Fifty year anniversary of Portugal's Carnation Revolution

I did a double-take when I saw the 50th anniversary of 25 de abril, the day of Portugal's Carnation Revolution is coming up.

I was living in Lisbon during the 30th anniversary. And I'm sad to say that this blog post, that I wrote then as a Fulbright independent researcher, is still really valid. But the sense of societal amnesia is more acute, as a new centre-right government will enter Parliament along side a far-right party called Chega (Enough) that is very openly nostalgic for the values of Salazar.

The 30th anniversary of Portugal’s peaceful Carnation Revolution passed with little fanfare here in Lisbon. A couple of (late) fireworks, some good documentaries on television, and some casual bourgeois-mocking at bars. I was expecting more of an outpouring — my American sentimentalism perhaps. I admit, in general, I have become very frustrated to what I perceive is a willed, societal amnesia to the history of fascism in Portugal.

Photo by Flickr user Ittmust, of a stencil of a carnation on a marble wall, with the slogan "25 de Abril Sempre. Fascismo Nunca Mais" 25th of April Forever. Fascism Never Again

There is no doubt that when, on April 25, 1974, the Armed Forces Movement entered Lisbon peacefully (the tanks stopped at red lights and soldiers accepted red carnations from the well-wishing crowds), they brought with them a revolution. They put an end to one of the longest-running fascist political regimes ever in power, nearly 50 years.

The anniversary unfortunately was politicized. Apparently even the word “revolution” is too politically loaded for use in Portugal. Today, three decades later, the ruling party, the Social Democrats decided that the 25 April was to be known as an “evolution.” Subtract the “r,” it’s just one letter... Most Portuguese blame both sides of the political spectrum for this myopic vision of what was a euphoric, historic day for the nation. Obviously a revolution is not merely one day, it is a complicated process, and in the Portuguese case the revolution’s long-term legacy is ambiguous, and varies greatly depending on whom you talk to.

But the significance of April 25, 1974, was the immediate end of police repression, censorship and the African wars which were a long bloodletting for Portugal and its African colonies.

Unlike the African colonies, only in the year 2002 was Portuguese Timor formally decolonized — after Indonesia’s illegal annexation in 1975 and eventual devastating withdrawal in 1999. Through my research on late colonial Portuguese Timor, I have gained a clearer picture of what the Carnation Revolution meant on that faraway island at the time. It meant an enormous opening, the end of police repression, and the end of an inconsistent, hypocritical political order. It meant that Timorese were to take their fate into their own hands, whether they were ready or not.

My archival research has unearthed a wealth of material on pre-1974 Timor. Issues of race, discrimination, police repression and economic difficulties surprisingly come to life in the various governmental archives around Lisbon. The challenge, which I am now struggling with, is how to present the material in a way relevant to the present, and to two audiences, the Timorese and the Portuguese.

In 1974, Timor was a small, remote and extremely underdeveloped territory with 20 kilometers of paved roads. Portugal had managed to prevent serious political organization in the colony by limiting access to education and through the repression of Salazar’s secret police, the PIDE (“International Police for the Defense of the State”). Secret police monitored those from certain rural regions known for rebellion, along with those who spoke foreign languages, wrote too many letters or listened to the radio. Many Timorese were intimidated and detained by agents of the PIDE.

One Australian journalist visiting Timor in the 1960s, after being pursued by agent of the PIDE, the most “unsecret secret policeman,” wrote that in the abject poverty of the Dili Market, “No one laughed, or even smiled.” Upon his departure, he wondered, “Could it be that all the unsmiling people were asleep — or were they just dreaming?”

In the interior of Portugal, in a town in the Alentejo, I came across a photo exhibit of the working conditions of women in post-war Portugal. The photos — of “fish wives”, women in rice fields, women collecting firewood — reminded me of Timor. I began to realize that April 25 was also the end of a long, pastoral sleep for the Portuguese. The satirical weekly O Inimigo Publico (The Public Enemy) displayed on its “April 24” cover an illustration of the apparition of Dictator Salazar appearing like the Virgin Mary of Fátima, blessing his flock: a bunch of sleeping men next to five-liter jugs of wine.

If in Timor, newly-won independence can bring an end to third-world rates of illiteracy and poor health services (as did the revolution in Portugal), then I know the Timorese will definitely will have a lot to celebrate three decades from now — even, perhaps, with some much needed historical perspective.

You can explore the read the results of my research on Portuguese Timor on this page