Of the 19 individuals who have occupied the office of President of Portugal, only two have served for less time than General Spínola. He was in office for only four-and-a-half months, and yet his contribution to the outcome of the Carnation Revolution was essential for the non-violent transfer of power.
The day of the captains’ military revolt, which led to the Carnation Revolution, saw the urgent need to find a figure of national repute to lead Portugal out of the ensuing crisis. There were few such figures in Portugal who were not marked indelibly by their association with the Salazar dictatorship.
One who had publicly challenged the government was General António de Spínola, who was well known in Portugal for his qualities of leadership of the armed forces and for his refusal to commit his support to the then Prime Minister, Marcelo Caetano.
A prolific author, his book “Portugal e o Futuro” (published in February 1974) showed that the continuation of the African wars was not the way forward and that Portugal should seek other solutions.
On Thursday, 25 April 1974, trapped in the Carmo Barracks, Marcelo Caetano insisted that he would not surrender power to a mere captain (“It would be throwing power into the street,” he said), but only to General Spínola.
Spínola had no hand in planning the revolt, and his participation was determined by Caetano’s unforgettable words. The revolt had begun just after midnight on April 25 and, by dinnertime that evening, the government had been toppled.
In the immediate aftermath of April 25, the victorious rebels had to devise a new government and Spínola, to whom Caetano had surrendered, became the President of the Junta da Salvação Nacional (JSN). On May 15, 1974, the JSN nominated him President of the Republic.
António de Spínola had entered the Colégio Militar at age 10 and later, at the Escola do Exército, he elected to join the cavalry. A life-long horseman, he participated in numerous national and international riding competitions. At age 22, he made a good career move when he married the daughter of General Monteiro de Barros of the GNR, and transferred into the GNR, where he served for 17 years.
During the World War, he visited military schools in Germany and also the famous Blue Division on the Leningrad front. His father served as head of the finance department to Salazar. He and his family were staunch supporters of the Estado Novo.
With the start of the war in Angola, the loss of Goa and the hijacking of the liner Santa Maria, the year 1961 was the annus horribilis for Salazar and, out of the blue, Spínola sent him a message of support. Consequently, he was appointed lieutenant-colonel of 345 Cavalry Battalion (600 men) and despatched to Angola (November 1961).
Although his unit operated with success against the guerrillas, he began to doubt that the wars in Africa could be won by force alone. He emerged from this mission in 1964 with a reputation for courage and bravery and was apparently admired by friend and foe alike. His career took off and, four years later in 1968, during a personal interview with Salazar, he was appointed Commander-in-Chief and Governor of Guiné.
His priority in Guiné was the development of the economic and social life in the colony, which brought a measure of pacification. He unified the command of all the armed forces, coordinating the efforts of army, navy and air force, and he recruited a native (black) militia while purging the army of those conservative elements who disagreed with his policies. Spínola determined to open negotiations with the guerrillas and set up Congressos do Povo (people’s congresses), an attempt to identify indigenous sources of power with the Portuguese colonial government.
Unusually for a Commander-in-Chief, Spínola participated in dangerous operations with the troops, wearing his characteristic monocle, white gloves and carrying his cane. His service in Guiné saw him achieving the status of hero, an outstanding example of physical courage and determination, the marks of true leadership.
As a result of his service in Africa, he became a figure of importance in national politics and, although he argued against the official policy of military conquest, he remained a loyal supporter of the government.
After two terms of office in Guiné, Spínola resigned in late 1973 and the government sought to find for him an appointment in Portugal suitable to his status. Although he accepted the post of vice-CEMGFA (vice-Chefe do Estado-Maior-General das Forças Armadas) in January 1974, he was almost immediately dismissed because he would not personally swear loyalty to the policies of the Caetano government.
Those military officers who did swear loyalty were called ‘brigada do reumático’ (the rheumatic brigade) because most were so elderly. It was at this time that he published “Portugal e o Futuro”, which became a best-seller, and which gave extra impetus to the captain’s plotting against the regime.
On April 25, 1974, as Caetano insisted on passing power to Spínola, the General telephoned to the captains’ command post and he was authorised to accept Caetano’s surrender. Cheered by the crowd when he arrived at the Largo do Carmo, he became the hero of the day as he accepted Caetano’s transfer of power.
His friend and chief, General Francisco da Costa Gomes, convinced the JSN that Spínola had the political means and the right contacts with the press, and he was accepted by everyone as the right man for the Presidency of the JSN. He was certainly not the first soldier to become President of Portugal and on May 15, 1974, it seemed natural that Spínola should be nominated as the 13th President of the Republic.
Spínola’s Presidency was marked by his inflexible conviction that Portugal should create a federation of its colonies, while the revolutionary captains wanted Portugal to withdraw completely from its overseas possessions. Confrontation became inevitable.
Rejecting their nominees for the post of Prime Minister, Spínola insisted on his own nominee, and on Portuguese federalism.
He established Comando Operacional do Continente (COPCON), a military command designed to protect the democratic revolution, but under the growing political power of the leftist Movimento das Forças Armadas (MFA), it became involved in agrarian reform and land occupations.
Spínola embarked on a tour of the country promoting a free, democratic and progressive Portugal, and he sought the support of army units and the banks, as well as international contacts. Power was gravitating to Spínola on the right and to the MFA on the left and, as the MFA was winning, Spínola’s position became more fragile.
Others demanded that the President should remain politically neutral. At the end of July, he had to accept that the colonies had the right to self-determination and, as his plans for federation were now unachievable, his position had become isolated and untenable.
He determined, however, to call on the “silent majority against communism”, a popularist solution which appealed to the erstwhile right-wing supporters of Salazar. His popular meeting was advertised for September 28 but was suddenly prohibited by the MFA. Powerfully opposed and unable to refrain from political involvement, Spínola resigned from the Presidency on September 30, 1974.
Retreating to his family quinta outside Lisbon, Spínola continued to receive visits from his supporters, amongst them rightist elements in the armed forces who resented that national policy was now being decided on the streets. These elements created the Exército de Libertação Português (ELP).
Rumours suggested that the CIA planned to stage a counter-coup in his favour and, pressed to act, he authorised the counter-coup before it was ready. The March 11, 1975 coup failed ignominiously, and Spínola fled to Spain. His links with rightist organisations and his plans for coup from the right had ruined his hard-won heroic reputation.
In 1976, after the election of Ramalho Eanes as President of the Republic and Soares as Prime Minister, Spínola renounced his rightist contacts and was permitted to return from exile. Soares appointed him Chancellor of the Honorific Military Orders, and he was appointed Honorary Marshal of the Armed Forces in 1991. Having come in from the cold, Spínola died at age 86 in 1996 and, as the government decreed two days of national mourning, he was buried among the soldiers in the Cemetery of Alto de São João in Lisbon.
A man of simple tastes, he was almost a vegetarian and kept the same waking hours all his life, from seven in the morning until midnight. His marriage remained childless and he seems, in retrospect, almost humourless.
One of the most controversial figures of contemporary Portuguese history, Spínola prided himself on “always speaking the plain language of truth, sometimes uncomfortable to hear, but the only way a soldier knows how to speak”.
Marshal António de Spínola will be remembered in Portugal as a brilliant soldier on the one hand, but a lousy politician on the other.
By Lynne Booker