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Greetings From a Free Portugal


On the 50th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution, we republish writer and activist Antonio de Figueiredo, who argued upon his return from exile that the liberation of Portugal's African colonies was the country's own path to freedom.

On this day in 1974, an officers’ coup overthrew the Portuguese dictatorship in what was termed the Carnation Revolution. Most banks and industries were nationalised, massive agrarian reform began, and the country disengaged from its African colonies.

To mark the fiftieth anniversary of Portugal’s revolution, we republish a 1974 article by the journalist and activist Antonio de Figueiredo upon his return to his home country after fifteen years of exile. A long-time contributor to Tribune, Figueiredo understood the interconnected oppressions of colonialism in Africa and fascist rule at home — and dedicated himself to liberation from both.

LAST WEEK was a momentous one for AΝΤΟΝΙΟ DE FIGUEIREDO. After 15 long years in exile, he returned to his native Portugal. In the article below, he describes his emotions on his return, but, as usual with this most distinguished of our contributors, he also gives his thoughtful analysis of Portugal’s amazing ‘revolution’. 

TRIBUNE has been fortunate to have Antonio de Figueiredo writing for the paper for more than 10 years. His articles have been a chronicle of courage: never once did he lose faith that the people of his beloved country would throw off the yoke of fascism. It is true that this shy, retiring man, whose health had been shattered by his experiences at the hand of the Portuguese authorities, felt depressed at the unwillingness of some in authority who doubted that what he wrote would ultimately be proved true. But that never deterred him from pursuing his argument with untiring relentlessness. 

Nor did Antonio forget this paper when he got back to Lisbon last week. In the hastily scribbled note attached to his article he wrote: ‘Greetings from free Portugal! Although I am now extremely involved here, I cannot forget Tribune and our association. I feel I must have something in Tribune.’ We feel proud to have been able to give a platform to this brave man, who for so long had faith in Portugal achieving a democratic form of government.

I Return to Free Portugal

AFTER 15 years of exile I arrived in Lisbon two days after the military pronunciamento, still in a state of psychological and emotional confusion. The first impression was one of anti-climax because Lisbon looked singularly quieter after London. To add to the confusion I, who had been a writer and journalist in exile, was now myself escorted by journalists who wanted to report about my return home. Things had certainly changed, but I had found a better home.

As I recovered from the impact of arrival, I soon discovered that events had moved so fast in the previous days that suddenly there were no experts in Portuguese politics: we had all become historians. It is only now that one is beginning to understand that Portugal is living through a period which will confront political writers and sociologists with new lessons.

The development of events is fairly simple to explain. Towards mid-1973 there was a clash of interests between career officers and commission officers arising from the widening of the permanent cadres and structure in the armed forces. The issues revolved around pay, promotion and status between the two groups of officers, and led to a series of gatherings, ostensibly called recreational picnics, and therefore outside the provisions banning the right of association. In order to meet organisational needs, the officers appointed a directive committee but, more importantly, they had an opportunity to discover each other’s views, and evolve a common line of thinking.

A sociologist would say that they were part of a cultural revolution which had been developing in Portugal over the past few years, under the coincidental impact of the wars in Africa, the introduction of television and the increased communication which arose from mass emigration to, and mass tourism from, EEC countries.

Two, if not three, generations had been born and educated under the regime — but now the Caetano administration was unable to contain what was referred to as the ‘psychological desertion of the youth.’

There was a movement of protest in all spheres of Portuguese life, Schoolchildren rejected conventional texts, priests campaigned against celibacy, women engaged in feminist action, young peasants rejected the old rural style of life after the disrupting experience of four years conscripted military service in urban centres or in the African territories.

More directly, army officers, of all ranks, began to doubt the wisdom of war and virtually hundreds of them had apparently been influenced by their involvement in the African wars in acquiring a greater political awareness.

As the movement of young and middle-ranking officers grew, the geriatric leadership of generals, admirals and brigadiers, was totally isolated and discredited. Few of the senior officers had managed to retain the respect of the armed forces movement.

Among the exceptions were two fairly liberal generals, Francisco da Costa Gomes and Antonio Spinola, respectively Chief and Deputy Chief of General Staff of the armed forces. Spinola had written a book challenging some of the most cherished myths of the established culture, including the claim that Portugal was in Africa to “defend the West.” As for General Costa Gomes, who is widely described as a career officer who adheres to military ethics and is singularly devoid of partisan feelings, his history of opposition to the war was even longer. He had been involved with a group of officers who, at the time of the invasion of Goa by India in 1961, had presented a study to the late President Salazar doubting Portugal’s logistical capability to cope with the growing political pressures upon the far-flung empire.

He also took part in an abortive plot, headed by none other than the then Minister of Defence, General Botelho Moniz, to overthrow Dr Salazar and have him replaced by Dr Marcel Caetano, then also a dissident who had resigned, much for the same reasons, from the regime. He had been brought into position as Chief of General Staff by a grateful Prime Minister Caetano soon after the opportunity arose after the demise of Salazar.

The incident over the publication of General Spinola’s book which resulted in the dismissal of its author, and his superior General Costa Gomes, who had approved it for publication, provided the leaders of the armed forces movement with another rallying point for action.

The eventual details of the pronunciamento are perhaps relevant, although the way it was conceived and carried out are now part of the democratic folklore.

As the Government surrendered, such was the content of the Armed Forces Movement then backing the seven-man military junta, that they accorded full military honours to President Tomaz and Prime Minister Caetano and some of their close aides, who were deported to Madeira. 

The outside world, at first, was perhaps as surprised as Portugal was stunned. Owing to the international implications of the situation in Africa, the leaders of African liberation movements, certain news agencies and even Governments, at first believed that the well publicised ideas of General Spinola were even the guidelines of a policy. But this is an oversimplification which is completely misleading as to the nature and purpose of what happened in Portugal

The junta, which proclaimed a few basic points meeting with the approval of the overwhelming majority of the population, confined itself to the overthrow of the President, the Government, and the repressive institutions, such as the secret police (DGS), the censorship board, the regime’s single-party system, the paramilitary organisations and so on. The actual business of governing is to be entrusted to a provisional or caretaker government of the junta’s appointment, probably from the ‘Centre’ where most of the best known technocrats are to be found.

The most immediate emphasis was placed upon the economic and social situation, and one of the first tasks of the provisional government will be to devise a return to normal business conditions after banking transactions are unfrozen and a system introduced to preclude an evasion of funds from Portugal and the overseas territories.

Elections will be held within a year, and the country is already moving towards this with the emergence into the open of clandestine parties, the return of exiles and emigrés. Although the provisional government has already proposed a truce to the African liberation movements, it is clear that colonial policy is to emerge out of the normal functioning of a duly elected government and constituent assembly. All speculation on the junta’s intention is, therefore, bound to be wrong since its only purpose is to achieve a return to democracy. 

At the most cynical, one could say that the coup is a great lesson in politics and history. When the established ruling class held unanimous views, the Salazar regime worked but now that a major split over the situation in Africa has been introduced and the establishment is deeply divided, democracy has become a functional necessity, to ascertain which of the contending factions holds majority support in the country.

Both at national level, as well as in the relationship with the colonies, freedom and pragmatism become more expedient ways of surviving than dictatorship and dogma. It might well be that Portugal will now move from the naked robbery of a form of fascist dictatorship and old-style colonialism to the confidence trick of bourgeois democracy and colonialism.

However, as one watched the May Day demonstration in Lisbon turning not into an angry show of revenge, but into a spontaneous, genuine, carnival of freedom, one could not help but realise that something new had happened in Portugal.

Fear had certainly ended in Portugal. Hundreds of DGS security officers had, as suggested by the junta, handed themselves over to the army, to be confined in the very prisons which had been emptied of political prisoners. After nearly 50 years of dictatorship in Portugal, as army officers, trade unionists, university students and secondary school pupils demanded the removal of collaborationists, it became clear the underground opposition groups had been keeping their own watch and records on them for a long time to come. Yet no one seemed to be too concerned with show trials or violent revenge.

Today in Lisbon, Oporto, Coimbra, as well as in Luanda and Lourenço Marques, the middle-class parties, including the socialists and the communists, display an impressive degree of cohesion and maturity, In fact, now that the parties are emerging, it is found that, as far as size te is is concerned, on the Left, it is the Portuguese Democratic Movement (formerly the CDE) a mixed front of socialists and communists, which appears to be the most significant group, rather than the established Portuguese Communist Party or Socialist Party whose leader, Mario Soares, has now returned from exile in France. 

A ‘Centre’ party, which is likely to emerge as the common denominator for the conservative and affluent middle class under the leadership of a new generation of Catholics and technocrats will also be a force to be reckoned with.

In fact, between two extremes, the overwhelming majority of Portuguese seem happy to welcome the emergence of a situation similar to those obtaining in France and Italy, as long as they can bring Portugal more into line with modern Europe.

As I moved away from Lisbon towards the rural Campo de Besteiros, in the hills of Caramulo, to visit my family I found that they too were aware that the day of liberation had arrived. For them this means peace, and the return of husbands and sons, serving in the army or working somewhere in the EEC countries, and also the hope that the main road and the electricity cables, which seem to bypass their houses, might soon bear more connection with their lives.

As I spoke with them I found that they, too, were patriotically proud of the fact that Portugal’s revolution of many colours had been more civilised, urbane and humane, than those shameful and brutal Right-wing coups in Brazil, Greece and Chile. And I who after the long experience of arrest, deportation, escape, exile, conspiracy, the loss of friends through DGS assassination or imprisonment, had thought I was too tired to feel emotional, cried.

Like many Portuguese, I am well aware of the historical irony whereby, after centuries of slavery and forced labour and other forms of subjection, the Africans fighting for their liberation in Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Mozambique had become the main factor which precipitated the coup. After more than ten years of war, the African freedom fighters had so effectively exposed the nature of Portuguese society and colonialism that Portugal came to have the most highly politicised army in Western Europe

It is a genuine people’s army, and when on May 1, revolution and the rights of labour were jointly hailed in the greatest street demonstrations Portugal has ever seen, the army was celebrated as a people’s army and not the mainstay of a repressive and obscurantist regime.

The hour of liberation was late in coming, but when it came it had greatness and style. Let the generous and compassionate in Britain not fear it: we simply want to be free, and deserve our freedom by ending the centuries-old captivity of millions of Africans from the rule of Portuguese oligarchy.