Sunday, May 19, 2024

‘Everyone was in the streets. I just felt happiness’: Portugal recalls the Carnation Revolution

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At 4am on 25 April 1974, Filipe Villard Cortez got the signal. He barricaded the door of the Monte Real air base commander’s room and cut his phone line. A few hours earlier, Portugal’s Carnation Revolution had begun.

Cortez was 21 at the time, a commissioned air force officer who wanted the democratisation of Portugal and the end of its colonial rule. In the weeks before the revolution, he had become involved in meetings with the Armed Forces Movement (MFA) – the group that instigated the military coup that toppled Portugal’s authoritarian Estado Novo regime, ending its war to prevent independence in Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique.

After Cortez stationed soldiers at the commander’s door, air force generals contacted the base, instructing the squad to fly over Lisbon. “We refused, saying there was fog, which was totally bogus – an air raid would have destroyed half of Lisbon. I think then the generals pretty much realised it was a lost situation,” remembered Cortez, now 71 and a retired airline captain in Sintra.

“The most operational base was ours – if we were with the MFA, it meant that was it. The whole thing collapsed that day.”

Portugal on Thursday marks 50 years since the non-violent Carnation Revolution which brought down the fascist Estado Novo regime and led to the liberation of Portugal’s colonies. While the 50th anniversary will be celebrated across the country, it comes against the backdrop of an election last month that returned 50 members of the far-right Chega party to the Portuguese parliament.

Filipe Villard Cortez in the early 1970s. Photograph: Guardian Community

The recent success of Portugal’s far right was on Anabela Brito’s mind as she prepared to head out to the streets of Lisbon on Thursday – like she did 50 years ago. “I was there when Marcelo went down in Largo do Carmo,” she said, referring to the capitulation of prime minister Marcelo Caetano at the main military police station in the capital on the day of the coup.

Brito was a student in 1974, and a member of a leftwing political party. In the days before the revolution, she had heard that a coup was coming. “At 2am, I received a phone call and they said: ‘It’s now, they’re in the streets.’ On the TV and radio, they were saying stay at home – but people didn’t listen. Everyone was in the streets. I just felt happiness.”

She said the fight continues in Portugal for housing and a robust public health service among other issues, noting amid Chega’s rise that “the far right knows how to profit from these problems”.

Student Afonso Filipe also recognised the importance of commemorating the day. At 21, Filipe’s knowledge of the Estado Novo regime and the revolution comes largely from stories his grandparents have passed down; his grandfather, who was stationed in Mozambique in 1974, has told him of his elation on hearing the news of the coup, while his grandmother described Lisbon’s streets as “full of people cheering – almost like a parade with the military leading the charge”.

“This year, I will walk down the Avenida da Liberdade, something that many people and all the leftwing parties do,” he said. Amid the rise of Chega, Filipe believed “it’s important to make a stand and show that we, as a country, will not allow them to pass and make all the sacrifices our grandparents [made] useless”.

Filipe was concerned that the memory of the regime was fading from younger generations in Portuguese society. “Today I live in a free country, capable of expressing myself. I have the liberty that my grandparents didn’t have,” he said. “Sadly, [some in] Portugal don’t know what the last regime did and were. My concern is that people forget the good that democracy brought.”

But life remains tough for many young people in Portugal, with soaring housing costs, particularly in Lisbon, and comparably low salaries. “Sadly, the reality is that it is becoming harder to work and live in Lisbon. Even people like me, that love the capital, have to seriously think about [moving]. I still remain hopeful that I am wrong and that the government will be able to fix these problems,” he said.

Residents of Lisbon’s Boa Vista district stand in front of a building sprayed with slogans of the Portuguese Workers’ Communist party shortly after the Carnation Revolution. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Maria Carneiro, a 35-year-old arts manager in Lisbon, agreed that the election had cast a shadow over the anniversary. “We’ve come all this way symbolically, and this year was meant to be a year of joy and celebration … Then the election had this [result] of the far right having a big presence in parliament,” she said. “The celebrations are a little haunted.”

She added: “I think people feel very disappointed at the political class – there are issues of corruption, transparency and accountability The average 35-year-old like me, we’re not very hopeful of future – we have very low salaries, live in a city that’s very expensive. We went through our first big economic crisis in 2010, made it, got jobs in 2015 – but then our salaries didn’t go up and prices are rising all the time. We feel a bit trapped.”

But she stressed the tangible legacy of the revolution. “Without the revolution, I would probably be at home and couldn’t have studied abroad. I still hear a lot of stories in the first person – people who were in jail or had to move abroad.”

Portuguese soldiers with carnations on their uniforms and in their gun barrels stand guard in Lisbon on 29 April 1974. Photograph: Bettmann/Getty Images

Tiago Silva, a 39-year-old software developer in Porto, described himself as a “product of one of the revolution’s most significant triumphs”. “As the first person in my working-class family to complete a university education, culminating with a master’s degree, I embody the opportunities that were scarcely imaginable before 25 April 1974. The generation before mine, the ones who actively participated in and were shaped by the revolution, experienced a Portugal that was very different from the one I know.

“Their youth was marked by mandatory conscription and the turmoil of a fading empire, with many, including my uncles, sent to fight in colonial wars across Africa in their 20s. My uncles experienced long-lasting trauma. Both had trouble adapting when they came back and they never were properly supported by the government,” he said. Silva is grateful that, in contrast, his 20s were spent “navigating algorithms instead of battlegrounds”.

Life in Portugal today is not perfect, he said, and economic difficulties continue to plague the country in particular. “But before the revolution, I have a picture of a country that was really behind compared with the rest of Europe. What I see now is a country open to the world.”

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