ONE OF my abiding memories dates back to April 1974, when, as a seven-year-old child, my mother and I passed by, on a London street, an Evening Standard vendor shouting “Portugal gone Communist”. My family owned a villa in Praia da Luz (Algarve) and it seemed like the ground was sinking beneath our feet.
The Soviet Union, pre-glasnost and pre-perestroika, still seemed a mighty colossus by comparison. In Europe, Communist parties in France and Italy recorded record levels of support. Hence, the events in Portugal terrified the Western political establishment, who feared the formation of a new Cuba in Western Europe.
Colonial wars were unsustainable
The background to the Portuguese Revolution is familiar. Salazar had presided over Europe’s longest fascist regime. In 1968, he suffered a stroke and his successor, Marcelo Caetano, assumed state powers before the 81-year-old dictator’s death in 1970. By 1974, the Portuguese economy, already the poorest in Europe, had been drained by African colonial wars that consumed more than 40 per cent of the country’s budget and 160,000 of its 220,000 troops.
On April 25, 1974 the dam burst. Middle ranking army officers, disillusioned in particular by the colonial wars, took action. Key installations were secured, military headquarters occupied, the airport was closed and leading ministers were arrested. Troops sealed off access to Lisbon and also secured the second city, Porto. The only resistance came from the hated secret police, the PIDE, who were besieged by angry crowds at their headquarters.
Workers took control
A provisional government under the leadership of General Spinola was set up and workers, who had long denied trade union rights, began to assert themselves. All sections of society were caught up in the revolutionary fervour.
Students at Lisbon University refused to take entrance exams, considering them a fascist method of selection. A meeting of 500 Catholics in Porto denounced the co-operation of the Catholic Church with the old regime and called for the resignation of all bishops. Homeless people seized empty properties, offices were used for workers’ campaigns, and shipyard and underground workers went on strike, demanding a 50 per cent pay rise. Car workers won a 40-hour week, and bakery and textile workers also downed tools.
Elections were called on April 25, 1975, the first anniversary of the revolution. In total, 58 per cent voted for left-wing parties, with the Socialist Party (PS) emerging victorious. But the ‘red dawn’ proved illusory. After a period of frenetic revolutionary action, the authorities slowly began to restore normalcy.
The government purged communist sympathisers and members from the ministries, and pursued centre-left policies under the leadership of Mário Soares, Prime Minister for much of this period. But, by then, three-quarters of the economy had been nationalised and the full restoration of a market economy had to proceed cautiously.
Left still powerful today
Three decades after the revolution, Portugal’s government is the servant of two contradictory masters. External organisations such as the European Union demand rigorous fiscal responsibility and tight spending controls, while workers demand better living conditions and entitlements.
Portuguese voters are traditionally the most left-wing in Europe, evidenced by the Communist Party’s strong third place in the recent elections. The left’s strength is particularly a source of bemusement to foreigners who note that communist and Trotskyite parties are consulted nightly on news programmes, something unheard of in other European nations. Debates during the recent election featured candidates from the five main parties – three of which were left of centre – the Socialist Party (PS), the Bloco de Esquerda (BE) and the Communist Party (PCP). So the left’s message occupied 60 per cent of airtime.
This ‘statist’ mindset may provide a clue to Portugal’s 21st century dilemma. Most experts agree that bureaucracies must be reformed to boost competitiveness but ordinary voters still have a collectivist mindset that resists change. And it is perhaps this left-wing backlash that remains one of the greatest legacies of the 1974 revolution.