At twenty minutes past midnight on 25th April 1974, Lisbon night owls heard the unthinkable coming through their radios. “Sines, Vila Morena” – a folk anthem well-known to young people and intellectuals, with lyrics extolling the virtues of brotherhood and equality – had long been banned by Portugal’s fascist government. Which is why the Movement of the Armed Forces (MFA), the organisation of lower-ranked left-leaning officers of the Portuguese Army, had deliberately chosen it to signal the start of their revolution.
As the song blared across the airwaves, MFA-manned tanks rolled into the main square in Lisbon. Main arteries and bridges were seized. The airport, national radio and television stations were taken. Key members of the government were arrested. The headquarters of the secret police was surrounded. By sunrise, the near bloodless coup had toppled the Estado Novo (New State) – the longest-running dictatorship in Europe, having prevailed for nearly fifty years. Despite repeated radio appeals from the MFA’s “Captains of April” beseeching the population to stay safe inside their homes, thousands of Portuguese took to the streets in support of the insurgents. When a young woman handed a red carnation to a soldier who fastened it into the muzzle of his gun, she unwittingly created one of the most powerful symbols of the era… before long, most of the soldiers had placed carnations in their guns in a gesture of peace, and the coup became known around the world as the Carnation Revolution.
Ever since António de Oliveira Salazar took power in 1933 – joining Franco, Hitler and Mussolini in Europe’s unrighteous club of totalitarian dictators – Portugal had been ruled with an iron fist. Salazar deployed secret police (the dreaded PIDE) to suppress civil liberties, whilst under his incompetent social and economic policies, Portugal degenerated into one of Europe’s poorest countries. Yet in spite of its descent as a world power, the Estado Novo clung to its antiquated colonial interests in Africa; in 1415 Portugal had been the first European power to establish an African colony, and it would be one of the last to leave. In 1961, in response to independence movements in Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau, Salazar initiated the Portuguese Colonial War –a Custeristic and catastrophic conflict, unanimously condemned by the international community, which raged for 13 brutal years. Even when Salazar died in 1970, his successor Marcelo Caetano persisted with this futile campaign that was crippling Portugal’s already fragile economy and held no political solution or end in sight. Finally, after Caetano announced a cynical new programme whereby recruits who completed a brief training program could be commissioned at the same rank as military academy graduates, the nascent rebellion mobilised.
In the wake of the revolution, a rapid and hasty programme of decolonisation was pushed through; over the next few years Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Cape Verde Islands, Sao Tome and Principe and Angola were all granted independence. In Portugal, meanwhile, a civil war pitting far left against far right was narrowly avoided before a democratic two-party government emerged. Hundreds of political prisoners were released, a major redistribution of land was carried out and the economy began its long climb towards recovery.
But up against such a stubborn bulwark as the Estado Novo, how on earth had the MFA managed a near bloodless revolt? The peacefulness of the coup has been credited to a determined desire on the part of the revolutionary soldiers to avoid violence, as well as the citizens who came out on to the streets to make their voices heard. Said Captain Salgueiro Maia, the most notable leader of the MFA: “I came to see a mass of people, all raising their voices, placing flowers in the muzzles of the rifles. No one needed to kill or to be killed. No one needed to order an assault, or even the arrest of the king and his vassals.”
A bloodless revolution and the overthrow of a decrepit authoritarian regime… what’s not to love about that? Happy Freedom Day, Portugal!