The man who dared to oppose Salazar

Lynne Booker February 2015

Friday February 13, 2015 marked an important anniversary for Portugal. This unlikely date saw the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of General Humberto Delgado by the PIDE, Portugal´s secret police. Delgado had dared to attempt to unseat Portugal´s long-serving dictator and President of the Council of Ministers, Dr António Salazar, by the legal means of election to the Presidency of the Republic.

At the beginning of his election campaign, he was asked in a public meeting what he would do about Salazar, if he were elected. His prompt and definitive answer was, “I shall sack him, of course!” His already popular election campaign immediately became a whirlwind of popular support. No longer was Salazar to be seen as the natural ruler of Portugal, and this one remark reduced Salazar´s status in the eyes of the nation to that of an appointee who could be dismissed. Delgado, having dared publicly to challenge Salazar´s regime, became known as o general sem medo, the fearless general.

Previous Presidents of the Republic under the military dictatorship included Marshal Carmona (President 1926 – 1951) and General Craveiro Lopes (President 1951 – 1958). Both had been candidates supported by the regime, and because Salazar suspected Craveiro Lopes of disloyalty, he was dropped for the new campaign in favour of Admiral Américo Tomás, a real stuffed shirt. And so it was that in the septennial election in the spring of 1958, Delgado had a chance of becoming the elected President of the Republic.

Born in 1906, Delgado had supported the new military dictatorship in 1926, and became a supporter of Salazar´s Estado Novo. He helped in the foundation of the Legião Portuguesa (inspired by the Nazi brownshirts, this was an anti-communist government organisation) and even penned articles as late as 1941 in admiration of Adolf Hitler. An air force officer, he held positions in the Air Ministry and in 1941 -43 negotiated with British officers over the establishment of allied bases in the Azores. Delgado was a founder of the national airline TAP and he represented Portugal in the new International Civil Aviation Organisation in Montreal (1947 -1950) and in the years 1952 -57 was military attaché at the Portuguese Embassy in Washington.

Returning to Portugal with the rank of general, Delgado was invited by opposition figures to stand for election to the Presidency of the Republic against the regime candidate, Admiral Tomás. Having imbibed democratic ideas in Britain, Canada and the USA, Delgado immediately jumped at the chance of making a difference in Portugal.

At the age of 52, and a long-time supporter of the Salazarist regime, Delgado became the independent candidate. He promised restoration of personal liberty, a reform of the politics of the Portuguese Empire and free legislative elections. Salazar called his campaign programme “a constitutional coup d´état”. Delgado attracted support from a wide range of activists, and embarked on an American style election campaign, criss-crossing the country, and visiting nearly all the major towns, touring in open topped cars. His campaign was enthusiastically received by the people of Portugal, and his popularity momentarily paralysed the state machine. Then the security forces began to exercise their grip to “prevent this emotional environment from encouraging subversive acts”, said Salazar.

At that time, the electorate was limited to those who could read and write, and all electoral lists were government controlled. Many opposition supporters were arrested on the eve of voting day and Delgado supporters were not allowed to watch the voting boxes being opened. The official results gave victory to Tomás by 76% to 24% of the votes cast, but these figures were never published in the Diário do Governo, as required by law. Delgado claimed an election fraud, but was powerless.

Delgado knew that his days in Portugal were numbered when he was removed from the armed forces list, and became a potential target of the PIDE. He sought asylum in the Brazilian Embassy, and was eventually spirited out of Portugal to exile in Brazil. From there his opposition to Salazar became based in Czechoslovakia and Algeria and he visited Portugal in disguise on a number of occasions. He boasted of these exploits, and the regime became embarrassed and vengeful. He was implicated in the uprising at Beja Barracks on 31 December 1961, and it was decided that he should be dealt with. Believing that he was keeping an appointment with opposition figures, he travelled to Badajoz and near the Portuguese frontier met the assassination squad. He and his murdered secretary were hastily buried in a eucalyptus wood. Of course, Salazar and his regime denied any involvement in this political murder.

It is difficult for those who have never experienced life under a dictatorship to understand the fear and distrust engendered by censorship and the secret police. In the long, dark and impoverished night of the Salazar dictatorship, Delgado stood out as a beacon for courage and freedom. He was not afraid to oppose the dictator whom everyone feared. On 5 October 1990, the eightieth anniversary of the Implantation of the Republic, his remains were translated to the National Pantheon of Santa Engrácia in Lisbon, and today in Portugal o general sem medo is a symbol of the resistance to fascism. In his memory, Lisbon Câmara has recently proposed to rename Lisbon´s Portela Airport as Humberto Delgado Airport.


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