Portugal: A Neat Revolution

Portugal e o Futuro: Análise da Conjuntura Nacional [Portugal and the Future]

by António de Spínola
Arcadia (Lisbon), 244 pp., 100 Escudos
António de Spínola
António de Spínola; drawing by David Levine


The collapse of fascist Portugal was sudden and paradoxical. After forty-six years of authoritarian rule, aborted coups, and quixotic gestures of opposition, a meticulously planned putsch by junior officers deposed the old regime in less than twelve hours. In Lisbon and Oporto, hundreds of thousands of people pouring into the streets welcomed the army as liberators. To head a “junta of national salvation,” the captains called in a general of impeccable fascist credentials who spoke the platitudes of liberalism as if they were revolutionary truths. Remarkably, once in power he did not hesitate to act on them.

António de Spínola has been incomprehensible to a world tired of self-righteous military coteries that claim a monopoly of truth, curtail civil liberties, and sustain their rule by tyranny and torture. A model cavalry officer if ever there was one, he called for open debate and participatory democracy. The Portuguese military in its first decree established freedom of speech and assembly, allowed trade unions to organize, promised elections by universal suffrage, granted immediate amnesty to political prisoners, and dissolved the notoriously brutal political police.

For more than four decades Portuguese politics were the exclusive preserve of dour paternalists upholding a social and political system that was virtually impenetrable to the world outside. Suddenly there were socialists and communists everywhere. Opposition leaders returned like prodigals, escorted into town by deferential soldiers in ill-fitting uniforms carrying rifles that sprouted red carnations. On Wednesday, April 24, propaganda posters in Lisbon depicted happy multiracial bathers on Mozambique’s beaches of “sun and dreams”; by Friday, April 26, walls were adorned with the hammer and sickle. Old liberals were aghast. It was too much, too soon.

A dream had indeed ended. Portugal was the pioneer of European expansion overseas, and although greater and more splendid empires had fallen, Portugal with embarrassing tenacity remained. To other European nations, finished with colonialism and building supermarkets and superhighways, Portugal was an uncomfortable anachronism. It became fashionable to say that Iberia with its archaic regimes and obscurantist philosophies was somehow not European at all, even though for more than two centuries Europe itself was little more than Iberia in the eyes of the rest of the world. But it was the “Europeanness” of the events of April that gave them special significance. The regime that fell, taking its ideology from the 1920s and its institutions and repressive apparatus from the 1930s, embodied much of the recent European past; for above all else, Portugal exaggerated, almost to the point of absurdity, the rationalizations of European imperialism.

In his book Portugal and the Future, published in February of this year, General Spínola demolishes the myths of African empire. For Spínola argues that it is preposterous, paternalistic, and hypocritical to believe that Portugal defends the West and Western civilization in Africa, that it remains there by historical or vocational right, that it possesses a…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.