodied socialism. We also underestimated the abilities of the United States and its European allies, together with the Catholic Church, to frustrate those aspirations and maintain their iron grip on the country.

The most recent elections, in March 2024, reflect the divisions that still plague Portugal. But they also reflect the fact that the Communist/Green group and Left Bloc together only won nine seats is a worrying reflection of the left’s lack of support. More worrying, though, is the upsurge of the far right, populist Chega party, following in the footsteps of Italy, France and Germany.

John Green is a London-based journalist and author. He covered Portugal’s Carnation Revolution and its aftermath as a television journalist.

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