Othello Saraiva de Carvalho (1936-2021)

Image: Joao Cabral


Considerations on the political trajectory of the leader of the Portuguese Revolution of April 25, 1974

“The brave taste death only once” (William Shakespeare).

There are people who are subjects of such extraordinary feats that they go down in history while still alive. Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho was still young when he assumed the leadership of the 25th of April 1974, the military insurrection that overthrew the government of Marcelo Caetano and the Salazarist dictatorship, the Portuguese form of the fascist regime. His paper prowess deserves admiration and respect.

The risks were not small. It was a feat, or even a political-military feat, because a few months earlier an uprising in Caldas da Rainha had failed. The dictatorship was almost half a century old. It required personal courage, articulation capacity, meticulous organization and strategic lucidity.

Otelo was the head of the Continental Operational Command (Copcon), a key military unit during the decisive eighteen months of the revolutionary situation. Like many others, among the career officers of the Armed Forces, Otelo had a social background in the plebeian middle classes, he was a man of action, a lot of voluntarism and some simplicity, little political repertoire, but he became radicalized to the left with the tragic experience of the colonial war , and was excited by the intensity of popular mobilization.

Otelo had a charismatic personality, overflowing with sincerity and passion, a bit between Chávez and Captain Lamarca, that is, between the heroism of the organization of the uprising, and an adventure adrift of later relations with the FP-25, a militarist group , which landed him in prison. Fortunately, later came the amnesty.

History teaches that, in revolutionary situations, human beings exceed or elevate themselves, surrendering to the best extent of themselves. Then comes the best and worst of them. MFA officers were central protagonists of the Portuguese revolution. The place of individuals or their stature is revealed.

Spínola was energetic and perceptive, a pompous ultra-reactionary, posing as a Germanophile general, with his appalling nineteenth-century monocle. Costa Gomes, subtle and astute, was, like a chameleon, a man of opportunity. From the MFA emerged the leaders of Salgueiro Maia or Dinis de Almeida, brave and honorable, but without political education; of Vasco Lourenço, of popular social origin, daring and arrogant, but tortuous; of Melo Antunes, learned and sinuous, the key man of the group of nine, the sorcerer who ends up a prisoner of his manipulations; of Varela Gomes, the man of the military left, discreet and dignified; by Vasco Gonçalves, less tragic than Allende, but also without the buffoonery of Daniel Ortega. It was also from the troops that the “Bonaparte” Ramalho Eanes emerged, dark and sinister, who buried the MFA.

The war in the colonies plunged Portugal into a chronic crisis. A country of ten million inhabitants, sharply out of step with the European prosperity of the sixties, bleeding from the emigration of youth fleeing military service and poverty, could not continue to sustain an occupying army of tens of thousands of men indefinitely in a war African.

The reform from above, due to internal displacements of Salazarism itself, the negotiated transition, the agreed democratization, so often expected, did not come. The “defensive” fascism of this disproportionate and semi-autarchic Empire will survive Salazar, remaining an incredible 48 years in power. The bourgeoisie of this small metropolis will resist the decolonization wave of the fifties for a quarter of a century.

From the XNUMXs onwards, it would find the strength to face a guerrilla war in Africa, Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Mozambique, even if, for most of those long years, it was more a war of movements than a war of positions, still thus, with no possible military solution. But the endless war ended up destroying the unity of the Armed Forces. The irony of history wanted that it was the same army that gave rise to the dictatorship that destroyed the First Republic, that overthrew Salazarism to guarantee the end of the war.

Clandestinely, in the middle ranks, the Armed Forces Movement, the MFA, was already taking shape. The weakness of the Marcelo Caetano government was so great that it would fall like a rotten fruit in hours. The nation was exhausted by war. Through the door opened by the anti-imperialist revolution in the colonies, the political and social revolution in the metropolis would enter.

Mandatory military service was an astonishing four years, of which at least two were spent overseas. More than ten thousand dead, not counting the wounded and maimed, on the scale of tens of thousands. It was from within this compulsory enlistment army that one of the decisive political subjects of the revolutionary process emerged, the MFA.

Responding to the radicalization of the middle classes of the metropolis and, also, to the pressure of the working class in which a portion of this middle official had its class origin, tired of the war, and anxious for freedoms, they broke with the regime. These social pressures also explain the political limits of the MFA itself and help to understand why, after overthrowing Caetano, they handed over power to Spínola.

Otelo himself, defender, starting on March 11, of the project to transform the MFA into a national liberation movement, in the manner of military movements in peripheral countries, such as Peru in the early XNUMXs, took stock with a frank disconcerting: “This ingrained feeling of subordination to the hierarchy, of the need for a boss who, above us, would guide us in the 'good' path, would haunt us until the end”.

This confession remains one of the keys to the interpretation of what became known as the PREC (ongoing revolutionary process), that is, the twelve months in which Vasco Gonçalves was at the head of the II, III, IV and V provisional governments. Ironically, just as many captains were inclined to place excessive trust in the generals, a portion of the left gave the leadership of the process to the captains, or to the people's unity formula with the MFA, defended by the PCP.

But the Portuguese revolution was much more than the postponed, belated, delayed end of an obsolete, archaic and criminal dictatorship. It has been said that the late revolutions are the most radical.

Militarily dejected by an endless war, politically exhausted by the absence of an internal social base, economically exhausted by a poverty that contrasted with the European pattern, and culturally tired by the obscurantist delay that it imposed for decades, a few hours were enough for an unconditional surrender. It was at that moment that the revolutionary process that moved Portugal began.

The military insurrection grew into a democratic revolution, when the popular masses took to the streets. But the social revolution that was born from the womb of the political revolution was defeated. Perhaps the characterization of a social revolution is surprising, but every revolution is a struggle in progress, a dispute, a bet in which uncertainty reigns.

In history one cannot explain what happened by considering only the outcome. This is anachronistic. It's an optical illusion of the story clock. The end of a process does not explain it. In fact, the opposite is more true. The future does not decipher the past. Revolutions cannot be analyzed only by the final outcome.

These easily explain more about the counterrevolution than about the revolution. Democratic freedoms were born in the womb of the revolution, when everything seemed possible. But the semi-presidential democratic regime that exists today in Portugal did not emerge from the process of struggles opened on April 25, 1974. It came to light after a self-coup at the top of the Armed Forces organized by the Group of Nine on November 25, 1975.

Reaction triumphed after the 1976 presidential elections. It was necessary to resort to counterrevolutionary methods in November 1975 to restore hierarchical order in the barracks and dissolve the MFA. The MFA that made the 25th of April was dissolved. It is true that the reaction with democratic tactics dispensed with a barrage with genocidal methods, as had happened in Santiago de Chile in 1973. It was not accidental, however, that the first president elected was Ramalho Eanes, the general of the 25th of November.

In that first presidential election, on April 25, 1976, Otelo was a candidate against Ramalho Eanes. I was there, but I couldn't vote because I'm not formally a Portuguese citizen. At the solemn hour of death, gratitude, recognition, justice must prevail, and Othello was great.

It had to be with emotion. Farewell, Othello.

*Valério Arcary is a retired professor at IFSP. Author, among other books, of Revolution meets history (Shaman).


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