Remembering the Carnation Revolution



Fifty years ago, left-wing military officers overthrew Portugal's long-standing dictatorship

When the song “Grândola, Vila Morena” played on the radio, shortly after midnight on April 25, 1974, everyone in Portugal who was still tuning in at such a late hour must have been suspended. José Afonso's song about a fraternal homeland in which the people have something to say was banned during the dictatorship, so the fact that it was played on the radio must have meant something exceptional.

And, in fact, something happened: it was the agreed signal for the coup d'état planned by a few hundred left-wing military officers.

Portugal's late colonialism

There had been growing unrest in the armed forces for some time. For, while colonialism was collapsing around the world, Portugal, the third largest colonial power on the planet, remained firmly tied to its colonial empire – even as armed liberation movements were forming in Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique.

The war on multiple fronts in the colonies put the authoritarian regime under increasing pressure. The rapid increase in costs ended up leading to around half of the country's budget being spent on colonial wars, which resulted in extreme poverty and suffering in the colonies, but also in Portugal itself. For Salazar's regime, which presented itself as the heir to the centuries-old Portuguese colonial tradition, colonialism and dictatorship were so strongly dependent that their destiny was completely intertwined.

António de Oliveira Salazar came to power after a military coup in 1926. After being named prime minister in 1932, he transformed the country into the Estado Novo, a clerical-fascist “new state” comparable to Franco's Spain. The working population was forced to starve to pay the national debt, while traditional elites – large landowners, businessmen and military officers – profited. The political opposition faced indiscriminate repression by the secret police, both in Portugal and in the colonies. Despite all this, the authoritarian country was accepted as a founding member of NATO in 1949.

The colonial wars of the 1960s led, in the words of historian Urte Sperling, to “the end of the class alliance based on protectionism and colonial plunder.” The Portuguese oligarchy was divided into two opposing groups – a faction that pressed for modernization and openness, and the elites that profited mainly from colonialism and protectionism.

Political differences arose immediately after the revolution

However, the regime proved incapable of reforming itself, including under Salazar's successor, Marcelo Caetano. Attempts at opening were thwarted by threats of a coup from Salazar's old guard, and the colonial wars continued relentlessly.

When Guinea-Bissau declared independence in 1972, soldiers and officers recognized how little Portugal's war aims had to do with reality in the colonies. The military situation became even more desperate. More and more soldiers were killed or returned to their homeland injured and traumatized. Hundreds of thousands left the country.

The Armed Forces Movement

The contradictions in Portuguese society increased dramatically, especially in the armed forces, as the regime was unwilling to change the course of the colonial wars. On December 1, 1973, around two hundred officers met on the outskirts of Lisbon and planned a coup d'état. They constituted the nucleus of the Armed Forces Movement (MFA), made up mainly of young officers, almost all of them of middle rank and who had actively participated in the colonial wars. They had different political orientations, but they shared the conviction that the colonial wars needed to end and the dictatorship had to fall for that to happen.

From then on, everything went very quickly. A first attempt at revolt in March failed. The MFA then put Major Otelo de Carvalho in charge of the operational planning of a military action, and formed an alliance of convenience with the conservative general António de Spínola.

When “Grândola, Vila Morena” played on the radio, on April 25, 1974, the conspirators had already occupied the most strategically important infrastructure. There was almost no resistance and in the afternoon Prime Minister Caetano surrendered. The decrepit regime literally collapsed. General Spínola and the MFA agreed to form the National Salvation Board.

The population enthusiastically welcomed the fall of the regime and scenes of people fraternizing with soldiers were broadcast around the world. The carnations, which civilians placed in the barrels of soldiers' guns, became a symbol of the almost bloodless collapse of the dictatorship. Popular celebrations gave legitimacy to the coup, transforming it into a revolution. A few days later, hundreds of thousands of people celebrated May Day in a popular festival.

With Spínola's resignation in the autumn, the second phase of the revolution began

At that time, the liberating potential unleashed by the fall of the dictatorship became clear. There was a total popular uprising. In the industrial areas of Lisbon, trade unionists went on strike and occupied factories, and the rural proletariat began to organize in the south of the country.

In May, a provisional government was formed based on a broad coalition ranging from communists and socialists to liberals. But what was well received in Portugal provoked disgust among its allies abroad. Alarmed by the participation in the government of the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), Western countries feared that Portugal could align itself with the Soviet Union. US President Gerald Ford appealed to Prime Minister Vasco Gonçalves to expel the PCP from the government. NATO also expressed “concern about the situation in Portugal” and excluded the country from its Nuclear Planning Group.

In Portugal, political differences emerged immediately after the revolution. While the MFA aimed for a democratic constitution, free unions, parties and elections, and an economic and social policy that favored the disadvantaged, Spínola considered himself the head of an authoritarian presidential regime. In the summer of 1974, the two political-military centers, the MFA and Spínola's group, competed for power. As the latter increasingly openly intended a coup d'état, the MFA felt compelled to act to safeguard its goals of decolonization, democratization and economic development. Spínola was forced to resign as interim president, being succeeded by former commander-in-chief Francisco da Costa Gomes, a member of the MFA.

With Spínola's resignation in the autumn, the second phase of the revolution began. At the time, the majority of Portuguese people welcomed the limited rule of the revolutionary military. A popular slogan at the time proclaimed: “The people support the MFA!”

After a second coup attempt by Spínola failed in March 1975, the MFA went on the offensive and decided to nationalize most of the banks and insurance companies, with other important industries following. Due to pressure from the radicalization of rural workers, land reforms were also planned.

The “hot summer” of the popular movement

The third phase of the revolution began with elections for a constituent Assembly on the first anniversary of the revolution. However, the winners were not the decidedly left-wing parties, but rather the Socialist Party (PS), led by Mário Soares, which received generous support from the Socialist International, and the liberal Popular Democratic Party (PPD). Both parties had participated in the coup, but now wanted to abort the revolutionary process and make the transition to capitalist normality. Encouraged by the election results, they pressed on.

At the same time, class struggles intensified during the “hot summer” of 1975, particularly in Alentejo, in the south of the country, where large landowners governed extensive rural properties known as latifundios, while in the north small landowners cultivated the Earth. The conflict between rural labor and landowners in the south expanded into an outright struggle for control of the land. At the same time, the industry faced a rising wave of strikes and squatter movements developed in the cities.

The end of the revolution and its legacy

While the revolutionary movement was radicalizing from below, the PS and PPD left the coalition government and organized mass demonstrations under the slogan: “The people do not support the MFA”. This led to the collapse of the coalition on which the MFA depended, precisely at the moment when the popular movement reached its peak and tens of thousands of “revolutionary tourists” flocked to the country.

The schism quickly reached the military and the left wing of the MFA found itself under increasing pressure. After all, it did not represent all the armed forces: leftists dominated the Marines, but the Air Force and Army were controlled by conservative and diffuse liberal forces. Finally, in August 1975, a group of officers openly called for a slowdown in the revolution, halting the socialization program, restoring soldiers' discipline, and reducing the influence of the PCP. The schism within the MFA was now indisputable.

The sixth provisional government was then dominated by moderate forces. German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt suddenly offered the country a cash loan and the European Commission also provided financial assistance. The left wing of the MFA was gradually marginalized. On November 25, its leaders were arrested, putting an end to its revolutionary role.

What remains of the Carnation Revolution half a century later? Its most significant successes were the end of Portuguese colonialism, as well as the fall of the dictatorship and the transition to a constitution based on social and democratic rights. But it failed to transform the economy and society to the benefit of the disadvantaged: yours revolution, in the factories and in the countryside, was aborted.

Still, the fact that just six months after the coup against Salvador Allende's government in Chile, a left-wing military group was able to force the fall of the dictatorship and carry out the transition to a democratic society is a lasting legacy – which adds an exciting piece to the mosaic of revolution.

*Albert Scharenberg is a historian, political scientist and editor of international politics at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

Originally published on Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Magazine.

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