António de Oliveira Salazar portrait
António de Oliveira Salazar portrait - Photo: Manuel Alves_San Payo

Opposition to Salazar’s Regime

António de Oliveira Salazar was Europe’s longest ruling dictator in the 20th century, exercising power during the international crises of the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War.

It is not widely known that during his near 40-year rule, he often faced determined opposition.

Salazar comes to power

In 1932, President of the Republic General Óscar Carmona appointed Salazar to head the government of Portugal after he had been in successful charge of the Finance Ministry for four years.  He became President of the Council of Ministers, the equivalent of Prime Minister. Thus began a 19-year collaboration between Salazar and President Carmona.

The new Prime Minister announced in November 1932 that the sole permitted political party in Portugal was the União Nacional (UN). Later, in April 1933, he introduced the constitution, which inaugurated the Estado Novo, the civilian dictatorship. It replaced the military Ditadura Nacional (national dictatorship) introduced after the Revolution of May 28, seven years earlier.

In December 1932, two decrees introduced the punishment for “crimes of rebellion” – exile and imprisonment in the place of exile. Although the new regime permitted liberty of thought, further laws restricted this right.

Censorship became stricter, and Salazar reformed and gave greater power to the secret police (PVDE, later PIDE), and inaugurated the special military tribunal in Lisbon and the propaganda secretariat.

Bust of Norton de Matos in Ponte de Lima
Bust of Norton de Matos in Ponte de Lima – Photo: Joseolgon Wikipedia

Salazar’s major objective was to neutralise or eliminate his political enemies: anarchists; opposition republicans both civilian and military, many of whom were freemasons; Catholic, liberal and conservative republicans; and monarchists.

All these opposed the new government, but for Salazar the principal enemy was communism, which he named “a grande heresia da nossa idade” (the great heresy of our age).

Worker unions were both socialist and communist, and their General Strike of January 1934 was ruthlessly suppressed. Free trades unions were banned, and Salazar introduced legislation to promote corporativism, giving employers and the state greater control over labour relations.

State employees now had to swear to repudiate “communism and all subversive ideas” including freemasonry. At the same time, Salazar dismantled the fascist blueshirt organisation of Rolão Preto, which lasted only two years (1932-34).

As the Nationalist rising in Spain began in July 1936, Portugal soon aligned itself with Franco’s rebels. On September 8 in Lisbon, a communist-led naval revolt in support of Spain’s socialist government was defeated – 10 sailors were killed and 82 were arrested, of whom 34 were sent to the new concentration camp at Tarrafal.

The Frente Popular Portuguesa combined various opposition groups, and on a night in January 1937, members set off bombs in various places in Lisbon. On Sunday, July 4, a bomb exploded close to Salazar’s car as he was about to attend Mass. Covered in dust, Salazar phlegmatically entered the chapel. The usual suspects were communists, and five reds were apprehended, even though they had played no part in the outrage.

Election poster 1949
Election poster 1949

Democratic reform defeated

Like the Franco government in Spain, the right-wing Salazar government outlived the defeat of the Nazis, mainly because it was fanatically anti-communist.

After 1945, Salazar was forced to fake some democratic changes to keep up a good image in the eyes of the Allies, and in October of that year, the democratic resistance was authorised to form the Movimento de Unidade Democrática (MUD). Salazar promised free elections, “as free as in free England”.

Initially, MUD was controlled by moderates, but the party soon became strongly influenced by the PCP (Partido Comunista Português), and the leadership of the youth wing was served by several communists, including Mário Soares, Otávio Pato and Salgado Zenha.

Government manipulation of the electoral process persuaded credulous MUD officials to submit the party membership list, after which many people on the list were dismissed from their employment.

Communist influence led to the MUD being outlawed by the government in 1946. Political repression intensified in 1949 and many Communist leaders were arrested, including Álvaro Cunhal, later Secretary-General to the PCP.

The presidential elections of 1949 ranged the 80-year-old government candidate Marshal Carmona against General Norton de Matos, aged 82, representing the opposition. The PCP recommended abstention from the election, and Carmona was re-elected with 14.6% of registered voters.

General Humberto Delgado
General Humberto Delgado

Salazar’s regime took advantage of the Cold War to score a significant diplomatic victory when in 1949, as an opponent of Soviet foreign policy, Portugal became a founder member of NATO.

During the 1940s, opposition figures hoped for a change of regime, but the hardening of repression during the 1950s brought disillusion. An original supporter of the military coup of 1926, Henrique Galvão fell out of favour with the regime and found himself imprisoned, only to escape into exile in 1959.

Opposition figures seeking regime change through legitimate processes came together again only in 1958, after presidential candidate General Humberto Delgado entered a collision course with the Salazar regime.

On May 10, 1958, Delgado became a hero of the electorate in Portugal with one phrase, memorably spoken in an election meeting in Porto. Asked how he would deal with Salazar if he won the election, Delgado declared: “Obviously, I shall dismiss him.” A wave of hope and expectation flooded the country.

Supported by the secret police and the armed forces, Salazar’s candidate Admiral Américo Tomás cruised to victory with 75% of the vote, amid widespread certainty that the outcome was fraudulent. Threatened with dismissal from the air force, Delgado sought asylum in the Brazilian embassy and went into exile.

Salazar’s main enemies were still the PCP, the socialists, old republicans and liberals, and he now added the liberal wing of the Catholic church.  The Catholic Frente Nacional had always supported Salazar, but now Catholics raised the voice of dissent through the Bishop of Porto, D António Ferreira Gomes, who criticised the regime for its neglect of the poorest in society. The bishop was encouraged to make a visit to Rome, after which he was denied re-entry to Portugal, and he spent the next 10 years in exile.

In March 1959, Salazar and PIDE defeated the Cathedral Coup (a plot by army officers who stored weapons in the cathedral), but in January 1960, they were embarrassed by the escape of 10 top communist leaders from the prison in the fortress of Peniche.

Pope Paul VI in Fátima
Pope Paul VI in Fátima

The Annus Horribilis of 1961

Salazar’s regime also had to deal with the independence movements in Portugal’s colonies. In 1953, India had already occupied the enclaves of Dadra and Nagar-Haveli, and independence movements formed in Angola (UPA and FNLA) seeking discussions about the peaceful transfer of power.

An incursion into northern Angola from neighbouring Zaire left many Portuguese dead, which inspired a murderous response by the Portuguese army.

The Portuguese cruise liner ‘Santa Maria’ was hijacked by escaped prisoner Henrique Galvão, and in continental Portugal, a group of 62 prominent figures published on January 31, 1961, a political manifesto calling for greater political transparency. All were soon detained by PIDE.

On February 4, a failed Angolan nationalist raid on the prisons in Luanda provoked a vengeful repression by the white population on the Africans. In March, another uprising in northern Angola left a tally of 800 dead Portuguese, and 6,000 dead Africans.

The beginning of the Colonial War in Angola soon spread to Guinea-Bissau (1962) and Mozambique (1964). By the end of 1964, there were 52,000 Portuguese soldiers in Angola, 15,000 in Guinea-Bissau and 18,000 in Mozambique.

Opposition to the colonial wars eventually provided the main motive for those officers who eventually overthrew the regime.

In April, the United Nations condemned Portugal’s colonial policy, and in July, Dahomey suddenly occupied the enclave fortress of São João Baptista de Ajudá.

In December, India invaded the remaining Portuguese possessions on the sub-continent, Goa, Daman and Diu.

Meanwhile, in Portugal itself, another plot, this time by the Minister of Defence Botelho Moniz, was foiled; a TAP airliner was hijacked; and a mutiny at the barracks of Beja left one government minister dead.

Statue in Porto to Bishop D António Ferreira Gomes
Statue in Porto to Bishop D António Ferreira Gomes – Photo: Diego Delso Wikipedia

Many secret oppositions

In mainland Portugal, between February and June 1962, the regime confronted an intense student opposition in both Lisbon and Coimbra. These young people were the children of the Portuguese elite. Uniting communists, supporters of Humberto Delgado, and radical socialists under the same banner, the Frente Patriótica de Libertação Nacional (FPLN) was founded in Rome in December 1962 and in Geneva in 1964, Mário Soares became a founder member of Ação Socialista Portuguesa.  Other splinter marxist and maoist parties also appeared.

In 1965, agents of PIDE attracted Humberto Delgado to a secret meeting just over the border in Spain, where he and his secretary were assassinated. Since PIDE was never independent, but always loyal to the dictator, it is certain that Salazar approved both this barbarity and more torture by PIDE.

In the same year, Republic President Américo Tomás was re-elected. He was nicknamed “Senhor Corta-fitas” (Mr Ribbon-cutter) because his main duty seemed to be cutting ribbons at opening ceremonies.

Many Catholics began to oppose the government’s colonial policies. But Salazar scored a diplomatic triumph in 1967, when Pope Paul VI visited the shrine at Fátima on the 50th anniversary of the apparition of the Blessed Virgin.

After 1967, the Liga de Unidade e Ação Revolucionária began to use arms in their opposition activities. They raided a branch of the Bank of Portugal, attacked the HQ of the Évora military district and attempted to occupy the town of Covilhã.

Well before Salazar left the political stage, a new type of opposition began to emerge. This was strike action, the most notable of which was the “greve da mala” in Lisbon in 1968, when conductors on public transport refused to take money for tickets.

Why did the dictatorship survive for so long?

To maintain his grip on power, Salazar was skilful in managing three lieutenants. First, his friend Cardinal Cerejeira managed the church; second, Captain Santos Costa managed the Armed Forces; and third, Captain Agostinho Lourenço was in charge of the secret police.

The longevity of the regime depended on two decisive factors. First, in moments of crisis (1945, 1958 and 1961), it retained the support of the whole of the Armed Forces; and second, it succeeded in dismantling opposition groups by intimidation and repression through the police, who “politically cleansed” national and local administrations.

Few dictatorships rely solely on instruments of repression, and in Portugal the regime used censorship to create an atmosphere of consensus, and consequently a significant number of Portuguese refused to become involved in politics.

With the passing of the years, it seemed that the regime would never fall, and Salazar managed to persuade his political opponents that any attempt was doomed to failure.

With courage, but with little success, many opponents sacrificed their employment, their wealth, their liberty and even their lives as they took part in the struggle against the dictatorship.

Yet, opposition groups had one outstanding characteristic. They, not the government, seemed to embody social and intellectual leadership as well as a superior political morality. Even though they were unable to unseat the regime, opposition groups were never completely repressed, and ultimately became indispensable to the success of the Armed Forces in defeating the regime on April 25, 1974, the Carnation Revolution.

By Peter Booker
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Peter Booker co-founded with his wife Lynne the Algarve History Association.