The 1920s were a dark and terrible time in Portugal. A misguided entry into the First World War had thrashed its economy (
none too strong to begin with). The Republic's political institutions were scarcely functioning, and the administration
lurched from government to government while public trust and confidence dwindled. Liberal Democrats were shouted down by a
range of social conservatives, many of whom viewed industrialization itself as the source of the country's problems; activist
groups arose demanding a return to the glorious days of the early nineteenth century, before all the troubles of the modern
world. A pure Portugal. A Catholic Portugal.
For in those days, the liberal movements' primary enemy was the Church. The Monarchy was gone. The Aristocracy had gone
into business and was untouchable, for the middle class would brook no flirtation with Socialism. The Church, however, was
still there. The traditional view of Iberian liberals was that the Church was an institution of evil which had for centuries oppressed
the peasantry as its landlords and as its clerics. The Republicans in Portugal, like their brethren in Spain,
sought to destroy the power of the Church; the clerics, and the peasants who loved it, resisted.
All was well and good; because of the seething of social discontent, the various factions were unable to unite behind a
single banner. The parties fragmented, the parliament gridlocked, and the economy stagnated. A general sense of malaise
settled in as things followed the proverbial path from bad to worse, and eventually the military decided it had had enough. A couple of generals and their forces seized Lisbon, abolished the Republic, and sent the politicians packing.
The generals had no program; much like Mr. Musharraf, their lighthouse was not a set of goals that they wanted to achieve.
It was, rather, a conviction that civilian rule was destroying the country and that somebody had to do something, so it might
as well be them. Then, too, they were paralyzed, every bit as much as the parliament had been: the leadership of the junta
came from three different political factions. Since each had support within the ranks, none could gain primacy without a
fight; and in an unstable three-sided system, nobody wanted to start a fight he wasn't sure he would win.
The economy continued to degenerate. The governmental budget became steadily more overloaded. The nation found itself faced
with imminent bankruptcy. Disaster rushed in from the horizon faster than a running cheetah. In 1928, in a desperate, last-
ditch effort to block the crisis everyone could see coming, the junta invited an economics professor by the name of
Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, a man with suitably conservative views who had a history of activism within the Catholic
political movement, to find a way to balance the budget. He agreed, under the condition that he be granted the power to veto
any spending on any issue he chose - for only a man with the power to control spending can truly reduce the budget. The junta
consented. de Oliveira Salazar was to rule Portugal until he was incapacitated thirty-six years later.
The Nature of the Estado Novo
de Oliviera Salazar's regime, like the dictatorship he replaced, started out as a compromise between three different
political factions: the Catholics, the Fascists, and the Corporatists. Salazar's political genius - the thing that allowed his
government to be effective and break the paralysis of the preceding decade - was in blending the programs of the Catholics and
the corporatists. This union allowed him to purge the Fascists from the government and establish the basis for a lasting
There is a significant amount of debate in academic circles as to whether or not the de Oliveira Salazar regime should
properly be considered a subspecies of fascism. The detailed taxonomy of political movements is outside the scope of this
article, and is in any event a semantic pastime both boring and useless, so I will not go into it further, except to note that de
Oliveira Salazar would have rejected the comparison on the grounds that the Italian (and German) Fascists were both pagan
and in love with modernity; products of the industrial age, the Fascists wanted to continue and expand the
industrial-scientific revolution. de Oliveira Salazar wanted neither. The fundamental principle of the Estado Novo
was a return to tranquility and stability - the tranquility and stability that the country would know if everyone would accept
that the country was a unitary whole, that the interests of the entire country should be paramount over the interests of the
individual, the tranquility and stability that the country knew before all the modern economic and political troubles, all of
which were the fault of industrialization and foreign money.
Politics in de Oliveira Salazar's Portugal were severely repressed. Political parties were banned, as might well be
expected from a government which preached the unitary and indivisible nature of the body politic. Censorship was the most
rigid in Europe; nothing which might infect the national consciousness with unsavory, destabilizing, or otherwise
objectionable ideals was allowed. Education, such as it was, was turned over to the Church, which was bound together with the
administration - but, unlike in the industrial world, education was not necessarily considered a virtue. All of the greatness
in Portugal's history had been achieved by uneducated men, men who had conquered Brazil and Africa and sailed around the
world. Illiteracy was no vice and Education no virtue in Portugal under de Oliveira Salazar.
The truly innovative aspect of de Oliveira Salazar's system came in the way corporatism was supposed to be incorporated
into the political and economic structure. Industrial and commercial enterprises were to be organized into corporations in which labor and capital were to both have a say in determining the course of the enterprise. The
corporations themselves were to have representation in parliament. To an extent, this was similar in structure to an
idealized version of the soviet system, in which parliamentary representation was supposed to be handled through workers'
councils in the various industrial organizations; de Oliviera Salazar changed it significantly, however, by stipulating that
the corporation would entail all of its participants, not just the workers, and by treating the church, the large agricultural
estates, and other pre-existing centers of power, as their own corporations.
All of this sounded good enough to win the corporatists over, of course, but most of it was never implemented. The
Portuguese state was severely threatened by the Spanish Civil War, and its economy was threatened by the Second World War; and
so the establishment of new corporations as significant actors in the political or economic realm was postponed until the late
1940s. By that time, a shining new bureaucracy had arisen. It was said at one point that in Portugal it was impossible for a
factory to expand, or a new factory to be constructed, or a new product to be introduced, without de Oliviera Salazar's
personal approbation. Corporatism was a facade: a pleasant face used to lull over the corporatists while de Oliviera Salazar,
in effect, reinstituted the monarchy (with himself as the monarch) and pursued the political and social agenda of the
country's Catholic movement.
The political structure of the state was a facade, as well. While it had a directly elected lower house and an upper house
consisting of representatives of the various conservatives, the legislature had no power to propose new laws (these had to
come from the Prime Minister) and only met for two months out of the year (subject to dissolution by the prime minister).
Meanwhile, when the legislature was not in session, the prime minister had the power to rule by decree, said decrees not
subject to subsequent approval by the legislature. The legislature was less than a rubber stamp: it was a tiny fig leaf over
an authoritarian body.
The indivisibility of the Portuguese body politic extended to the colonies, too; the Azores, Goa, Madra, Cape Verde, Sao
Tome, Principe, Angola, Guinea, Mozambique, Cabinda, Macao, Timor - these were all integral parts of Portugal, indivisible.
Their economies were tightly tied into Portugal's, the legitimacy of claims to local nationality was fervently denied. Sadly,
this unity did not extend to the colonial peoples: non-Europeans did not become citizens until after 1960, by which time any
home the government had of enticing them to believe in the rhetoric of a unified Lusitania was gone.
It was the Estado Novo's colonial policy that was, in the end, the biggest cause of the regime's failure. The
problems did not begin with the Indian annexation of Goa (in which the surrendering defender of the fort was subsequently
court-martialed, in effect, for failing to become a martyr). They began with insurrections in various African colonies
in the 1950s, and spread from there. The Portuguese army was forced to grow in size, and its ranks came to be filled with large
numbers of conscripts. The previously isolated hierarchical class system came under strain. The colonial wars themselves were
inconclusive. The rebels could not take the garrisons out, but neither could the garrisons take the rebels out. An uneasy war
of attrition ensued. And lasted. And lasted. For years. At one point, a quarter of Portugal's military-aged population was in
uniform. The casualty count was never huge - certainly not huge enough to inspire revolution or even protests of the sort that
the United States saw in its colonial war of the same era - but it was enough that the military leaderships came gradually to
be of the opinion that the war was unwinnable, and a political solution was needed.
Such a political solution remained anathema to the national political establishment, and to de Oliveira Salazar; and so a
rift opened up between de Oliveira Salazar and the military which had placed him in power. That rift might one day have proven
itself fatal; but a fall from a chair broke de Oliveira Salazar's brain and - while he continued, right up until his death, to
believe himself Prime Minister, de Oliviera Salazar was removed from power in 1968. de Oliviera Salazar's replacement was Marcelo Caetano, a former
overseas minister, and a longtime de Oliviera Salazar supporter. He was to rule the country for six years.
The Caetano Years
Salazar's removal stunned the nation, and Caetano capitalized on it by introducing what might be considered a Portuguese
variant of glasnost: a relaxation of censorship, a new freedom to discuss political ideas, a relaxation of economic
regulation. A program of industrialization. Actual discussion of colonial problems.
This worked about as well as it did in Russia fifteen years later: an initial euphoria and celebration of the arrival of
freedom followed by the outpouring of a contempt for the government which had smoldered, unspoken, in the hearts and minds of
the people for as long as they could remember. Initial hopes that Caetano would bring about a democratic revolution were
crushed, and after a few years the black pens of the censors began increasing in number. The secret police, the PIDE, who
had served the same function in Portugal that the KGB did in Russia, became active again after a few years of quiescence; the
jails began to fill with dissidents. Factory workers went on strike, as did transit workers a year later. Revolutionary
activist groups formed and began blowing up government installations.
Meanwhile, the wars in the colonies continued. But things were different: the army's displeasure with the situation became
more and more public, and a well-known General and war hero even published, in late 1973, a book calling for an end to the
wars and a search for a "political solution" to the situation. He was fired for his troubles. The costs of the war continued
rising: in 1971, they constituted 49% of the government's budget.
A belated attempt to settle poor, uneducated Portuguese in the colonies was going nowhere. At the same time, close to a
million Portuguese left the country in search of opportunity elsewhere during the Caetano years. The Portuguese countryside
remained barely able to support its population. An economy which had experienced heavy growth in the 1940s and 1950s, based
largely on the export of materials from the colonies, was stagnating, and little was being reinvested into domestic growth.
The people were becoming restless, as was the army.
The spark which ignited the fire in the army was a dispute over the status of conscript junior-grade officers. The
Portuguese army had, in modern times, always made a strong distinction between conscript officers and professional ones; they
had different duties, different responsibilities, different roles, and there was little mixing between them. One difference
applied to the way promotions worked: promotions were based on seniority, and if a conscript soldier chose to become a
professional after the end of his conscripted duty, his time as a conscript did not count towards seniority. In the summer of
1973, the Caetano government, in an attempt to encourage conscripts to make a career of the army - and thereby to reduce the
need for conscription and, perhaps, the discontent of the general population - issued a decree which changed this, and allowed
conscript time to count for seniority purposes. The army regulars were outraged; people who had been waiting years for a
promotion were now jumped over by people who were below them in the hierarchy. They were devalued, insulted. They were angry.
They began to meet in secret to discuss resistance. Resistance accelerated. Soldiers began complaining openly about their
low pay, the futility of the war, and the disrespect they felt the government held them in. They were shouted down; any
complaints were dismissed as being revolutionary, as being an injustice to the Portuguese people and their government. So the
soldiers went back underground, and took the government at its word. Told that the only way to get what they wanted was
revolution, they began to plot one.
The first critical step was taken at a secret meeting of the Armed Forces Movement (MFA), a group which had been formed to
protest the poor treatment of soldiers. The meeting was held in Obidos, on December 10, 1973. A procedural dispute over the
use of proxy votes (for some officers claimed to represent other officers not present) resulted in a takeover of the
group1 by its most left-wing elements, who committed the group to a coup and began seeking a figurehead to lead it.
They found their figurehead in General Antonio de Spinola, one of the great war heroes of the colonial era. In the spring
of 1974, he published a book, Portugal and the Future, which argued that the war was destroying Portugal economically
and socially, and must be reconsidered. The book was hailed throughout the army as visionary; and the enthusiastic support for
its author turned into outrage when the government fired General Spinola for insubordination. The MFA invited Spinola, who had
heretofore been resolutely loyal to the government, to join them. A coup was now inevitable - something that Caetano, writing
in exile after the fall of his regime, said he had understood from the moment he first read de Spinola's book.
The Revolution of the Flowers
The MFA's first attempt at a coup was bungled, and what was supposed to be a nationwide uprising on the 16th of March was in fact the rebellion of a single garrison, easily put down. Yet the government, which understood the depth of feeling in the army, neither squashed the MFA nor reformed in a way that would entice soldiers away from it. Caetano continued to do nothing while those who were not arrested regrouped and began to plot anew. The plan was assembled by General Otelo de Carvalho, a conscript-turned-professional with a gift for organization and planning. It was executed flawlessly.
At twenty-five minutes past midnight on the 25th of April, a signal - in the form of a folk song - went out over Portuguese national radio: the time had come. Tanks rolled into the main square in Lisbon. The Salazar Bridge over the river Tagus was seized. The airport and the radio and television stations were taken. Key members of the government were arrested. Caetano fled and his hiding place was surrounded, as was the headquarters of the PIDE. All of this was accomplished by sunrise, and the Portuguese public was greeted shortly thereafter with a radio announcement:
The Portugese Armed Forces appeal to all the inhabitants of Lisbon to stay at home and to remain as calm as possible. We sincerely hope that the seriousness of the hour will not be saddened by personal injuries. We therefore appeal to the good sense of all military commanders to avoid any confrontation with the Armed Forces."
The people ignored the message. Nobody knew what was happening; was this a putsch by those who detested the liberal (compared to de Oliveira Salazar) policies of the Caetano regime? Or was it a revolution inspired by those who thought Caetano had not gone far enough? What was happening? The people took to the streets - not to protest, but to talk to each other. To ask questions. To huddle in fear and confusion. As the day went on, the confusion turned to excitement, and then to euphoria. The political prisoners were releaed. Caetano surrendered to the military. The television announced that the MFA "have liberated the people from a regime which has oppressed them for many years." A loud cheer went out across the country. The enduring visual image of the revolution: people came out of their homes and gardens and placed carnations in the gun barrels of the soldiers enforcing the curfew.
The next several days were extraordinary. de Spinola announced the program of the new government: a broad coalition government of military leaders which guaranteed human rights and freedom of expression, the election of a constitutional assembly, the definition of a new colonial policy, and the withdrawal of the army from politics after elections were held. A great joy spread across the land.
A crowd is gathering near Rossio (a big Lisbon square). Troops come towards us. What will happen? They raise their fingers in a V sign. The crowd cheer like I've never heard cheers before. I'd heard crowds shout in anger, but this was joy, unmitigated.
I couldn't understand, nor could M. The feeling sent shivers down us. We remembered Prague 1968, when people had placed flowers in the gun barrels of tanks, a gentle irony. But now people were giving carnations to the soldiers, like one gives to one's loved ones on the night of Santo Antonio, the patron saint of Lisbon. They were buying them newspapers, offering them beer, sandwiches. I clapped, incredulous.
Various activist groups were pamphleteering; socialists took to the streets, singing the Internationale. Everything had changed. The junta tried to stop it, to slow things down; two days after the revolution, they ordered a halt to all demonstrations that had no government approval. They were ignored. Trade unions got together and issued a program of demands. A notorious political exile - Mario Soares, the general secretary of the banned Socialist party - returned from overseas. On May 1, a national holiday, the city of Lisbon - and other cities throughout the country - took to the streets to demonstrate. A party atmosphere prevailed. Freedom had come, freedom at last.
1One of the dissidents who remained loyal to the regime ratted the group out shortly thereafter; the failure of
Caetano's government to do anything about it is one of the enduring mysteries of the revolution.