Remembering Portugal’s Carnation Revolution

< back to Freedom At Issue Blog

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the military coup that overthrew Portugal’s dictatorship and eventually led to the triumph of democracy in that country. The Carnation Revolution—the first of the world’s many subsequent flower or color uprisings—is little remembered today. Its very success may account for its obscurity.

At the time, however, the Portuguese developments were understood to be extraordinarily important.  The Carnation Revolution brought about the overthrow of an entrenched right-wing dictatorship. It ended, once and for all, European colonialism in Africa. It was decisive in ensuring that at some time in the future, Europe could truly boast of being whole and free. It set the stage for peaceful and democratic change in neighboring Spain. It produced a democratic breakthrough at a time when strongmen and commissars seemed to be on the march around the globe. And it was eventually recognized as the event that triggered the “third wave” of democratization, a phenomenon that was to transform politics throughout the world.

At the beginning of 1974, Portugal was in its 42nd year of dictatorship, first under António de Oliveira Salazar (1932–68) and then Marcelo Caetano. The proximate cause of the coup was the military’s disenchantment with a losing struggle to retain Portugal’s African empire, including Angola and Mozambique, in the face of guerrilla insurgencies. In April, a bloodless putsch was carried out, and Caetano was replaced by a committee of military officers. Among their first acts was to abandon control of the colonies.

The new government also pledged a transition to democracy and the protection of civil liberties.  While a clear majority of the population favored the kind of liberal democracy that was enjoyed throughout Western Europe, a powerful minority seemed determined to move to something resembling a communist-style People’s Democracy. A major influence behind this lurch to the left was the Portuguese Communist Party, which controlled a number of the power ministries in the military-dominated government, including the ministry of the interior. The party’s leader, Álvaro Cunhal, was a Moscow-oriented hard-liner who held reformist Euro-communist ideas in contempt. Cunhal formed an alliance with a clique within the military that favored leftist authoritarianism. To create conditions that would justify a second coup, Communists launched a campaign to cripple the economy through strikes, sit-ins, and demands for worker control of industrial enterprises. Things looked ominous when a coalition of the military and the hard left maintained control of the government even after elections were overwhelmingly dominated by social democratic and centrist parties.

In the succeeding months, several heroes emerged in the contestation over Portugal’s future.  Mário Soares, the leader of the Socialist Party, held firm as the principal figure within the democratic opposition in the face of menacing gestures by the Communists. A similarly courageous role was played by Francisco Sá Carneiro, the leader of the Social Democrats.

A key figure outside Portugal was Willy Brandt, who had resigned as chancellor of West Germany around the same time that the Portuguese dictatorship fell.  Brandt remained active as an unofficial diplomat, especially through his involvement with the  Socialist International. He spearheaded an effort that included the West German government, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (a foundation allied with the German Social Democrats), and European parties of the center-left to provide support to Soares and Portugal’s democratic forces, and to make clear to the military leadership that Europe would not respond favorably to the establishment of a Marxist regime in the West. In his discussions with influential Portuguese personalities, Brandt emphasized that a democratic Portugal would be welcomed into the emerging institutions of a united Europe—what would later become the European Union. (Brandt’s impressive commitment to “democracy promotion” in Portugal was not, unfortunately, to be repeated when the opportunity arose closer to home, in Poland during the Solidarity period. In that seminal struggle, Brandt and the Social Democrats adopted a neutral stance, even after the Solidarity leadership was subjected to persecution under martial law.)

The role of the United States was ambiguous. While diplomats posted in Lisbon supported Soares and worked against the Communists, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gave evidence of having written off Portugal; he was said to have called Soares the “Kerensky of Portugal,” a reference to Aleksandr Kerensky, the moderate socialist who was eventually overwhelmed by Lenin’s Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. Kissinger was wrong, of course; Soares was to emerge as the dominant figure of Portugal’s early years as a democracy, serving as both prime minister and president.

Likewise, when Spain’s dictator, Francisco Franco, died in late 1975, it was the forces of the center and center-left that emerged as dominant in the new democracy; even Spain’s Communist Party expressed a commitment to elections and free institutions. And when military rule in Latin America began to give way a few years later, the Carnation Revolution was cited as a model by the newly elected civilian leadership.

Among the lessons from Portugal is that democratic revolutions are more likely to succeed when they take place in a friendly environment—and especially when neighboring states are willing to respond with the weapons of diplomacy, moral argument, and material assistance to ensure that democracy prevails. That lesson, important in 1974, is even more relevant today, when democrats in contested countries are increasingly on the defensive despite the presence of powerful democracies in nearly every part of the world.

Photo Caption and Credit: "E preciso salvar Abril Henrique Matos" by Henrique Matos

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

Share this story