The Carnation Revolution

Lynne Booker


For captains and for communism. Portugal celebrates the 37th anniversary of the ´Carnation Revolution´on 25 April. A small country, a quiet revolution? The revolution was certainly not bloodthirsty – fewer than 25 people were killed in isolated incidents: the red that filled the streets was not blood but carnations. The revolution that nearly turned Portugal into a communist outpost at the south western edge of Europe certainly had the country´s NATO allies very concerned. President Nixon´s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, confided to the press in July 1974 that the USA´s principal concern at that time was Portugal, or specifically the US air base at Lajes in the Azores, crucial in the Cold War years and less so now.


Salazar, dictator of Portugal for 36 years, had died in 1970 having resolved to keep Portugal´s empire by force. From 1961 about 10% of the people of Portugal had been personally involved in the long, bloody struggle to keep the empire together. On the other hand, over a million had either legally or illegally left Portugal both to avoid the draft and also to make money in the north of Europe. The country was ripe for change. Young people were disaffected with the war and an influx of tourism was bringing new ideas. Portugal was on a knife edge, but would the hearts and minds of the people turn to the communist east or to the capitalist west?


The similarities between the revolutions of 1910 and 1974 are interesting. Each was plotted and led by captains, not by generals. That of 1910 was relatively bloody, and both 1910 and 1974 were followed by a long period of political instability. Having taken the momentous first step in bringing down the government in 1974, the army continued to enjoy the trust of the Portuguese people. It was precisely because so many Portuguese had served in the army that families felt a connection with its new aims.


The summer of 1975 was called ´the hot summer´not just because of the weather but the political temperature was high and the political difficulties were ideal for Portugal´s excellent cartoonists and satirists. Cartoons of the period between 1974 and 1976 show the following motifs: the carnations in rifle muzzles melting into the hammer and sickle; the red half of the Portuguese flag running away from the green part; and the little fish of Portugal being hooked by bait hanging on a hammer and sickle-shaped hook. No wonder the United States was concerned!


During the period from April 1974 to July 1976, the country experienced a communist government under Colonel Vasco Gonçalves. Many industries were nationalised; officers in the armed forces planned coups d´état; the managerial and property owning class fled to Brazil, taking their money with them; agricultural workers took over swathes of the huge Alentejo estates; there were workers strikes and government strikes. Portugal was close to civil war.


There were 6 provisional governments and 3 different presidents from 25 April 1975 to 23 July 1976 when the first constitutional government took office. On 6 November 1975 Mário Soares (Socialist Party) confronted Álvaro Cunhal (Communist Party) on a live television programme. This was a crucial moment in the battle for votes and the right of leadership. Soares used his experience to project sympathy and energy; Cunhal woodenly recited parts of his communist party manifesto. Soares won the television contest by a knockout, and the election by a comfortable margin, and took power as Prime Minister in July 1976. Since then, Portugal has moved decisively away from the policies of Salazar´s Estado Novo; and it has never elected a communist government. The USA and her NATO partners as well as the voters of Portugal could breathe more freely.