Portugal 1974: Remembering the Carnation Revolution 50 years on

John Green

25 April 2024

May Day in Lisbon, 1974 (Photo: John Green)

John Green studied film and camera in the German Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic (GDR) during the 1960s. He retur­ned to his home coun­try, the United King­dom, in 1968 and began working for GDR tele­vi­sion as a foreign corre­spon­dent. Green and his colle­agues were part of what became known as the “Gruppe Katins” at GDR Tele­vi­sion, a team of corre­spond­ents led by the well-respec­ted East German produ­cer Dr. Sabine Katins. They covered events in Portu­gal for seve­ral years after the Carna­tion Revo­lu­tion of 1974, making 10 docu­men­ta­ries in total. They also repor­ted regu­larly on the libe­ra­tion strug­gles in Mozam­bi­que, Angola, Zimbabwe, Nami­bia, and South Africa.

The world was taken by surprise on the morning of 25 April 1974, to hear that Europe’s oldest dicta­tor­ship in Portu­gal had been over­thrown. I and my colle­ague, as jour­na­lists working for GDR tele­vi­sion, were sent to cover events as they unfolded.

We touched down at Lisbon airport on the morning of the 27th, imme­dia­tely unpa­cked our camera and star­ted shoo­ting. From then on, we only put the camera down when we went to bed late in the evening. Alre­ady at the airport the atmo­sphere was char­ged: large groups of people waited for their loved ones to arrive; many had been exiled for years by the dicta­tor­ship. There were ecsta­tic embraces, laugh­ter, and tears of joy.

The centre of Lisbon was awash with flowers and knots of jubilant groups on every street corner. Soldiers and sail­ors stood sentry in front of offi­cial buil­dings, not in a menacing manner, but noncha­lant and rela­xed, red carna­ti­ons in their lapels or in the barrels of their guns, now conver­ted from killing tools into flower vases. They were conti­nu­ally embra­ced by ordi­nary citi­zens, who show­e­red them with flowers and kisses, drinks, and food. I have never seen an army so at one with the people. One young conscript told us, “Yes we now have a unity between the people and the armed forces, and we must make sure no one destroys that.”

John film­ing the Portu­guese offi­cers who led the Carna­tion Revo­lu­tion, 1974 (Photo: John Green)

Every street corner, office and factory became a beehive of revo­lu­tio­nary acti­vity. Poli­ti­cal prisoners, some who’d been langu­is­hing in the dicta­tor Caetano’s noto­rious jails for years, were released into the arms of their over­joyed fami­lies; the secret police head­quar­ters, the radio stati­ons and govern­ment buil­dings were now in the hands of rebel soldiers, trade unions were re-estab­lished, housing asso­cia­ti­ons and local resi­dents’ commit­tees set up and poli­ti­cal parties mush­roo­med from nowhere. I instinc­tively felt the paral­lels with the Bols­he­vik revo­lu­tion of 1917, as descri­bed by John Reed in “10 Days that Shook the World”. There was a palpa­ble sense of unity and frater­nity, of regai­ned natio­nal dignity, ever­yone cele­bra­ting together.

This revo­lu­tion was not only a cause for great cele­bra­tion in Portu­gal itself but perhaps even more so for those in the Portu­guese colo­nies that would soon, after years of brutal and relent­less struggle find them­sel­ves free. And it should not be forgot­ten that it was largely as a result of the incre­asing success of the libe­ra­tion forces in these colo­nies that led to the Carna­tion Revo­lu­tion in Portu­gal itself.

Between 1961–74 Portu­gal had been waging wars of attri­tion in its Afri­can colo­nies. Apart from France, Portu­gal was the only Euro­pean coun­try still holding on to its over­seas colo­nies in Angola, Mozam­bi­que Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands in Africa, Goa in India and Macau in China.

Still in the grip of a fascist dicta­tor­ship, Portu­gal was deter­mi­ned to hold on to its colo­nies even though doing so was blee­ding the mother coun­try dry. At their height, the wars were consum­ing up to 40 percent of the Portu­guese budget. They were costly also in terms of lives lost. The Estado Novo regime enforced an army conscrip­tion, which included a manda­tory two-year tour in the Afri­can colo­nies. Apart from many ordi­nary soldiers, a considera­ble number of young offi­cers were also losing their lives in what were widely seen as unwin­nable wars, and at home this was crea­ting increased resis­tance to the wars. Disaf­fec­tion within the army was spre­a­ding and it was this that finally trig­ge­red the over­throw of an intran­si­gent and ossi­fied regime in the mother country.

The libe­ra­tion strug­gles in Mozam­bi­que, Angola and Guinea-Bissau were beco­ming very effec­tive and were blee­ding Portu­gal econo­mic­ally and giving it real heada­ches. The armed forces of FRELIMO in Mozam­bi­que, MPLA in Angola and The Afri­can Party for the Inde­pen­dence in Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), were all led by very capa­ble leaders. These guer­rilla forces were being supported with weapons and trai­ning by the socia­list states, parti­cu­larly the Soviet Union and the GDR.

Peasants in Beja deman­ding agra­rian reform, 1974 (Photo: John Green)

In Febru­ary 1974, Portu­guese dicta­tor Caet­ano deci­ded to remove Gene­ral Spinola from the command of Portu­guese forces in Guinea-Bissau in the face of his incre­asingly vocal dissa­tis­fac­tion with Portu­guese colo­nial policy and the regime’s mili­tary stra­tegy. This inspi­red other mili­tary offi­cers to set up the clan­des­tine Move­ment of the Armed Forces (MFA) with the aim of libe­ra­ting Portu­gal from the fascist Estado Novo regime and intro­du­cing neces­sary reforms.

Only the year before the Carna­tion Revo­lu­tion itself, I had been film­ing a report in Mozam­bi­que and witnessed first-hand the demo­ra­li­sa­tion of Portu­guese forces there, which were alre­ady confi­ned to small bases and had little control over the surroun­ding coun­try­side. I also noted that the weaponry the Portu­guese were using was marked as from NATO supplies, a fact never disc­lo­sed at the time.

Only days after the 25th April, we visi­ted the former Lisbon head­quar­ters of PIDE, the secret police. In the office of Silva Pais, the secu­rity chief, his diary was still open on the 25th, his papers were held down by an enorm­ous plas­ter penis, a half-drunk bottle of Johnny Walker stood next to two dirty glas­ses. On the books­helf behind his desk was a selec­tion of books, inclu­ding one by Regis Debray on Che Guevara, tomes on the history of the USSR, commu­nism in Africa, a Batista auto­bio­gra­phy, and a number of books on Cuba, which clearly reflec­ted the preoc­cu­pa­tion of the secret services with the libe­ra­tion struggles.

The Portu­guese Commu­nist Party (PCP) was the only one that had exis­ted on the ground in the coun­try throug­hout the dicta­tor­ship and was at that moment the best orga­nised poli­ti­cal force in the country.

The first PCP office opened in the city of Barreiro, 1974 (Photo: John Green)

Álvaro Cunhal, the Commu­nist leader, retur­ned from exile in Moscow and stood shoulder to shoulder with Mario Soares, the socia­list leader, retur­ned from Paris, toge­ther with soldiers from the MFA (the Move­ment of the Armed Forces). For a short time, it looked as if the Carna­tion Revo­lu­tion would become a socia­list revolution.

Leading western nati­ons were, howe­ver, appal­led at the idea of Portu­gal, a NATO stal­wart, turning socia­list — the Caet­ano dicta­tor­ship had been a loyal member of NATO and the Organisation’s South Atlan­tic head­quar­ters were in Portugal.

Mario Soares’ Socia­list Party had been formed only the previous year in West Germany, and was quite small and insi­gni­fi­cant at that time, but for many it repre­sen­ted a more palata­ble alter­na­tive to the commu­nists. Soares offe­red the people ’socia­lism with a human face’, but when his party came to power, it gave the people only another dose of the same econo­mic austerity medi­cine they’d been forced to swal­low for decades.

In the first free, consti­tu­tio­nal elec­tions of 1975, the Socia­list Party emer­ged as the stron­gest party and began calling the shots.

There was the econo­mic sabo­tage by the powerful capi­ta­list nati­ons and Portugal’s own ruling class. The new US ambassa­dor was Frank Carlucci, who had been their man in the Congo when Lumumba was assas­si­na­ted in 1961, and in Brazil before the mili­tary coup and bloody suppres­sion of demo­cracy there. He did his best to ensure that Portu­gal remained firmly in the capi­ta­list camp.

John and his colle­agues report­ing on May Day in Lisbon, 1975 (Photo: John Green)

Mario Soares became the first civi­lian prime minis­ter in 1976 and presi­dent in 1986. He happily presi­ded over a coun­try still firmly capi­ta­list and little better off econo­mic­ally than in the past, although it now enjoyed a plura­list and stable bour­geois democracy.

Unfort­u­na­tely, the nomi­nal libe­ra­tion of Portugal’s Afri­can colo­nies did not spell the end of oppres­sion. When Portu­gal admit­ted defeat and pulled out its troops, this was shortly follo­wed by pulling out virtually all its admi­nis­tra­tive and support staff from the colo­nies, leaving them bereft of much needed exper­tise. Angola and Mozam­bi­que parti­cu­larly were also later subjec­ted to blatant inter­fe­rence and sabo­tage by the impe­ria­list powers and their local proxies, South Africa and Rhode­sia (as Zimbabwe was then known). These inter­ven­ti­ons cost the newly libe­ra­ted count­ries dear and, despite contin­ued gene­rous aid from the socia­list count­ries, those early years after inde­pen­dence were years of bitter and contin­ued struggle.

We inter­viewed John Green in Septem­ber 2021. In the follo­wing excerpt, he recalls report­ing on the Revo­lu­tion and how the West inter­vened to prevent a social revo­lu­tion in Portugal.