As Tusser beautifully wrote, “Swéete April showers, Doo spring Maie flowers.” This observation is indeed an apt analogy of what happened in Portugal in the years after 25 April 1974.
Thomas Tusser, the 16th-century English poet, memorably wrote in his 1557 book, A Hundred Good Points of Husbandry, that “Swéete April showers, Doo spring Maie flowers.”1 Tusser was offering advice for the farmer of his day, but his observation remains quite useful as we consider the improved political life in Portugal since the events of 25 April 1974.
Of course, the May flowers we have in mind for Portugal are carnations. As the story goes, a 40-year-old Lisbon resident named Celeste Martins Caeiro reported for work early on 25 April at a new restaurant. The plan was to hand out white and red carnations to patrons that day; however, with all of the disruptions caused by the military action, the restaurant soon realized that nobody was going to eat there. The restaurant decided to close and send home their employees, and fearing that the carnations would go to waste, told the employees that they could take the carnations home. Caeiro soon left with some carnations; on her way home, she happened upon some of the soldiers, and spontaneously offered carnations to them; some of those carnations were even placed in the muzzle of guns – symbolizing the peaceful nature of the coup, and a legend was thus born.
That was 47 years ago, and Portugal looks very different today. Unlike most of its pre–25 April history, Portugal has functioned according to democratic rules since the Revolution; it now features a modern economy, and its national education system has vastly improved. Recall that the country suffered from widespread illiteracy during the Salazar/Caetano regime, but that is no longer the case.
Such rapid changes can make one’s head spin; these developments, and many more, were simply unimaginable before 25 April. The democratic process has certainly not been perfect, but the overall results are positive.
Just after midnight on 25 April 1974, José Afonso’s banned song “Grândola, Vila Morena” was played on Rádio Renascença to signal the units of the MFA to commence operations against the Caetano regime. As the operations unfolded, government forces were quickly defeated, and the new revolutionary government assumed control that evening.
The stormy political weather that followed those events during the PREC (or the Processo Revolucionário em Curso) gives rise to a useful weather analogy about the Portuguese transition to democracy in terms of four basic elements: wind, temperature, air pressure, and moisture.
Wind: The early winds that would lead to the Revolution involved professional grievances around Decree Law 373–73. The Caetano administration had decided that conscripted officers, known as milicianos, could count all of their service toward seniority and thereby jump ahead of professional junior officers. The junior officers considered this new Decree-Law to be patently unfair and sought redress from Lisbon. Their complaints went unheeded. Many of the junior officers had already been unhappy with the Caetano regime because they had been forced to spend years fighting an endless colonial war in Africa. The final straw for them was Decree-Law 373–73: it became the trigger for the formation of the Armed Forces Movement (MLA), whose goal was to overthrow the regime and put an end to the colonial wars.
Temperature: The national political temperature increased significantly after 25 April 1974. While at first, most accepted the MFA’s “three d’s” program of decolonization, development, and democracy, significant ideological fissures soon appeared. The moderate National Salvation Junta (Junta de Salvação Nacional), led by General António de Spínola, could not maintain order. The competing ideologies, interests, and personalities among the military and civilian leadership unleased a monsoon of epic proportions on Portuguese political, economic, and social life, and the democratic outcome was far from certain. The main issue involved the actual form and shape these “d’s” would take. The MFA’s own internal divisions became a source of the political, economic, and social upheaval, increasing the political temperature.
Air Pressure: Things really started to boil over during the so-called “Hot Summer” of 1975. The national political temperature reached epic levels, and the consequent extreme air pressure was suffocating the country. Many high-stakes battles took place, including the failed right-wing coup of 11 March 1975; the land occupations in the Alentejo; the left-wing occupation of Catholic radio Rádio Renascença; and the controversial work of the 5th Division cultural dynamization unit of the MFA, among other events. Neither pro-Communist Prime Minister Vasco Gonçalves nor the Council of the Revolution were able to stabilize the situation. The pressure was high, and Portugal was reeling.
Moisture: These high-pressure events led to torrential political downpours of monsoon proportions, causing great political instability: there were six provisional governments over 24 months, from 1974 to 1976. Álvaro Cunhal, the leader of the Portuguese Communist Party, argued in favor of an East European–style communist system; Mário Soares, the leader of the Socialist Party, fought for a West-European style socialist and democratic arrangement; and the main strategist of the 25 April coup, Major Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, suggested that a form of revolutionary MFA-People (MFA-Povo) structure might best serve the country. As these and other competing visions and ideologies battled, Portugal started to drown in political intrigue. There were great fears that these battles would lead to a civil war.
The End of the April Showers
The torrential rains started to taper off with the publication of the Document of the Nine (Documento dos Nove) on 7 August 1975. Authored by Melo Antunes, a leading member of the MFA, with the support of along with eight other moderate MFA members, this “Group of Nine” political manifesto proposed the creation of a socialist and democratic system that would enshrine fundamental human rights and freedoms. Antunes had proposed the original 3 d’s political program, and this new document was largely supported by the centrist and socialist political parties but was opposed by the communist and other far-left political parties.
The main events that led to a cooling of the political temperature include the failed left-wing coup of 25 November 1975; the parliamentary elections of 25 April 1976 (which confirmed the moderate results of the constituent assembly elections of the year before); and the moderate results of the presidential elections of 27 June 1976. The national direction was finally clear: the new socialist prime minister, Mário Soares, along with the newly elected independent president, General António Ramalho Eanes, would lead Portugal out of the storm in the direction of a socialist and democratic vision.
The April showers ended with the defeat of both leftist and rightist anti-democratic elements. This stabilized the political system, and led to the blossoming of the promised 3 d’s program of decolonization, development, and democracy, each of which could arguably be understood to be a carnation from the April rains.
First Carnation, Decolonization
As promised on the night of 25 April, the National Salvation Junta soon started the process of ending the colonial wars. However, the new administration was in an untenable position: it had inherited an ideologically polarized country; a weak national economy; and a dreadful military situation in Africa. The national political instability during the PREC and the global cold war politics between the USSR and the USA also complicated the situation. Not surprisingly, civil wars eventually broke out in many of the former colonies among the competing factions, including Angola and Mozambique. The situation in East Timor was also very complex. Following the Indonesian invasion on 7 December 1975, Portugal provided significant support and guidance to the East Timor solidarity movement during the brutal 24-year Indonesian occupation. In the end, the painful decolonization process resulted in the independence of the former African colonies. Additionally, Macao became part of China in 1999; and East Timor gained its independence in 2002.
Second Carnation, Development
Portugal lacked a modern national infrastructure due to the antiquated economic policies of the 48-year long Salazar/Caetano regime. The European Union started to provide new financial resources after Portugal became a member in 1986. Subsequent governments managed to stabilize the national economy, and to oversee massive economic development and infrastructure improvements; new and modern aerospace, biotechnology, and information technology industries can now be found across the country; and the overall standard of living has improved. European Union economic support was an essential element in the successful consolidation of the new democratic regime. Portugal has experienced great economic gains since 25 April.
Third Carnation, Democracy
As in most places around the globe, democracy is practiced imperfectly in Portugal today. However, it can still be understood to have a functioning contemporary democratic system in terms of the three main foundational criteria of a democracy, as developed by the sociologist Joseph Schumpeter. None of these three conditions were satisfied by the Salazar/Caetano regime before 25 April.
- Free and fair elections have been held on a regular basis since 1976.
- Democratic elections have been open for all offices, including the highest and most powerful political roles.
- Basic civil and political rights have been respected.
In addition, Portuguese civilian-military relations have been normalized under the new democratic regime. When the MFA turned governmental control over the elected politicians in 1976, it still maintained a constitutionally protected reserve role for itself. Since the Portuguese Constitution of 1976 established the creation of a classless society as the main objective of the new democracy, the MFA did not want to permit any anti-revolutionary elected government to change that objective. It therefore created the non-elected and military-run Council of the Revolution, whose job was to veto any anti-revolutionary legislation. The 1982 Constitutional amendment abolished this anti-democratic remnant of the revolution. The constitutional amendment was an unmistakable assertion of the principle of civilian rule over the military—an essential step for the making of a genuine democracy.
All in all, 25 April was a success. As Tusser beautifully wrote, “Swéete April showers, Doo spring Maie flowers.” This observation is indeed an apt analogy of what happened in Portugal in the years after 25 April 1974. Thanks to the courage of the April captains 47 years ago, Portugal enjoys many May carnations today.
Happy 25 April.
1 Thomas Tusser, Five Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie, edited by W. Payne and Sidney J. Herrtage (London: Trubner and Company, 1878): 104, available at Project Gutenberg.