Carnation Revolution: April 25, 1974-2014
One of my main reasons for coming to Portugal this month was to witness and celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution that toppled the country’s fascist dictatorship on April 25, 1974. The 40th anniversary is especially significant because it’s probably be the last time the major participants in the revolution will still be alive to tell their stories of that remarkable day. It began in the predawn hours when troops of the MFA (Armed Forces Movement) led by Captain Fernando José Salgueiro Maia occupied the Ribeira das Naus and the Terreiro do Paço along the riverbank and ultimately convinced forces loyal to the government to join them. Within hours, ordinary people flooded into the streets and placed carnations in the rifles of the rebel soldiers, showing that their guns would no longer be used against the people. Following a tense afternoon standoff, the fascist government of Marcelo Caetano, successor to notorious despot António de Oliveira Salazar, surrendered at the headquarters of the Guardia Nacional. The following day, April 26, the civilian pro-democracy leaders returned from exile.
Already, two of the principal heroes of the revolution are no longer with us. Captain Salgueiro Maia died of cancer in 1992 at the age of 47. And José “Zeca” Afonso, the popular musician who composed the revolutionary anthem “Grândola Vila Morena” died in 1987 at the age of 57 after a five-year battle with ALS. Tributes to both Salgueiro Maia and Zeca abounded during this anniversary celebration.
On Thursday evening, April 24, I attended a concert at the Assembly of the Republic building that featured Zeca’s music. A sign outside announced that the concert would be filmed for RTP2, one of the national TV channels. Looking through the program, I noticed that many of the performers were themselves members of that legislative body, among them, on Portuguese guitar and rhythm guitar, the deputy Nuno Encarnacão, who also wrote an eloquent tribute to Zeca.
I never thought I’d ever see members of a national legislature publicly performing the songs of a revolutionary folk singer. However, these legislators owe their positions in large part to this revolutionary folk singer who sacrificed much for the cause of democracy. Dictatorships don’t need legislatures. Or if legislatures do exist, as in Portugal under fascism, they’re handpicked by the rulers and serve as rubber stamps rather than as voices for the people.
Additionally, there is a long tradition in Portugal of non-professional musicians performing in fado clubs, and many of those neighborhood singers and instrumentalists are quite good. So were the performers of Zeca’s songs at the Assembly. The one downside of the concert being filmed for television, with us as the studio audience, is that when someone messed up, such as the announcer, the section had to be repeated. And we got to see the backstage crew fix her hair and makeup, which elicited laughs but also reduced the solemnity of the occasion. And one of the songs had to be rerecorded before we could get to the grand finale of the Assembly choir and audience singing “Grândola Vila Morena.”
I’m sure it’s going to look great on TV, and you’ll be able to see the concert on YouTube as well. You’re welcome to look for me. I sat behind a tall man in a suit.
On Friday morning, Richard and I walked to the Largo de Carmo, in front of the Guardia Nacional headquarters, where we heard some of the military veterans of the revolution comment on struggles yesterday and today, specifically the need to resist rolling back the social and economic gains of the past 40 years to please banks and business leaders.
Most of the people wore or carried red carnations in homage to the day. I kept thinking of one of the poems read at the Zeca tribute, calling the colors of freedom green and red—the colors of the carnations but also of the Portuguese flag. I bought a carnation and wore it to the end of the short but very crowded march down Avenida Liberdade to Rossio Square in the afternoon. Afterward, Richard and I took the short path up multiple flights of stairs to the Casa da Achada, where our friend Joana, who rented us the apartment where we stayed in 2012, was performing as part of a revolutionary choir.
The Casa de Achada is a wonderful community center for the neighborhood of Mouraria, just east of downtown. It features libraries for children and adults, a playground, space for exhibition and performances, and an active schedule of events and classes. When we were there, the exhibition space featured paintings by revolutionary artist and essayist Mário Dionisio, and outside were billboards with quotations and artifacts showing life under the dictatorship and the joy of a people experiencing their first days of freedom.
If you’re reading this post in a country where you’ve never known anything but freedom, it may be hard to imagine what it’s like to live without it. In Portugal under the dictatorship, for instance, children were not required to attend school beyond the age of eight, and one-third of the country was illiterate. Boys and girls went to separate schools. Students who arrived late, broke the rules, or gave certain wrong answers received harsh physical punishment. Religion was central to the classroom and school day even in public schools. Teachers could not marry without permission from the Ministry of Education, a restriction that extended to many other jobs as well. Women were considered the property of their husbands and could not travel outside the country without their husbands or notarized and officially-approved permissions from their husbands. Women had no reproductive rights, because having babies was considered an interest of both their husbands and the State.
The indignities large and small of life under dictatorship went on and on. In addition, the small, impoverished country (in large part because the dictator wanted the people to remain ignorant and unskilled to be easier to control) was mired in wars against liberation forces in Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique, wars that resulted in nine thousand Portuguese dead and more than 100,000 wounded, and many more casualties among the various African peoples. The MFA consisted in large part of officers radicalized by their time in Africa—as was Zeca, who spent much of his childhood in Mozambique and later married a Mozambican woman.
We had a long and memorable day honoring these brave revolutionaries, whose peaceful removal of an oppressive regime and restoration of democracy captivated the world 40 years ago. We also understand that the struggle continues, and protecting democracy—rule by the people—against power-hungry despots and bean-counting plutocrats requires that we do not rest, and we do not retreat.
Enjoy these other photos from the 40th anniversary, April 25, 2014.