This revolution is probably almost unique in recent world history, why, because the military took over, not unusual, but they kept their word (very unusual in world terms) and handed power back to the people exactly as promised.
25 April, 1974 is famous for toppling an authoritarian government and ending fascism in Portugal with barely any violence. That’s pretty unique by itself, but there was so much more. Characterised as an authoritarian government, it was a time of censorship and oppression and maintained by a “secret police” force. After Salazar suffered a stroke, leadership was shifted to Marcello Caetano who ruled for six years until his ‘resignation’ after the Carnation Revolution.
Much of the motivation for the revolution was about the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique, but as a foreigner living in the Algarve that was difficult to understand. What was noticeable was crippled ex-soldiers begging on the streets claiming they had been injured in the colonial wars.
Before the revolution, most expatriate residents were mostly unaware of the PIDE (International and State Defence Police or Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado) the secret police. In the year following the revolution, we came to know a lot more about them, and their activities.
The Peniche fortress, a 16th-century fortress which lies an hour north-west of Lisbon was used to hold dissidents under Portugal’s dictatorship, it was the most notorious political prison of the Portuguese dictatorship. Some prisoners suffered mental breakdowns, others died in prison five or six years after completing their terms. Opposing the dictatorship came with extreme results. If you ever wonder why Portugal seems (or did seem) so bureaucratic, bear this in mind. In the times of the dictatorship, the only safe way was to do everything was by the book, that way you were safe. Secret police informers were everywhere.
Some months after the revolution the MFA (Armed Forces Movement) announced that all PIDE informers must declare themselves, otherwise all their names would be made public. Within days we came to know the extent of the PIDE informers’ network, the manager of the local supermarket, receptionists at the nearby hotel, people you met and dealt with almost every day, they were everywhere.
More surprising for me was to find out at a meal with several expats at a local Albufeira piri piri restaurant, well assisted by bottles of red wine, was that several expats were informing on the foreign community. This is more understandable when you realise that at that time the Algarve had many retirees from the African colonies, and several of those were senior members of those police forces. The ‘informer system’ was no stranger to them.
Initially there was an internationally conceived idea that Portugal might become communist. It was even rumoured that the CIA was assembling an invasion from Spain. There certainly was a ‘leaning’ towards communism, mainly displayed by something called ‘saneamento’, workers would simply take over companies and throw out the management and owners. This happened not just in industry but also in farming, especially in the Alentejo. Many major companies were simply nationalised. It took some years to reinstate proper management and to return these entities to the original owners and management.
A hundred metres from where I was living in Albufeira I witnessed the workers take over a new development, the owners arrived one morning and were told to leave, the workers now controlled the development. The same thing happened at the nearby hotel.
A popular Portuguese joke at the time said a lot about how the general public were thinking. It was said that the far left supported Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, the communist party leader Álvaro Cunhal and the socialist party leader Mario Soares all went fishing. The boat sunk, who was saved?
(Answer - Portugal!)
Portugal did not seem to favour the extreme right or the extreme left. The middle rank officers of the MFA also seemed to be determined to bring Portugal the democracy they promised. The Sunday Times published a superb book by their ‘Insight team’, sadly now out of print, ‘Insight on Portugal: the year of the captains’. It can still be found second hand and for any serious ‘student’ of the revolution, it is essential reading. They related how certain senior officers at the time would like to have held on to power. It was not to be so, the ‘captains’ kept to their word.
Living in the Algarve I cannot recollect ever seeing a soldier let alone a road block, mostly people were just confused about what was happening in faraway Lisbon, but peaceful and patient. On one occasion on the Galp roundabout in Lagoa, I was stopped by a group of youths (vigilantes?) and politely asked to open my boot to see what was there. I believe they were looking for guns, but disappointed, we were sent on our way.
This perhaps is one of the greatest tributes to the MFA, and totally different from the usual course that such revolutions by the armed forces take worldwide. They nearly always claim to be acting in the best interest of the people and with only one aim, to establish democracy. The latest events in Myanmar shows this. The armed forces took over power to establish democracy and it was ruled by the armed forces from 1962 until 2011 when a new government began ushering in a return to civilian rule.
The military is now back in charge, they clearly wanted power back. The generals seized control on 1 February following a 2011 general election which Ms Suu Kyi’s NLD party won by a landslide. They simply arrested the democratically elected government leaders and took over again. So much for democracy. This is only one example.
But Portugal’s MFA kept their word and set up a general election. The Constitution of 1976 was drafted by a Constituent Assembly that was elected on 25 April 1975, one year after the Carnation Revolution. It was largely drafted in 1975, then finished and officially promulgated in early 1976. The night before the vote they told people, “if you want us to stay, cast a blank vote”, people didn’t, and they handed over power without hesitation. The turnout to vote was over 90 percent and Mario Soares became the first Prime Minister for the socialist party.
Portugal has gone from strength to strength, few countries have adapted to democracy so well in such a short time. In less than 50 years we live in a modern well governed country that is making extraordinary progress. If you are a fairly recent resident, you may struggle to understand how this forward looking and truly democratic country could possibly have been a dictatorship until only a few years ago. But it was, and on the 25 April we can, and should, celebrate those anonymous ‘captains’ that made it happen. Truly unsung heroes.