The Hidden Revolution in Portugal

Marcello Caetano, the deposed former prime minister of Portugal, and the exiled stalwarts of the old regime gathered recently in Rio de Janeiro with some satisfaction. Their nemesis António de Spínola was being shuttled from Spain to Brazil to Argentina to Brazil again, while his modest home in Lisbon was ransacked and his famous book, Portugal and the Future, burned by a vengeful mob. The events of a single year had in their view justified fifty. The Portuguese people had once more demonstrated their incapacity for self-rule, their need for firm authoritarian direction. The shrill falsetto of the old master Salazar echoed in their ears as ever, vindicated by history as he always believed he would be.

In Lisbon the jails held more political prisoners than before the April revolution. The Portuguese Communist party held the center of the stage with its discipline, its dour puritanism, and its dogmatic self-righteousness, the mirror image of Caetano’s fallen dictatorship. Each day the political, strategic, and ideological stakes increase, and Portugal moves closer to social revolution and civil war. While next door the Franco regime totters toward collapse, the Italian and French left watches events in Portugal intently. And the fragile settlement in Angola too depends on what happens in Lisbon. Before the US government, NATO, and The New York Times talk themselves into a Dominican-type intervention in Lisbon it is worth examining in some detail what happened to the “Revolution of Flowers.”


When the Caetano regime collapsed on April 25 last year there was much bewilderment, and the world press turned for explanations to the unlikely but familiar figure of General Spínola, whose book, it was thought, both explained and had incited the revolution. Scant attention was paid to the “Armed Forces Movement,” the phrase itself often taken as if it were a descriptive epithet rather than the specific title of the compact group of revolutionary officers who had made the coup. While correspondents waded patiently through the baroque syntax of Spínola’s Portugal and the Future the movement’s own “program” was little discussed, despite the fact that it was soon promulgated into the transitional constitution of the Portuguese Republic. This was a serious misjudgment. The curious truth was that in a land of much rhetoric and little content a document had appeared that meant exactly what it said. And in particular what it said about a policy in favor of “the least advantaged sectors of the population” and “the defense of the interests of the working classes.”

Moreover, the MFA’s ambiguous phrases about colonial policy and the “need for a political not military solution” were if anything a gross understatement. The MFA program and Spínola’s book were in fact the two key documents of the Portuguese revolution and they set out positions so diametrically opposed that they contained seeds for a conflict that could only be resolved by the victory of one over the other. The nature of the revolution disguised for a time the seriousness of the divergences within the new regime, and in particular disguised the degree to which the young officers who had made the coup were intensely political men. But the conflict staked out at the beginning reflected the entire Portuguese situation, which was at its heart a conflict between revolutionary and evolutionary change in Europe and between immediate decolonization and gradual disengagement in Africa.

The failure to see the importance of the MFA was caused in part by the ambiguity of the transfer of power which was itself a result of Spínola’s crafty political footwork. The general knew perfectly well what was happening. Four and a half months before the revolution of April 25 he knew that the MFA had been formed and that it had decided, on December 1, 1973, to overthrow the regime. He was shown the MFA program after its approval by a secret assembly in Cascais on March 5, 1974, and he made important modifications in its language. He was briefed in detail on operations the evening before the coup by Major Otelo de Carvalho, the head of the military committee of the MFA.

Spínola’s “legalist” position, however, was such that he both “knew and did not know,” a device that allowed him to state quite seriously on April 25 that “he was not one of those who take up arms against their government.” Thus the deceptive and contrived appearance of continuity when he arrived dramatically at the Carmo barracks of the Republican Guard (GNR) to “receive” from Caetano the transfer of authority. This was a maneuver to prevent, in Caetano’s words, “power falling into the streets.” It also served to keep the young captains and majors who had executed the coup from openly taking power at first.

But Caetano’s fears came true. The popular response to the coup was far beyond the plotters’ expectations. Loyalist units found themselves greeted as if they were insurgents; crowds milled around the armored vehicles with little sense of danger. This bloodless revolution, however, resolved few contradictions.

Although Spínola could agree in principle to the Armed Forces Movement’s program, the interpretation of that program was another matter. The MFA wanted much more than the shifting of a few ministers while the structures that had supported and sustained them for almost fifty years remained intact. Their program spoke of cleaning out (sanear) but where did saneamento begin? More important, where did it end? Spínola had insisted that the MFA program describe neither the aim of the coup as “democratic” nor its enemy as “fascist”; and he deleted a paragraph on colonial policy which spoke of “the clear recognition of the people to self-determination.” Major Vitor Alves, chairman of the committee of officers that drew up the document, regarded Spínola’s federative scheme as “his personal dream.” Yet during his first months in office Spínola spoke privately of a timetable for decolonization over “a generation or so,” during which time the people “would be given democracy and equipped to choose.”

The divergence over economic policy was equally fundamental. Spínola made plain his commitment to stepped-up investment, rapid industrialization, and the “rationalization” of archaic economic structures in preparation for Portugal’s admission into the EEC. It was a view close to important sectors of Portuguese capital, in particular such industrial magnates as António Champalimaud, Jorge de Melo, Miguel Quiná, and Manuel Espírito Santo. But the MFA program insisted that “the new economic policy…will necessarily imply an antimonopolistic strategy.” And each of these gentlemen headed empires that were monopolies—monopolies moreover in which was concentrated a large proportion of the wealth of Portugal under the control of a very small number of family combines. Known to the European international bankers who dealt with them as “Paleo-Capitalists,” the gentlemen in control were far from being the very models of the modern manager they portrayed themselves as being. Nonetheless it was precisely these magnates who rushed to build the “New Portugal” and through their connections with Spínola believed they had in some way helped to create it. By which they meant they had not opposed it. Which was true.

Like Spínola they wished to see a rapid remodeling of the Portuguese economy on Western European lines, the elimination of inefficient and undercapitalized small and medium businesses, and the strengthening of larger enterprises which could sustain European competition. Well prepared for the new situation, they established their own front organization, the “Dynamizing Movement Business-Society,” and brought out amid much publicity their own economic plan. Not surprisingly it called for large public investment in their favorite privately owned projects, the Lisnave and Setenave (Setubal) shipbuilding complexes, the Sines refining and petro chemical complex project, and tourism. The program they said would create 100,000 new jobs.

The major monopolies, however, stood at the center of the conflict between Spínola and the MFA. Because of the nature of their interests, pannational and international in scope, the problem of the economic system in Portugal and the nature of decolonization were two sides of the same coin. The greatest of the monopolies, Jorge de Melo’s CUF (Companhia União Fabril), is a vast conglomerate of 186 enterprises, built up around a near monopoly of the tobacco market, but long diversified into chemicals, shipbuilding, fertilizers, soap, textiles, mining, cellulose, refining, insurance, real estate, tourism, and restaurants. In addition to numerous joint ventures with foreign multinationals, CUF is linked through the Banco Totta Aliança into a vast spider’s web of international interests, with connections to all the southern African giants, De Beers, Union Minière, and Standard and Chartered (15 percent owned by Chase Manhattan). CUF’s stockholders equity last year was almost $537 million, and its assets at least two and a half billion dollars.

Dr. Miguel Quiná, son-in-law and heir to the count of Covilhã, heads a group containing at least sixty companies. The Quiná empire has large interests in southern Africa, three banks (Borges e Irmão, Banco Credito e Industrial, Banco do Alentejo), and interests in insurance, plastics, tires with General Tire and Rubber (Mabor, which in Angola has a ten-year monopoly), civil construction, textiles, fishing, oil in Angola, data processing, newspapers (Diario Popular, Journal do Comércio, part ownership in Primeiro do Janeiro), marketing and advertising with J. Walter Thompson (Latina Thompson Associados).

The Espírito Santo group, whose chief administrator was Franco Nogueiro, Salazar’s former foreign minister, with twenty of its major companies directly administered by members of the Espírito Santo family, comprises the Banco Espírito Santo e Comercial, insurance (Tranquilidade), large agricultural holdings in Africa, pulp paper in Angola, petroleum in Angola in association with Belgium Petrofina (Petrangol), cellulose, tires (with Firestone), a near monopoly of beer in Portugal and similar interest in Angola, telecommunications, and tourism (ITT/Sheraton). Espírito Santo is associated with the First National City Bank of New York in Africa (Banco InterUnido). Champalimaud’s empire contains banking (Banco Pinto e Sotto Mayor), a cement monopoly, the national steel monopoly, stock ranching in Angola, insurance, paper, and tourism.

The magnates, like General Spínola, regarded the retention of the African territories, even in the short run, as essential to their proposals for the development of Portugal. The economic relationship with Guinea was of little importance—the Cape Verde Islands lying off it are of more interest to NATO than to Portugal—but the stakes in Mozambique and Angola were very high indeed. With Portugal’s own chronic trade deficits, and economic depression already affecting the remittances from Portuguese abroad and from tourism, the large surplus from the African territories would be painful to lose. In 1973 such earnings represented as much as 5 percent of GNP, about $540 million. All the cotton of Mozambique was exported to Portugal and 99.7 percent of its sugar, both at well below world prices. At the same time the wages of Mozambique miners working in South Africa were converted into gold shipments to Lisbon—in effect a hidden subsidy to the Portuguese war effort since the bullion was valued at the official rate of $42.20 an ounce instead of the inflated world market price which rose to nearly $200. During the past three years the official value of this gold amounted to at least $180 million.

The colonies also provided protected markets for Portuguese textiles, wines, and processed foods. The transfer of private funds and profits from the overseas territories showed a net worth of over $100 million in favor of Portugal over the past two years. And there was the immense potential of the rapidly expanding and booming economy of Angola with its oil, iron ore, diamonds, coffee, fishing, and tropical cash crops.

But to retain Mozambique and Angola meant to continue the war the MFA had made the coup to end. The officers of the MFA, who had all fought in Africa, were totally opposed to a solution that merely changed the terms of the game. They did not believe Portugal as a whole benefited from retaining the African territories. Nor did they think, even in the improved international climate following the coup, that the Portuguese army could sustain the holding operation necessary if Spínola’s model was to work. “We have no desire to construct a neocolonial community,” one of them commented at the time. “We are interested more in the formation of a socialist interdependence, and that only to the extent that our brothers in Guinea, Mozambique, and Angola accept, desire, and demand.”


The opinions of the MFA when they emerged in the months before and just after the coup were so surprising in military men, particularly those of a despised colonialist army, that they were rarely treated seriously. Spínola never fully gauged the political complexion of the MFA’s coordinating committee, much less its political will, nor did left-wing politicians within Portugal, who at first dismissed the captains as “mercenaries of capitalism.” This was perhaps inevitable. The movement had originated in response to professional grievances and concerns of status and privilege. None of this was any secret. The bungling attempts of the Caetano regime to increase the size of the professional officer corps (the QP, or quadro permanente) had been a raging issue within the army for at least nine months before the revolt.

The problem within the army was only in part that a coterie of captains was angry over promotions, pay, and lost esteem. Dissension within the officer corps was a reflection of a much deeper malaise, which grew from the very scale, composition, and organization of the Portuguese armed forces. It is a malaise that remains, guaranteeing that the armed forces, and most especially the army, will be central in any lasting political, economic, or social settlement.

In a population of a little over eight million, one in four men of military age is in the armed forces. The army alone contained at least 170,000 men in 1974, of which 135,000 were in Africa. The air force had 16,000 men, the navy 18,000, the units of the Republican Guard (GNR) 10,000, and the paramilitary security police (PSP) 15,000. The armed forces represented (at a low estimate) a proportion per thousand of the population (30.83) exceeded only by Israel (40.09) and North and South Vietnam (31.66) (55.36); five times that of the UK, three times that of the US or Spain. The military budget represented 7 percent of GNP, more than that of the US. And that too was a percentage probably based on figures that were gross underestimations. With a per capita income of just over $1,000, Portugal spent a minimum per capita of $63.27 on military expenditure. Notwithstanding, the officers had abysmal salaries, while for the troops pay was token or nonexistent. It was an army with almost no fully professional units. Its private soldiers were and remain for the most part illiterate, badly trained, and at times tenuously disciplined.

The officer corps itself was composed of a group of aged generals; a segregated elite of staff officers exclusively devoted to administration and relieved of combat duty; and a diminished cohort of junior- and middle-rank officers (captains and majors), men in their thirties and early forties, who had spent most of their professional lives overseas. The generals were promoted by the council of ministers and chosen for political reliability; they shuttled themselves back and forward between lucrative positions on the boards of state and private enterprises. If they appeared at their desks at all, the staff officers rarely did so until late in the afternoon; only in the twilight months of the Caetano regime did a civilian minister of defense insist that work begin at nine in the morning. The defense ministry was little more than a coordinating agency, resented by the services, and the authority of the joint chiefs was never recognized by the navy. Corruption was so rampant that the war in Angola became known as “the war of the high-rises,” after the fat kickbacks invested in the booming Lisbon real estate market.

The bitter antagonism of the junior officers in the field to the insensitivity, incompetence, and corruption of the “perfumed flunkies” of the Lisbon ministries was aggravated by class friction. In the late 1940s the military academy opened its doors to cadets from rural and provincial backgrounds, many of humble origin. Sons of the aristocracy, latifundiários, and the urban upper middle class turned to other occupations. The change in patterns of recruitment of career officers accelerated after 1958 when the government decided to grant free tuition and a salary to cadets. By the mid-Seventies this produced a marked social cleavage within the professional officer corps (QP) between those below and those above the rank of lieutenant colonel. The fighting in Angola caused a rapid fall-off in the number of candidates for a professional military career, and by 1974 only one fifth of the places at the academy were filled. The result was a chronic shortage of manpower in the middle ranks and an almost complete absence of professional subalterns.

The officers who were conscripted from civilian life were another matter. After being drafted, men with secondary school or university training were automatically sent to special training programs at Mafra, a huge palace monastery some miles from Lisbon, constructed with Brazilian gold during the eighteenth century and intended to outsize and outdo the Escorial, which it spectacularly failed to do. From Mafra during the thirteen years of the wars in Africa emerged conscript sergeants and junior officers who soon dominated the company command level. Yet these men, though proven and essential to almost all military operations, remained consigned -to a separate status from officers of the QP, and were referred to indiscriminately, whether sergeants or junior officers, as milicianos.

In an attempt to relieve the short-ages in the professional ranks during the Sixties, some miliciano officers were allowed to enter the military academy and on graduation to join the QP. But those officers who followed this path became embittered when they found that their seniority within the QP started from the moment of graduation from the academy and that their previous years of service were discounted. The government’s decree of June 1973 (decree law 353/73) was intended to rectify this injustice. It provided for a speeded-up two semester course for milicianos at the academy (as opposed to four years for cadets), and permitted previous service to be counted toward seniority. The measure was to encompass, retroactively, former milicianos already within the QP.

Far from resolving any difficulties, the decree split the QP into warring factions. Former cadets felt their own training had been devalued. Others saw their promotion prospects wither as former milicianos by-passed them. The former milicianos reacted angrily to aspersions on their competence by former cadets. But these arguments over privilege and status had a curious effect. After June 1973 the issues discussed began to move far beyond purely professional grievances. Again the Caetano government inadvertently helped by choosing precisely that moment to encourage the most extreme opponents of any compromise in the colonies. A “Congress of Combatants” met in the crystal palace of Oporto in early June to shout the Salazarist slogans of a “pluricontinental Portugal.” But this meeting only demonstrated the total inability of the regime to see what soldiers on the ground knew perfectly well—that the colonial wars could not be won.

Four hundred combat officers petitioned the government in protest. Those who signed this petition in many cases were already on the committees of professional grievance. But while those committees had been ostensibly apolitical, the new protest group decidedly was not. And the protest brought men like Major Melo Antunes, who had at first refused to join, into the grievance committee that was soon to become the MFA. He had formerly believed it to be “a reactionary cooperative in defense of privilege.”

The MFA at first was composed exclusively of captains and majors of the QP, a group of men numbering fewer than 200 out of the middle-rank corps of some 1,600. The MFA included some former milicianos but none of the younger men in their twenties who were still milicianos. MFA members were spread out in most units and they were especially strong in Guinea and Mozambique. After December 1, 1973, the organization was held together at the center by a fifteen-man coordinating committee, subdivided into a military committee, charged with the detailed planning of an uprising and a political committee which formulated the program for the situation after the coup.

The coup itself was organized on a cell pattern borrowed from the Mozambique revolutionaries in the FRELIMO movement (one man would be in touch with four, each of whom was in touch with four more and so on), and embraced a much wider group than the membership of the MFA itself. The coordinating committee, which described itself as “a pure democracy…without chiefs,” had serious misgivings about Spínola and reluctantly acquiesced in his designation as the leader. They preferred General Costa Gomes, who had also been discreetly kept abreast of the MFA’s intentions. But the publication of Spínola’s book in February, 1974, and the internal and international stir it caused made his choice inevitable. And Spínola’s participation was important in face of the lack of enthusiasm of the air force for the coup, especially if the support or at least the acquiescence of its 3,300-man paratrooper unit was to be assured. The same could be said for the 3,400-man force of Naval Fusiliers, and within the army itself for the elite cavalry units, especially Spínola’s own Seventh Cavalry.

For a determined minority within the army the cry against “hierarchy” thus became a cover for more serious objectives. By the time the Caetano government realized its error, and withdrew its June 1973 measure, granting substantial pay increases in an attempt to mollify the officers, it was already too late. A dramatic convergence of resentments, loss of the sense of purpose, and emotional and intellectual estrangement produced a crisis of consciousness which held the seeds of a highly unusual military ideology. It was, and to some extent remains, almost unintelligible in the West because its origins and techniques are almost wholly African.

The very closeness and cohesion of the directing group had itself arisen from long war experience. Most of the members of the MFA had spent more time out of Portugal than in it; many had lived for thirteen years in combat conditions. The Portuguese army could not afford the luxury of rotations and lavish rest and recuperation periods. Each man would spend two years at the same post; twenty-four months in bush camps, some of them no more than stockades of tin cans deep in hostile territory. And in Africa there had been a double awakening as the officers initiated draft after draft of new conscripts from the Portuguese countryside. “What we saw was that Portugal was itself part of the third world. Lisbon and Oporto were an illusion, the country within was underdeveloped, with an illiterate and exploited peasantry.”

At the same time the encounter with the liberation movements was equally instructive. “We were at war,” one officer said, “with people who speak the same language. We had little sense of racial difference, much less of culture. Badly supplied, badly equipped, very quickly we came to resemble the guerrillas. There was very little difference between a FRELIMO officer and ourselves.” Long conversations with prisoners were, as another member of the MFA put it, “truly a political initiation.” This too was not accidental. The long struggles in Guinea, Mozambique, and Angola produced several important theoreticians who argued that “self-rule” produced an illusionary freedom if it took place within the same social and political structures.

The liberation movements that emerged in the Portuguese colonies were among the few genuine ones in Africa. With the important exception of Holden Roberto’s FNLA, the issue in Portuguese Africa, for PAIGC in Guinea-Bissau, FRELIMO in Mozambique, and MPLA in Angola, was not predominantly nationalism. It was neocolonialism. And the nature of the struggle transformed a theoretical conclusion into a necessity for successful guerrilla action.

Led by the late Amílcar Cabral and Aristides Pereira in particular, the PAIGC combined European revolutionary theory, Asian experience, and Cuban example to create a party self-consciously fitted to the special geographical social and economic conditions of Guinea-Bissau. The PAIGC called for emphasis on “the people,” for “re-Africanization” of cultural life, and for social action and economic reconstruction taking place through constant discussion, example, and demonstrated benefits at the local level. It wanted to “modernize” the tribal culture but to do so within the history and conditions of Guinea. In Angola Agostinho Neto, the president of MPLA, spoke of “a dual revolution, against traditional structures which can no longer serve them and against colonial rule.” In Cabral’s view the “petty bourgeoisie” who had already achieved some education and modern skills—but had no real part in colonial power—had become “the revolutionary vanguard.”

The practical Marxism of PAIGC, FRELIMO, and MPLA had a remarkable impact on the young “petty bourgeois” officers of the Portuguese army in Africa, for whom Amílcar Cabral’s notion of a petty-bourgeois “revolutionary vanguard” had more than usual appeal. For some, in fact, the boundary between theory and practice had been passed long before. Major Otelo de Carvalho, thirty-eight, born in Mozambique, leader of the MFA’s military committee, and one of the most powerful men in Portugal after the coup, was to re-encounter his close friend Jacinto Veloso, a Mozambique Goan and former Portuguese air force officer, as a member of the FRELIMO delegation at Lusaka.

The “political” solution for Africa that the MFA talked about thus signified much more than “a negotiated settlement.” As the MFA bulletin put it with some bluntness: “Those who benefited from the war were the same financial groups that exploited the people in the metropolis and, comfortably installed in Lisbon and Oporto or abroad, by means of a venal government obliged the Portuguese people to fight in Africa in defense of their immense profits.”

But how usefully and successfully could the ideas and anger drawn from the fighting in Africa be applied to the politics of European Portugal? The MFA officers, who could agree on the futility of war in Africa and the justice of “liberation” there, would often find themselves divided among themselves and from their fellow officers and leftist civilian allies when they tried to create a new politics at home.


Over the euphoric summer and early autumn of 1974 the real conflict in Portugal was submerged. There was an illusion of action as a kaleidoscopic theater of politics sprang up after fifty years without political expression. Not only were relations with Russia reestablished for the first time since 1917, but the ideological experience of the twentieth century became crammed into nine months. On the best-seller lists one found Lenin’s April Theses along with the poems of Agostinho Neto. There were marches and demonstrations where before a meeting of any political group would have been subject to brutal police attack. For gilded youth with their neatly laundered blue jeans, tight little bottoms, and exaggerated crotches, it was a chance to spend hours stoned on whatever or whoever was available. Revolutionary homosexuals joined the anarchists. Revolution groupies flocked to Lisbon while the going was good. Middle-class families parked their cars wherever they felt like it. Hustlers inundated the Rossio displaying their wares by the Metro stop opposite the Cafe Suiça where, among many others, Henry Giniger of The New York Times “watches the world go by” (“What’s Doing in Lisbon,” The New York Times, December 8, 1974).

Eventually even Hair arrived, with the “original English cast.” It replaced an “international Sexy Festival” at the Teatro Monumental; a revue of naked German blonds in black leather jackboots, denounced by the Portuguese Communist party as “another CIA plot.” At its worst Portugal after the coup was like an ancient boulder suddenly turned over to reveal a thousand bugs scurrying frenetically in the light, at its best a garden of fragile, brilliant, and tangled foliage, predominantly red.

The MFA program called for a long period in which a new political system was to be defined, and this made a season of interminable political rhetoric inevitable. Political parties had almost simultaneously to emerge, find their public, and face pre-electoral struggles. Constituent assembly elections were to take place within one year after April 25, 1974. In perhaps another year a parliament or president was to be elected under terms to be drawn up by the constituent assembly. The MFA took a courageous risk in insisting on this plan. But it provided no ground rules and for the new parties it meant a leap into a void.

The highly theoretical character of much of the debate after the coup was not accidental. The Salazar-Caetano regime had in cultural and intellectual matters come perilously close to totalitarianism. By raising the stakes of loyalty and narrowing its definition, the old regime had made all intellectual activity political. Historical myths were part of the regime’s ideological “essence.” To deflate them brought instant retribution and eventually the men who fabricated the myths by acting out their fantasies were destroyed by them. It is a process laid bare with startling if unselfconscious clarity in Caetano’s apologia, Depoimento, published in Brazil last fall. Nevertheless the singular heritage of Salazar was to give words the appearance of action and sometimes even the power to create events. Paradoxically, therefore, the country with the highest illiteracy rate in Western Europe (37 percent) has a large and avid public of book readers who are attuned to the smallest political nuance, something which helps to explain the impact of General Spínola’s book last year and of the subsequent books by MFA officers which became best sellers.

Although no one under seventy had ever voted in anything resembling a free election before the coup, local political organizations called “democratic election commissions” (CDE) existed throughout Portugal. They were used principally (most recently in 1973) as an opportunity for criticism and debate since the opposition groups regarded the electoral system itself as a fraud. The CDE was comprised of coalitions of “anti-fascist forces,” mainly middle-class liberals, social democrats, Catholic radicals, independent Marxists, and the Communists (PCP). These grass-roots alliances were extremely important in April and May of 1974. Their existence and activity created the false picture of a formidable communist phoenix rising out of nothingness. In fact many groups emerged from the cover of the CDE, and among them the PCP formed a small, if by far the best organized, minority.

The April revolution had thrown the high schools into chaos, and students spent the rest of the academic year purging the faculties of “fascists” and forming short-lived administrative committees of students, teachers, and maintenance personnel. Faced with the impossibility of holding examinations, the government rashly accepted all high school students in their final year into the universities, creating in the fall of 1974 a freshman class of 28,000 which the universities, themselves in chaos, would have been totally incapable of absorbing even at the best of times. The government was then forced to cancel the entire freshman class, turning 28,000 mostly middleclass students onto the streets of the cities with nothing to do but demonstrate, attend endless meetings, and engage in increasingly violent and intolerant internecine disputes, many of them attaching themselves to “Marxist-Leninist,” anarchist, and Maoist parties to the left of the PCP.

The extreme visibility and volubility of the left was thus very deceptive. The uncomfortable fact remains that until the very end of the old regime most Portuguese either approved of or acquiesced in the system that was overthrown by the coup. Not for nothing had that system survived for half a century. After April a large part of the population, intensely traditionalist and conservative, found themselves without spokesmen. They formed a political prize of some importance. The principal new political organizations of 1974 therefore were not those of the left, most of which existed before the coup and had long-standing relations with one another, but the fledgling parties of the center and the right.

For those with an eye to power this was not necessarily disadvantageous. Spínola’s political strategy was based on three assumptions: First that the left would trip over itself and break up. Second that the high visibility of the leftists would in time make them an ideal scapegoat. And third that their lack of real support in the country would allow him to consolidate a centrist and reforming coalition that would strengthen his own authority, “legitimize” that authority by popular acclaim, and through the political process circumvent the residual power of the MFA.

Spínola, moreover, started with formidable assets. He enjoyed vast popularity during months when the feeling of good will was palpable in Lisbon. It is true that he had to reckon with the “political committee” of the MFA. This group of seven officers, part of the coordinating committee that had drawn up the MFA program, moved en masse into the council of state, which under the transitional constitution was to assume power until the election of the assembly. (Among them was Lieutenant Colonel Vasco Gonçalves, now the prime minister, who was then regarded as one of the more “moderate” officers and has since emerged as an ally of the PCP. Paradoxically, some of the other officers, such as Major Vitor Alves and Major Melo Antunes, who were in April 1974 considered to be extreme radicals of the African army, have since become proponents of pluralism and constitutionalism.)

But Spínola could feel that the seven MFA officers were more than balanced on the council by the heavily conservative “junta of national salvation”—seven senior officers representing all the various armed services—and by his own seven appointees to the council. The latter included colonels from his personal entourage and several bigwigs of the old regime, such as Dr. Azeredo Perdigao, president of the Gulbenkian Foundation. Spínola appointed another loyalist, Colonel Miguel, as defense minister, and put a leading rightist general in command of the critical Lisbon garrison. He sent to Angola as governor one of the main proponents of “integrating” the colonies with Portugal, General Silverio Marques, whose brother Jaime was a member of the junta.

The General meanwhile placed the full weight of his prestige behind a new centrist Popular Democratic Party (PPD) formed from the ranks of the reformers of the old regime and members of SEDES (Association for Economic and Special Development). This is an establishment group founded in 1970 that encompassed a wide spectrum of political tendencies dedicated to peaceful change and liberalization. Among the luminaries of SEDES were men who had made considerable reputations for themselves as liberals, such as Francisco Sá Carneiro and Magalhaes Mota, both deputies in the National Assembly during the early Caetano years when they sought to “reform from within.”

Such a grouping could also count on the support of Francisco Balsamão. A brilliant thirty-eight-year-old lawyer, entrepreneur, and publicist, Balsamão was an influential liberal deputy (1969-1973) and the founder, director, and majority shareholder of the weekly Expresso (and before that an employee of the daily owned by the Quiná group). Among the few truly competent and lively newspapers in Portugal, Expresso wields exceptional influence, not only within the country but outside Portugal as well, since many foreign correspondents take much of their copy from its pages.

How little these circles understood the attitudes of the MFA was shown by Spínola’s first choice for prime minister, Veiga Simão, the former minister of education under Caetano. Eventually he settled for Professor Palma Carlos, a liberal “apolitical” law professor. In fact five members of Spínola’s provisional government had been former students of both Caetano and Palma Carlos—none of them with any sympathy or even understanding of the radical ideas implicit in the MFA program.

But the closeness of the politicians to one another and their intimate connections with figures of the old regime was scarcely surprising. It was a function of the smallness of the Portuguese elite. Even the carefully inspired mystery surrounding the private life of the communist leader Álvaro Cunhal has much to do with the fact that he married into the family of one of the most notorious interior ministers under Salazar and Caetano, Dr. António Rapazote. And Cunhal once taught in a private high school where he successfully encouraged one of his students, Mário Soares, to join the Communist party. Soares now leads the Socialist party.

The new parties and “autonomous groups,” especially those of the center and left, had a monotonous sameness in their social composition. But to know your neighbor is not necessarily to love him. The parties crystallized around what were often coteries of friends, ideological differences often originating in personal antagonisms. In theory little divided the positions of those who joined, shifted among, or dramatically bolted the PPD (which also called itself socialist), the PSP (Portuguese Socialist party), the MES (Movement of the Socialist Left), the MSP (Popular Socialist Movement); SEDES, or those who remained under the umbrella of the CDE, which after April became the Portuguese Democratic Movement (MDP/CDE).

The central committee of the MDP/CDE is typical: 25 percent are lawyers, 15 percent university professors, 10 percent economists, 7.5 percent publicists, 7.5 percent engineers, 5 percent doctors, and 5 percent high school teachers. (It includes many Catholic radicals and allies itself with the PCP.) And as always the Portuguese left had half an eye over its shoulder for the latest French political parallel, the smallest Parisian dispute being much better known than the mysterious and somewhat disagreeable doings of Tràs os Montes or Portalegre.

Mário Soares in many ways personified the problem. His lengthy memoir Portugal Amordaçado (“Portugal Silenced”) is a catalogue of fluctuating friendships, acquaintances, minor tribulations, and brushes with the secret police (PIDE/DGS). His most spectacular dispute with Salazar was caused by his representation of the family of General Delgado in the still mysterious affair of his assassination. He was deported to São Tomé. Soares had also represented members of the Melo family, and Jorge de Melo intervened to aid the deportee by proposing that Soares represent an important CUF subsidiary in the islands. Only Salazar’s personal opposition prevented Soares from taking the job.

The Portuguese Socialist party (PSP) grew from the Portuguese Socialist Action founded in Geneva in 1964 and became a formal party at Bad Munstereiffel, West Germany, in April 1973. It is a member of the socialist international. Soares is a strong “Europeanist” with close relations with the European social democrats. Willy Brandt, François Mitterand, Roy Hayward, and Jim Callaghan of the British Labour party all arrived in Lisbon “to help.” The European social democratic leaders also sent substantial funds to the PSP—trying to match the millions of dollars Communist parties in Eastern and Western Europe have sent to the PCP.

All these friends of Soares made a special point of stressing the importance of the Western alliance. But NATO is a very sore point to social democrats in Portugal. Salazar had entered the alliance in 1949 when liberals and democrats in Portugal had hopes of support from the Western nations. They regarded NATO’s embrace of Salazar as a betrayal and a cruel one, for they had risked much in coming forward to demonstrate their aims and strength under Salazar. Whatever Soares might say abroad, the PSP finds it prudent to follow a more ambiguous neutralist policy at home. The growing chorus of “concern” about “the situation in Portugal” by NATO officials is greeted with increasing irritation by liberals and democrats in Lisbon. Where, the Portuguese wonder, were those so concerned for democracy during those long terrible years of repression?

But the politicians’ knowledge of each other is equaled only by their ignorance of the army in general and the MFA in particular. If practically all the politicians, in all parties, are lawyers, intellectuals, or professionals, the leaders of the MFA are decidedly different. Although some of the soldiers are university men, they had, like Vasco Gonçalves and Melo Antunes, studied mathematics, often at the technical university in the gray northern city of Oporto. The politicians had little or no practical experience of Africa, the technocrats trained in North America and Western Europe even less. The politicians and the radical officers soon found they were speaking different languages. As early as last summer Major Vitor Alves, one of the most “intellectual” of the MFA’s leaders, criticized the “abstract notions of Portugal” of those communists and socialists who had been exiles, as well as the corrosive effects of self-censorship on those that remained. And though they would only admit it at first in private, many leaders of the old “democratic opposition,” especially the social democrats, were deeply distrustful of the army’s intentions.

Not so the PCP. While most other politicians talked of an alliance between Spínola and their parties, Cunhal spoke of an alliance between the MFA and “the people” (MFA-Povo). But it was Spínola, in a move that surprised even the MFA at the time, who invited the PCP into the provisional government. He did so because he believed that “the communists prefer their partisans to be martyrs rather than policemen.” Foreseeing that the demands of the workers could not fail to be explosive after a winter of savage inflation and brutal police repression, he hoped by placing a communist in the ministry of labor and bringing Cunhal into the cabinet as a minister without portfolio that these demands would be moderated and restrained. And he also hoped that the Moscoworiented Party would use its influence with the Russians to encourage them to use their good offices with the liberation movements to aid a Spínolista settlement in Africa. Cunhal in return was promised a free hand and support against the PCP’s competitors on the extreme left.

All three calculations were wrong-headed. They offered what the PCP was only too willing to concede or promised what the PCP was unable to deliver. The PCP would have acted with “moderation” whatever its position in or outside the new government. It was determined to avoid creating a Chilean situation. Its long-standing tactics were to form alliances with parts of the urban and rural middle classes. In fact its most recent gains had been among lower-middle-class workers, especially the bank clerks, a leader of which was the new labor minister. Moreover the PCP had very little influence with the African liberation movements, which, while accepting Soviet aid, were by no means disposed to accept Soviet advice. The Portuguese communists had no inclination to get involved in decolonization at all, and washed their hands completely of the entire colonial issue from the beginning, assuming that independence would be achieved. They concentrated all their efforts where the long-range issues of the PCP’s own future and that of Portugal would be settled. Within Portugal itself.

The PCP was only too pleased to get what help it could against “extremists.” The party had emerged (1921) out of a working-class tradition that was strongly anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist, and was especially sensitive to attacks from the left. Bitter infighting over “Titoism” had split the party in the late Forties before Cunhal consolidated his authority, and disputes erupted again during the 1960s. In the universities the PCP lost much of the almost monolithic support it had enjoyed in earlier years; the new generation found its dogmatism unattractive, its passivity infuriating, and its slavish support for Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia despicable. A variety of Marxist-Leninist and Maoist factions grew. The Marxist-Leninists broke up after bitter feuds over purity. But the Maoists founded (in 1971) the formidable MRPP (Reorganizing Movement of the Party of the Proletariat). Several urban guerrilla groups also emerged.

In 1970, responding to the decline of the PCP’s dominant position on the left, Cunhal laid out the Party’s new strategy with a frankness he would not have permitted himself had he any idea he would shortly be a member of a Portuguese government. O Radicalismo Pequeno Burguês de Fachada Socialista (second edition, Edições Avante, 1971) was a violent attack on “pseudo-revolutionary verbalists” and “petty bourgeois radicals.” It was also a stout defense of the Party’s definition of the present “stage,” that of a “democratic and national” revolution. “Democratic” in that it would espouse civil liberties and act in concert with social democrats and others against the monopolies and latifundiários, “national” in that it would pursue a neutralist, “anti-imperialist” foreign policy.

In practice, this program meant the PCP would try to consolidate two power bases. First in the Alentejo, the grain-producing lands south of the Tagus, they would work among the anti-clerical, landless rural laborers of the great estates, people with a long history of communist militancy and subject to chronic seasonal unemployment. It is a region that Cunhal knew well and on which he counts for votes in the coming elections. He is the author of one of the few detailed analyses of the social and economic structures of the Portuguese countryside, A Questão Agrária em Portugal, published in Brazil in 1968 (Civilização Brasileira, Rio de Janeiro, 1968).

Second, the Party would try to make alliances with, or at least assure credit and support for, the small and medium business men, so that if they were not friends they would at least not become enemies. For the PCP this alliance would be crucial—just how crucial was underlined by the fall of Allende after the small businessmen turned violently against him. Small and medium-sized businesses comprise 98 percent of the total number of Portuguese enterprises, and they employ 52 percent of the total number of workers. Of course, as Cunhal explained in 1970, these allies would be eliminated at the next “stage.” He would not object to a party-controlled state should that “stage” be attainable. (His O Radicalismo Pequeno Burguês, however, is for obvious reasons no easier to obtain in Lisbon since the April coup than it was before.)

After April 1974 therefore, the Portuguese communists placed themselves firmly in the center of the political spectrum. They resisted workers demands, ensured that the minimum wage was as low as possible, and they remained as sensitive as ever to criticism (which was not slow in coming) from “pseudorevolutionary leftists” and “petty bourgeois radicals.” Which itself was not very surprising in a party as heavily populated with petty bourgeoisie as the PCP. Cunhal was remarkably frank when he told the Wall Street Journal (February 20, 1975) that as a youth he “took to the streets of Lisbon selling neckties to get to know the workers.”

But like most things in Portugal during those cyclone months, appearances were deceptive. The “centrist” position of the communists had a totally different content from that of Spínola and the PPD. The groups they supported and sought to encourage were diametrically opposed. If the small businesses were encouraged, there could be no “rationalization” of the economy along the lines proposed by Spínola’s allies. As with the colonial issue, the hidden center of the antagonism between Spínola and the PCP was in the offices of the great monopolies. For if the communists’ plan to finance and gain support or at least tolerance from the small business class was to work, then they needed the banks’ acquiescence; and the banks were of course the linchpin of the Melo, Champalimaud, and Espírito Santo empires.

It was a conflict not easily resolved without the victory of one position over the other, for they were wholly incompatible. Moreover, it was a conflict that pitted a view of the past not against that of the future but against two views of the future. For Spínola’s view of a modernized country, developing the kind of large-scale corporate technology and trade that had made other Western European countries prosper, was just as “revolutionary” for the Portuguese as that of the communists, perhaps more so.

As the opposition between Spínola and the PCP became more apparent, it had one result that was crucial for everything that has happened since. It brought into closer collaboration the MFA officers and the PCP. Cunhal, who once denounced “petty bourgeois radicals” of any kind, now was firmly allied with some of the most successful petty bourgeois radicals to appear in Europe since World War II—the leaders of the MFA.

If at times the political maneuvering among Spínola, the MFA, and the communists seemed like comic opera, beneath the surface it was a struggle in earnest with very high stakes. For Spínola it was a path of constant retreat. In July he was forced to accept as prime minister the oldest member of the MFA’s “political committee,” Lieutenant Colonel (now Brigadier General) Vasco Gonçalves. Un-known to his fellow officers Gonçalves had been for many years one of the PCP’s most prized “assets,” a secret collaborator with the Party, whether or not he ever joined it. In September Spínola was forced to resign after he failed to bring off the mass demonstrations and the immediate presidential elections that he hoped would keep him in power. After he left office, most of his appointees and friends in the provisional government either became ceremonial figures or have been replaced by men congenial to the MFA and the left parties, while the position of the PPD and the SEDES group, on which he had gambled, has now become precarious. At the same time its appeal to the electorate may have increased.

We still do not know the full story behind the “attempted coup” in March that forced him to flee to Spain and then Brazil. As often happens in Portugal, the events, including a series of bizarre plots and whispered deceptions, remain obscure enough for all parties to give explanations that seem plausible yet serve their own interests. What the left claimed were intentonas—because they won—for the right were inventonas, because they lost. And they lost much, for this stunted attentat provided the occasion for the MFA both to purge the last of Spínola’s men and to put into effect the key condition of the PCP’s economic strategy—the nationalization of the banks.

No less important in bringing about Spínola’s fall were the panicky reactions and badly informed interference by the Western powers. Spínola conceivably might still be in Portugal were it not for the US and Western European support of precisely those farrightist groups whose prospects were always dim. And equally crucial to the eclipse of the Spínola group were the secret pressures of the MFA on the negotiations in Africa which in just over six months gave independence to Guinea-Bissau, brought FRELIMO into the government of Mozambique, and set up a timetable for solving the most intractable problem of all, the independence of Angola.

Now a new act is beginning, probably an even more turbulent one. If Spínola’s flight brought the dominant power of the MFA into the open, hostilities still exist between the more and less militant groups within it and between some of the ruling officers themselves and the left politicians—conflicts I will discuss in a second article. The promised elections will still be held, and if the center parties are able to campaign and get wide support another dangerous crisis will occur. Most of the scapegoats for Portugal’s old misfortunes have gone now—some of them to jail—and the real shape of power has yet to be determined.

(This is the first of two articles on Portugal.)