In 1974, Portugal was rocked by a revolution overthrowing a dictatorship that had ruled the country since 1932. For anybody today under the age of 45…you’re probably thinking I’m making this up. Surely Europe is a family of democracies! It couldn’t have been possible that as late as the 1970s, countries now in the European Union were under the fascist heel.
And yet – thirty years after Hitler blew his brains out in a Berlin bunker – fascism still had a foothold in Europe.
Portugal and Spain were ruled by dictators who brooked no democratic dissent having crushed the Left and independent trades unions. Their brutality may not have been on Hitler’s scale but the ideology and methodology was along similar lines. Essentially, liberal democracy had been destroyed in order to kill off Communism.
Before the Portuguese Revolution
Salazar was a reclusive, dry-as-dust economics professor who exploited fatigue with the Weimar-like turmoil of Portuguese democracy in the 1920s to seize power. With the support of the landed oligarchy, business and the Catholic church, he placed a dead hand on Portugal for the next 38 years.
He established a corporatist state similar to fascist Italy which he termed the Estado Novo – or new state. And pursued a protectionist economic policy combined with what I can only describe as a cultural policy of national infantilisation. This included smothering the Portuguese in nostalgia for past glory and myths about the warm and cuddly nature of its colonial exploits and national character.
Fado, Fatima and Football were the tools for lulling popular consciousness into a comatose state. They were the three Soma-like drugs of Portuguese fascism. That trio of F’s encompassed a sentimental rendition of Portuguese culture mixed with ultra-Catholicism and an obsession with football – the only outlet for unbridled emotion.
So how could these two southern European despots – Salazar in Portugal and General Franco in Spain – have survived the collapse of the Nazis? The main reason is that as the Second World War ended, the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States kicked off. Stalin effectively took control of eastern Europe and half of the German capital Berlin.
In Portugal, the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, and General Franco in Spain positioned themselves as bastions against communism. Salazar retained his grip on the country through censorship and a secret police called the PIDE. He also fought an economically ruinous war in Portugal’s African colonies (Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau) that only ended with the revolution in 1974.
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Portuguese Revolution gets underway!
Portugal, often regarded as a sleepy backwater of Europe, burst into revolution in 1974 led by a group of army captains. Having been forced to fight a dirty war in Africa, they had no time for the colonial fairy tales of the dictatorship. What they wanted was human rights and better living conditions.
Salazar had died four years earlier after suffering a stroke in 1968 when his deckchair collapsed under him. He was succeeded by Marcelo Caetano. By the 70s, the population was fed up of the cost of the colonial war and the forced conscription of young men to go and fight in far off places. I’m half-Portuguese (mother as you might have guessed from my name) and all my male relatives over the age of 65 fought in hellish combat zones back in those times.
Months after the revolution, I was aged eleven and went with my parents by car to Portugal entering near a northern town called Guarda. It was unbelievably exciting. There were troops at the frontier who were now bearded (think Che Guevara) and handing out leaflets. There’s one of those leaflets pictured here, which I’ve kept all these years. It calls for an end to the ‘reactionary conspiracy’ – the old guard weren’t giving up without a struggle – and unity with the ‘armed forces movement’ (MFA).
Driving along the roads, I gawped out of the car window at all the graffiti – everywhere! Even boulders on hillsides had calls for revolution painted on them. Sixty or more political parties had exploded on to the scene from Maoist to monarchist. About 80% of the economy was nationalised in the first year with the Communist Party assuming a key role in the running of the country.
Expropriations in the Portuguese revolution
Much of the nationalisation of corporates and sacking of managers took place within factories and firms – by the workers themselves. One major driver for this was that in many workplaces there had been managers whose job was basically to denounce ‘trouble makers’ to the authorities under Salazar and Caetano. So after 1974, there were often calls for saneamento or cleansing of firms to remove these hated figures.
Empty houses were also taken over given the chronic lack of decent housing for many poorer people. Now – I have a confession to make here. My family had a small beach house in 1974 built with money from my great grandmother’s will. And sure enough, while we were all away in the UK, a local committee of some description turned up enquiring about who owned it. Our neighbours lied and we weren’t expropriated. Am I conflicted about this incident? I’m honest enough to say – yes!
But now you know…
Another ancedote – I’ve got to share. I was at a disco in the late 1970s in northern Portugal aged 14 or 15 when a girl came up to me. She eyed my Coca-Cola disdainfully and snarled: água suja do imperialismo! The dirty water of imperialism. Bet nobody’s ever said that to you in a disco.
Communist Party in the Portuguese revolution
The Portuguese Communist leader – Alvaro Cunhal – was a well known figure imprisoned by the Salazar regime. But he was an ultra-Stalinist who had, for example, loudly applauded the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 that crushed the workers and students uprising in that country. Hardly likely then to appeal to many Portuguese socialists eager to move on from decades of repression.
He also adopted a policy, under direction from Moscow, that echoed the Menshevik argument. Cunhal didn’t believe the conditions were ripe for socialism, even despite the huge nationalisation that had been enforced from below and not from above. He reinforced the role of the military and of ‘progressive’ forces. Ironically, while talking about the need for a national democratic phase, Cunhal appeared to be anything but democratic to a growing number of Portuguese.
That included my grandmother, a pugnacious businesswoman in Porto. To give you another flavour of the times, she once announced to me that she’d been reading a book on Russian nihilism and had decided that Lenin was a “bad man”. She also disliked Cunhal because American TV was banned for a period after the revolution. My grandmother was a huge fan of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and that was when Cunhal just went too far. She became an implacable foe.
And the rest is history. The Communist Party lost ground in elections to the Socialist Party of Mario Soares that in turn rotated power with the right of centre PSD gradually dismantling public ownership and labour rights won in the revolution. By the 1980s, the country adopted full-on Thatcherite free market policies with the revolution portrayed as a necessary end to fascism that had got carried away by its own exuberance.