An excellent Guardian obituary in the printed edition of the Guardian on 10 September by Pete Robinson covers the extraordinary life of Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/17/otelo-saraiva-de-carvalho-obituary).Otelo was a former army captain and later brigadier and a prime mover in the coup that saw off nearly 50 years of fascist rule in Portugal, died on 25 July. Pete’s obit reminded me of the exciting and often inspiring times I spent visiting the country between 1974 –76.
My first visit was in the summer of 1974. The tour was arranged by the International Socialist Group of which I was a member. It was a case of IS revolutionary tours! The overthrow of the authoritarian fascist rule was called the Carnation Revolution because people stuck red carnations in the gun barrels of the soldiers who brought down the rotten and repressive regime in a well-planned coup on 25 April. One of the masterminds behind the action was Captain Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho of which more later.
It’s hard to imagine nearly 50 years later that then Portugal, with a then population of fewer than 10 million was the poorest country in western Europe with over 2 million people being illiterate. The country was exhausted and hundreds of thousands both in the armed forces and civilians were fed up with the unending and unwinnable wars (the term was not a Joe Biden invention) which sought to hang on to colonies in Africa. So the army, led by a group of army captains who formed the MFA (Movimento das Forças Armadas or Armed Forces Movement) decided that enough was enough and it was time to hand back the colonies to the independence movements and get rid of the fascist dictator Salazar. Within 24 hours of the regime collapsed, and a junta headed by the ‘respectable’ General Spinola had been ushered in by the MFA.
By the time I arrived in the Portuguese capital massive changes were underway. A provisional government had been formed under Spinola and there had already been numerous strikes and occupations and the government even had two members of the PCP (the Pro Moscow Communist Party) in its ranks. Workers committees had been set up in a number of places and mass public meetings, demonstrations and workplace meetings were commonplace. Direct democracy was breaking out everywhere it seemed. All very worrying for big business and factory owners (many of whom had welcomed the overthrown of fascism) and most governments in western Europe, especially Spain where the fascist General Franco still clung to power! He died in November 1975 and the fascist regime with him.
I well remember one such demonstration in Lisbon when we marched passed the radio station Radio Renascenca (Renaissance in English). The commercial radio station although mainly owned by organisations associated with the Roman Catholic Church had played a pivotal role in the 25 April overthrow of fascist rule. Just after midnight on 25 April 1974 the station broadcast the banned song Grandola, Vila Morena, as a signal to the MFA to start the coup against the government. The song later became famous as the anthem of the revolution. We stopped outside the studios and whilst journalists from within dangled their microphones from the windows above to pick up our chanting and broadcast it live! The following year the media workers at the radio station occupied the station until December 1975. Meanwhile we learnt that many people came to the station to promote the numerous factory (workers’ commissions) and housing (residents’ commissions) occupations to the population of Lisbon and beyond. The media workers saw their role and that of the station to be at the service of the people (what a great idea!) It was a similar experience when I visited the newspaper offices of Republica which was owned by the Socialist Party in whose HQ hung a picture of Karl Marx! In the following May Republica was taken over by the workforce and run as an independent paper. Journalists and print workers saw the paper as a voice of and for the people (another great idea).
Two other vivid memories (apart from the trams that clanged around the city). In the heart of Lisbon is the massive square (called Rossio or the King Pedro IV Square) with two fountains and other historical monuments. What made it unusual was that the square was packed with book sellers promoting both pornography and the works of Marx, Engles, Mao and Lenin in addition to the many meetings and rallies. It was also plastered with political slogans and posters. From that location I joined a demonstration to the US embassy to protest about the covert activities of the US Central Intelligence Agency (the CIA) in what was then (and still is) a NATO country. The US had growing concerns about events in the Portuguese overseas territories, increasing working class militancy and the possibility of a Communist Party coup (see https://unredacted.com/2010/11/19/document-friday-the-us-military-had-a-contingincy-plan-to-take-over-portugal/ As we assembled for the march to the embassy we were joined by dozens of troops from what I believe was COPCON (Comando Operacional do Continente or Operational Command of the Continent) a special military force created shortly after the 25 April revolution ‘to protect the democratic process’. However, the force had become increasingly radicalised and often sided with factory and land occupations and strikes. To my surprise I was told that they were there to protect us against any fascists or agents from the US who might try and attack the demonstration. When we arrived at the US embassy troops pointed their guns at the building to deter any snipers. The demonstration ended as it began, peacefully, with the chants of ‘CIA Out’. COPCON’s commander was Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho by then a brigadier was increasingly seen by those who wanted to dampen down ‘democracy from below’ as unreliable.
Pete’s obituary on Otelo describes in great detail the role COPCON and its commander played in the Carnation Revolution and how events eventually led to the counter coup of 25 November 1975 and his subsequent imprisonment for three months.
As for me, I returned to Portugal again in April 1976 as part of a delegation visiting trade union organised workplaces and the Alentejo region in central and southern parts of the country which was a major agricultural area.
Since 25 April 1974 the process of revolutionary agrarian reform had been taking place, coupled with land seizures and occupations by landless rural agricultural workers, often with the support of the army and COPCON. These reforms had altered practically every aspect of the region’s politics (strongly Communist), economy and its social life. The election of the reformist Socialist Party in April’s general election saw the beginning of the end of the reform programme, although that was not obvious at the time I was there.
It was a different story in urban areas such as Lisbon. Five months earlier on 25 November 1975 the Portuguese revolution suffered a serious setback. For some reason still not clear to me radical paratroopers seized a number of airbases and media centres in the Lisbon area. Maybe they were anticipating a right wing coup and this was a pre-emptive strike as the evening before Otelo was sacked from his command position in Lisbon (although temporarily reinstated was later arrested). Whatever the case forces loyal to the Government led by General António Ramalho Eanes did stage a counter attack or coup aided by troops recently arrived from Angola. The radical left wing military units were disbanded, and the airbases and media centres retaken. From then on the scale of struggles went into decline as they were now unable to look for support from COPCON and other radical troops who had been disbanded and some imprisoned. In the June 1976 election Eanes became the country’s President, beating Otelo who came second with 16.64 percent of the votes). By then of course his base in COPCON had long gone.
So what did I learn from Portugal? First never underestimate the power people have if they get organised, but also recognise its potential shortcomings. Before April 1974 the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) established in 1921 was made illegal after a right wing coup in the late 1920s. It never the less played a major role in the opposition to the fascist regime of Salazar and during the five-decades-long dictatorship. The party was constantly attacked by the political police, the PIDE (International and State Defence Police), which forced its members to live clandestinely, always under the threat of arrest, torture, and even murder.
Although there were frequent demonstrations, strikes and resistance to the regime, the media was closely controlled and working people and their dependants lived in a repressive society. Freedoms we take for granted today just did not exist. The Carnation Revolution blew the lid off everything. People who wanted change had no concept of waiting around for some political party to do it for them; they decided to bring about change for themselves, whether at work, in their communities, through social movements or in the countryside. And they gained the political consciousness and confidence to do, although many did look to radical elements in the MFA and COPCON for help in some of their struggles which, in the end was counter-productive when after 25 November they had been disbanded.
All was not lost. Many social improvements have their roots in the post 1974 revolution. For instance, a process of health services restructuring began, which culminated in the establishment, in 1979, of the National Health Service (NHS), a universal tax-financed system.
As for me I learnt that real and lasting change can only be achieved if people get organised and remain vigilant. Passivity is not inevitable and the creative power of people can be unlocked, society transformed and a better world for all can be created.
If you want to read more about the Portuguese revolution, the following book gives you a greater insight. A People’s History of the Portuguese Revolution by Raquel Varela is different to many mainstream accounts. In it she explores the role of trade unions, artists and women in the revolution, providing a rich account of the challenges faced and the victories gained through revolutionary means. Find out about the book at: https://www.plutobooks.com/9780745338583/a-peoples-history-of-the-portuguese-revolution/