Portugal: The Carnation Revolution remembered

On the 40th anniversary, Dick Barbor-Might looks back on a coup against a dictator that sparked a wider revolutionary upsurge

April 25, 2014
7 min read

carnation-revolution 2Three years ago the Portuguese government, unable to raise funds on the capital markets, went for help to the infamous troika – the combination of the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and European Union. In return for their bail-out the troika imposed punitive conditions that have wrecked livelihoods. In Portugal last September the negative impact was expressed for me in one biting comment: ‘they are draining the life blood from Portugal’.

Once it had been so different, a time of revolutionary hope. On 25 April 1974, the Movimento das Forças Armadas (MFA) swept away the dictatorship of the Estado Novo (New State) that had been led at first by António Salazar and in later years by Marcelo Caetano. The regime was embroiled in colonial wars in its African empire. For this and other reasons it was losing support within the army and amongst the business elite.

The coup was no authoritarian announcement. The signal that April night was the playing on Radio Renascença at twenty minutes past midnight of a song, banned by the regime, Grândola, vila morena (Grândola, sunburnt town). The song was about a town on the edge of the Alentejo, the vast swathe of agricultural land south of the River Tagus. There the landless workers who sweated in the summer heat and starved in the winter had no other means of subsistence than the sale of their labour. Yet some had developed a spirit of resistance in the face of the ruthless exploitation and repression experienced on the big estates, the latifundios.

Flowers at dawn

As dawn came up on 25 April, the soldiers were joined in the streets of the capital by rejoicing crowds so that the coup instantly morphed into a gigantic celebration, spontaneous and ebullient. In Lisbon’s flower market soldiers placed carnations in the muzzles of their rifles, thus creating the symbol and the very name of the event: the Carnation Revolution. The few who died were killed by agents of the collapsing regime’s hated secret police, the PIDE, sniping from the top floor of their Lisbon headquarters.

In Oporto, the county’s second city, a participant in that day’s events later told me that he and his fellow students had started to demonstrate but had then been attacked and beaten up by the police. They expected the worst when lorry loads of soldiers arrived in the scene. But it was the police who fled.

The revolutionary mood did not evaporate. The left grew stronger, the African colonies became independent and an ambitious general, António de Spínola – who briefly became president after the coup – failed in two coup attempts and went into exile. Yet the right regrouped and sought its own solution to the continuing crisis through propaganda and electoral politics. The economy staggered and the class struggle intensified. Forms of popular power emerged in factories, farms and housing estates alongside a succession of provisional governments that came and went with bewildering rapidity.

When I first went to the Alentejo in September 1975, most of the latifundios, often neglected by their owners, had been occupied. The slogan of the agrária, the agrarian reform, summed it all up: ‘A Terra a quem a trabalha’ (the Land for those who work it). Production was organised in co-operatives, in this way providing employment for 75,000 workers, massively more than ever before and raising the level of production enormously. In July the occupations had been retrospectively made legal through the passing of a law enacted by a left-leaning provisional government.

In Lisbon that September I had been looking for a story to write for the Sunday Times that would get below the surface of events in the capital. There the talk amongst the visiting journalists was of the ‘hot summer’ just passed, of anti-Communist speeches by the Socialist Party’s Mário Soares and the diminishing influence of the left within the MFA. There was the sense of an impending coup. Looking for a story, I was given a crucial lead by a journalist on República, a newspaper then controlled by its own workers.

A party of two hundred supporters of the former landowner, Senhora Rebelda, had arrived on one of the occupied estates in the Alentejo. They captured four of the workers, beat up one of them and then threw a rope over a tree. Under threat of a hanging the workers told their captors where they could find a herd of prize cows. The cattle were loaded onto lorries and driven away. The name of the place was Cujancas.

Landless workers

The first counter-move by the workers was to seek help from the military commander in nearby Portalegre. Yet, despite the sympathetic attitude of many members of the MFA, Major Baptista merely temporised. The Cujancas workers – along with the Agricultural Workers’ Union, the Agrarian Reform Centre and the Communist Party – decided to mobilise quickly and in strength.

I caught up with events when I arrived at a crossroads below the little town of Gavião. It turned out that Senhora Rebelda had gifted the herd of cows to the smallholders of Gavião, thus bringing them onto her side. A thousand or more landless workers had gathered at the crossroads. A townsman at a barricade outside Gavião told me, ‘We will beat the Communists to death if they come up the hill.’

Eventually an army convoy arrived at the crossroads, parleyed briefly and drove on up into the town. Ten hours later the soldiers returned, accompanied by the lowing cows. The soldiers loaded the cattle onto army lorries and drove away to Portalegre. The next morning, in Portalegre, a little crowd of the landowners’ supporters shouted abuse outside the Communist Party office, but they did not have amongst them the kind of skilful agents provocateurs whom I had watched a few weeks previously in the northern town of Braga urging on a much bigger crowd to burn down the Communist Party office.

At midday the workers from the co-operatives arrived in Portalegre en masse and took on the landowners’ people. I was briefly surrounded by a swirl of combat, clubs rising and falling, until all of a sudden the space emptied. The workers went on to occupy a nearby square, their mood determined and confident. The very next day the military and civil authorities agreed that the cows should go back to the workers of Cujancas. The landowners had suffered a major defeat and the workers had won.

I returned to the Alentejo last September, 38 years after my first visit.

The revolutionary period had been ended a couple of months later on 25 November by a military coup. There was no bloodbath and certain reforms such as the minimum wage did stay. But subsequent democratic elections confirmed the rightward shift. In April 1976 Soares become prime minister and introduced a stringent austerity programme, giving a foretaste of what has recently been imposed by the troika.

In July 1977 the law, Lei Barreto, was enacted, requiring the return of occupied lands to the former owners. The subsequent evictions were conducted by teams from the National Republican Guard and the agricultural ministry, accompanied by the former landowners. The process was punctuated by occasional acts of extreme violence, as when two members of a co-operative were shot dead in September 1979. One hundred thousand came to their funeral in Montemor-o-Novo but the perpetrators have never faced justice.

Everybody I spoke to remembered the victory of the Cujancas workers. But it was explained to me that ever since the late 1970s the Alentejo had been experiencing steep declines in the overall population, in the area of cultivated land and in agricultural jobs.

The memory of the agrária is still alive and more potent than ever as Portugal suffers at the hands of the troika and of its current right-wing government. Consider what was said by one worker: ‘The lovely thing was that each person didn’t just think about themselves, they also thought about others,’ she said. ‘Everyone was a winner with the agrária.’