Revolução dos Cravos: Carnation Day in Portugal

Portugal is a beautiful country. Many tourists are discovering this fact, with the stunning and historical capital of Lisbon experiencing an increase in visitors over the last five years. In the standard discourse, not much is known about this culturally rich nation. I have personally never experienced hospitality like that I have received in Portugal. Go and test your pallet on Douro wine, have your eyes experience the wonders of old town Lisbon, let your feet feel the sand on beaches of Peniche down to the Algarve. Then go taste the bananas that grow on the island of Madeira, the birthplace of Cristiano Ronaldo and an icon of the country.

It is a country of wine, football, stunning beaches, rolling hills, and revolution. The latter aspect is little known outside the country. Today is the Revolução dos Cravos (Carnation Revolution) and celebrates a peaceful day, that ended colonial rule and a dictatorship in Portugal. The day of liberation ended the rule of the Estado Novo (New State) in 1974, which lasted for forty-eight years. The regime was led by Antionio de Oliveria Salazar for the majority of its rule, with his reign lasting from 1932/3-1970. Salazar’s ideal, which he wanted to preserve, was Portugal as a colonial power, this had begun in the age of empire and accumulated over the last three hundred years. The dictatorship was desired by old money and new, to avoid a Communist uprising. It was ultra-conservative, patriarchal and racist, with the aim of stopping democracy and bringing Portugal back to a premodern world before the revolution of 1910.

That first revolution, one of three in the 20th century, deposed the monarchy but led to years of instability and corruption in the country. Different forces attempted to dominate the political landscape in Portugal but resulted in the Ditadura Nacional (National Dictatorship) in 1926, which paved the way for Salazar’s Estado Novo. Salazar wanted to revert Portugal back to a century that was over and bring back a god that was dead. During the period of dictatorship, secret police were set up, the media was censored and controlled, there was violent suppression of dissent and rigged elections. This for Salazar would maintain Portuguese ‘identity’ and its colonial wealth which was tied to this false narrative of what it meant to be Portuguese. Whatever the hopes and intent to distance itself from Nazism, it was obvious Salazar’s government was a fascist state rather than a premodern monarchy.

At the centre of the dominant ideological underpinning of Portuguese identity was colonialism. Frantz Fanon tells us lucidly in The Wretched of the Earth that Africa built Europe through the act of colonialization.  In short, like most of Europe, Portugal subjected people from India, Africa and South America to violence for economic accumulation. Carnation Day and the downfall of the Estado Novo can be situated in the colonial struggle for independence that occurred in the middle of the 20th century. Mozambique, Congo and Angola, some of the last colonises of Portugal, fought for their liberation from 1961. This was a bloody war with thousands dying, families were destroyed in Portugal and even worse brutality was inflicted on the people in these three African nations.  The aggressive force used, to hold onto a dying empire, can be seen in the Wiriyamu massacre. In 1972, Portuguese forces were ordered to wiped out a whole village of 350 civilians. This extreme violence was not uncommon to colonial rule, as the British Empire carried out similar atrocities in Kenya in the 1950s, but this act caught the attention of the public in Portugal, as fatigue set in with a war that had cost many lives over the course of beyond a decade.

The people of Portugal had enough of the suppression of their freedoms, the exploitation of their labour, and the violence they saw in a war that meant little more than death to them. It only benefited the capitalist class and reinforced their ideological distortions of the world. In the same vein of most wars, it was not this class that died for their accumulation, but the working classes who were ordered to their deaths. Soldiers in response spent months planning and practicing a coup d’état, in hope to overthrow the government and end the war. The soldiers took their cue via the aesthetic, as songs were played on the radio to transmit messages to one another that the revolution had begun. The revolution would be televised, and it would start on the radio.  On the 24th April 1974, at 11 o’clock at night, Portugal’s Eurovision song E Depois do Adeus played to signal to the soldiers that they should get into place, and at midnight the now famous revolutionary song Grandola Vila Morena by Zeca Afonso played.  This latter song was banned for its association with Communism by the government, setting it up as a legendry signal. This music started the revolution and to this day symbolises resistance and democracy in Portugal.

 Thousands of people took to the streets to express their support for a democratic society so many across the world needed. The revolution is famous for its non-violent means. Only four people sadly lost their lives which were taken by the falling government. Powerful images of protesters on the streets of Lisbon showed their collective solidarity for a new Portugal to rise above the exploitation that had taken place for decades. The story goes, a woman who was selling carnation flowers started handing them out for free to the soldiers and protesters. Everyone in the crowd had the flowers, which gave the day its name and symbol; Revolução dos Cravos. People erupted into displays of love, hugging and kissing expressing relief that the total control of their lives was a potentiality of their autonomy. There were even demands of ‘men to the kitchen!’ in a humorous call for women’s rights.  On that day, now forty-six years ago, democracy arrived in Portugal. Independence was granted to the colonies as freedom from the Estado Novo was rolled out. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, the power of a tank is in the person using it. Power is collective action.

Today Portugal is arguably the heart of solidarity in Europe. The nation understands economic hardship. After many years of uncertainty and unemployment, mostly rooted in the austerity measures implemented by the IMF and the European Union after 2008, the society keeps up its revolutionary spirit and extension of solidarity. The government has recently granted citizenship to migrants and asylum seekers in an unprecedented move, so those individuals can have the same access to health care as other citizens in this current crisis. It also appears the country has dodged the full effects of coronavirus, by implementing ‘lockdown’ measures early when they only roughly had 200 cases reported. The European project is failing. It is the social democrats of Portugal that seem to be talking sense, as the Prime Minster Antonio Costa demands a new economic plan to reinvent the European economy, with green policies at the centre.

There is a long way to go for the country in terms of emancipation, but this event is a reference to a popular ideal that can live through generations, that cements itself in the collective memory and shapes a political culture against fascism. This ‘event’ can become what individuals may subject themselves to, they may show fidelity to these events and the ideal of a Portugal that this rupture symbolises. Part of this revolution was for the freedom of people in Europe and Africa. Fanon’s insight should be something European emancipatory movements ought to have in their minds.  Portugal might be pursuing less revolutionary and more reformist measures today, but it is a welcome move in a world ravaged by neoliberal self-interest and death-drive driven fascists. The ideology of revolution is solidarity. Like paper on rock, solidarity beats fascism.

Força Portugal!

Artwork by Portuguese Artist Alexis Alexis. Can be found on Instagram: @byalexisalexis

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