News | Party / Movement History - German / European History - Europe - USA / Canada - Southeast Asia - China Remembering the Carnation Revolution

Fifty years ago today, left-wing military officers brought down Portugal’s dictatorship


A poster published in the wake of the Carnation Revolution.
A poster published in the wake of the Carnation Revolution. Photo: Direcção-Geral de Arquivos

When the song “Grândola, Vila Morena” came on the radio shortly after midnight on 25 April 1974, everyone in Portugal still tuning in at such a late hour must have frozen. José Afonso’s song about a fraternal homeland in which the people have the say was banned under the dictatorship, so the fact that it was playing on the radio must have meant something.

Albert Scharenberg is a historian, political scientist, and international politics editor at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

And indeed, it did: it was the agreed-upon signal for the coup d’état plotted by a few hundred left-wing military officers.

Portugal’s Late Colonialism

There had been growing unrest in the armed forces for some time. For while colonialism was collapsing the world over, Portugal, the world’s third-largest colonial power, adamantly held fast to its colonial empire — even as armed liberation movements were forming in Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique.

The war on multiple fronts in the colonies placed the authoritarian regime under increasing pressure. Rapidly increasing costs ultimately led to around half the country’s budget having to be spent on the colonial wars, which resulted in extreme poverty and suffering in the colonies but also in Portugal itself. For the Salazar regime, which presented itself as the inheritor of Portugal’s centuries-old colonial tradition, colonialism and dictatorship were so mutually dependent that their fate was also completely intertwined.

António de Oliveira Salazar came to power following a military coup in 1926. After being named prime minister in 1932, he transformed the country into the Estado Novo, a clerical-fascist “new state” comparable to Franco’s Spain. The working population was forced to go hungry in order to pay off the national debt, while the traditional elites — large landowners, businesspeople, and military officers — profited. The political opposition faced indiscriminate repression at the hands of the secret police, in Portugal as well as in the colonies. Despite all this, the authoritarian country was accepted as a founding member of NATO in 1949.

The colonial wars of the 1960s led to, in the words of historian Urte Sperling, the “end of the class alliance based on protectionism and colonial plunder”. The Portuguese oligarchy split into two opposing groups — a faction pushing for modernization and opening up, and the elites who mainly profited from colonialism and protectionism.

Political differences arose immediately following the revolution.

Yet the regime turned out to be incapable of reform, including under Salazar’s successor, Marcelo Caetano. Tentative attempts at opening up were countered by threats of a coup from Salazar’s old guard, and the colonial wars relentlessly continued.

When Guinea-Bissau declared independence in 1972, soldiers and officers recognized how little Portugal’s war aims had to do with the reality in the colonies. The military situation became increasingly desperate. More and more soldiers were killed or returned to their homeland wounded and traumatized. Hundreds of thousands left the country.

The Armed Forces Movement

Contradictions within Portuguese society dramatically intensified, particularly in the military, as the regime was unwilling to change course in the colonial wars. On 1 December 1973, around 200 officers met on the outskirts of Lisbon and plotted a coup. They constituted the core of the Armed Forces Movement (MFA), consisting primarily of young officers, almost all of whom were middle-ranking and had actively participated in the colonial wars. They had different political orientations, but shared the conviction that the colonial wars had to be ended, and that the dictatorship had to fall for that to happen.

From that point, everything went quickly. A first attempted revolt in March failed. The MFA then tasked Major Otelo de Carvalho with the operational planning of a military action, and formed an alliance of convenience with the conservative general António de Spínola.

By the time “Grândola, Vila Morena” played on the radio on 25 April 1974, the plotters had already occupied the most strategically important infrastructure. There was hardly any resistance, and by the afternoon, Prime Minister Caetano surrendered. The decrepit regime literally collapsed. General Spínola and the MFA agreed to form the National Salvation Junta.

The population enthusiastically welcomed the regime’s downfall, and scenes of people fraternizing with soldiers were broadcast around the world. Carnations, which civilians placed in the barrels of the soldiers’ guns, became a symbol of the dictatorship’s almost bloodless collapse. The popular celebrations lent the coup legitimacy, turning it into a revolution. Just a few days later, hundreds of thousands of people turned May Day celebrations into a people’s festival.

With Spínola’s resignation in autumn, the second phase of the revolution began.

At this point, the liberating potential unleashed by the fall of the dictatorship became clear. There was a full-blown popular uprising. In the industrial parts of Lisbon, trade unionists went on strike and occupied factories, and the rural proletariat began organizing in the south of the country.

In May, a provisional government was formed based on a broad coalition ranging from Communists and socialists to liberals. But what was welcomed within Portugal provoked disgust among its allies abroad. Alarmed by government participation of the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), Western states worried that the country might align with the Soviet Union. US President Gerald Ford called on Prime Minister Vasco Gonçalves to throw the PCP out of the government. NATO also expressed “concern over the situation in Portugal” and excluded the country from its Nuclear Planning Group.

In Portugal, political differences arose immediately following the revolution. While the MFA wanted a democratic constitution, free trade unions, parties, and elections, and an economic and social policy that favoured the disadvantaged, Spínola considered himself to be the head of an authoritarian presidential regime. In the summer of 1974, the two military-political centres, the MFA and Spínola’s group, were competing for power. As the latter was ever more blatantly aiming for a coup, the MFA felt compelled to act in order to safeguard its aims of decolonization, democratization, and economic development. Spínola was forced to step down as interim president, and was succeeded by the former commander-in-chief Francisco da Costa Gomes, a member of the MFA.

With Spínola’s resignation in autumn, the second phase of the revolution began . At the time, most Portuguese people welcomed the limited rule of the revolutionary military. A popular slogan at the time proclaimed, “The people stand with the MFA!”

After a second attempted coup by Spínola failed pitifully in March 1975, the MFA went on the offensive and decided to nationalize most banks and insurance companies, with other key industries following. Due to pressure by radicalizing rural workers, agrarian reforms were also planned.

The “Hot Summer” of the People’s Movement

The third stage of the revolution began with elections for a constituent assembly on the first anniversary of the revolution. Yet the victors were not the decidedly left-wing parties but the Socialist Party (PS) under Mário Soares, the recipient of generous support from the Socialist International, and the liberal Democratic People’s Party (PPD). Both parties had participated in the coup, but now wanted to abort the revolutionary process and transition to capitalist normality. Encouraged by the election results, they put the pressure on.

At the same time, class struggles intensified during the “hot summer” of 1975, primarily in Alentejo in the south of the country, where large landowners ruled over sprawling rural estates known as latifúndios, whereas in the north smallholders cultivated the land. The conflict between the rural workforce and large landholders in the south expanded into a direct fight over control of the land. Meanwhile, industry faced a growing wave of strikes, and squatter movements developed in the cities.

The End of the Revolution and Its Legacy

While the revolutionary movement was radicalized from below, the PS and the PPD exited the coalition government and organized mass demonstrations under the motto: “The people do not stand with the MFA.” This led to the collapse of the coalition on which the MFA depended, right at the moment when the popular movement was hitting its high point and tens of thousands of “revolutionary tourists” were pouring into the country.

The schism soon reached the military, and the left wing of the MFA found itself under increasing pressure. It did not, after all, represent the entire military: the left-wingers dominated in the marines, but the air force and army were dominated by conservative and diffuse liberal forces. Finally, in August 1975, a group of officers openly called for a slowing down of the revolution, putting a halt to the socialization programme, restoring soldiers’ discipline, and reducing the influence of the PCP. The schism within the MFA was now indisputable.

The sixth provisional government was then dominated by moderate forces. German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt suddenly offered the country a cash loan, and the EC Commission also offered financial aid. The left wing of the MFA was gradually sidelined. On 25 November its leading officers were arrested, ending its revolutionary role.

What remains of the Carnation Revolution half of a century later? Its most meanignful successes were the end of Portuguese colonialism, as well as the fall of the dictatorship and the transition to a constitution based on social and democratic rights. But it failed to transform the economy and society to the benefit of the disadvantaged: their revolution, in the factories and the countryside, was aborted.

Still, the fact that just six months after the coup against Salvador Allende’s government in Chile, a left-wing military group was able to force the downfall of the dictatorship and accomplish the transition to a democratic society is an enduring legacy — one that adds an exciting piece to the mosaic of revolution.

This article first appeared in nd.aktuell in cooperation with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. Translated by Marty Hiatt and Anna Dinwoodie for Gegensatz Translation Collective.