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Portugal Under Pressure

The struggle in Portugal during the past year has been over ends and means. No one doubted the necessity for action when the old regime fell but there was very little agreement over what that action should be. With the establishment of the supreme military revolutionary council in March 1975, the nationalization of the banks and basic industry, and the forthcoming expropriation of landed estates of over 500 hectares, the question of ends has been settled. Barring a successful counterrevolution, Portugal is clearly set on the road to becoming a socialist state.

The question that remains concerns the means by which this will come about. And how it is answered will determine the future shape of Portuguese politics and society. The Portuguese themselves have given their own unequivocal answer. On April 25, just one year to the day after the nearly bloodless revolution overthrew Europe’s oldest dictatorship, they overwhelmingly rejected authoritarianism—both by those nostalgic for the past and by those impatient to impose their vision of the future.

But they also categorically voted for change, and they did so in one of the highest turnouts ever recorded in a national election. The Portuguese Socialist party, led by Mário Soares, took 38 percent of the vote; the centrist Popular Democrats 25 percent, and Álvaro Cunhal’s Portuguese Communist party 12.5 percent. The PCP’s sister party, the Portuguese Democratic Movement (MDP/CDE) received a mere 5 percent; the right-wing CDS only 7.5 percent.

In retrospect it is remarkable that the Portuguese people got the chance of a free ballot at all. For it was a first year filled with alarms and excursions. Many feared what the people might say when for the first time in Portuguese history they were given the chance to vote freely. Spínola and his allies in the Popular Democratic party had first attempted to abort the process by substituting early presidential elections that would confirm the general in office and stave off the threat of a communist electoral victory. When this failed and it became clear that the communists would gain only a small percentage of the vote, Cunhal and the PCP voiced concern over the lack of “preparation” of the voters, their subjection to obscurantism, and their general inability to make a responsible choice.

Behind the scenes other forces were at work too. This was hardly surprising, for much was at stake. When Caetano fell large interests were threatened, both in Europe and in Africa. For revolutions that begin with euphoria cannot remain mere words and noisy celebration. Where there are winners there must be losers too. And Iberia seems forever doomed to brilliant moments when suddenly, after decades of obscurity, it becomes a microcosm of the hopes, the terrors, and the fantasies of others; a crystal ball where some would see the future. Image and object rarely coincide, though both have the power to precipitate events. The mystery lies mainly in the eye of the beholder. And more often than not it is the past that haunts the present.


Portugal had been the perfect ally for the US. It was docile, dependent, and had nowhere else to go. The US embassy in Lisbon was a quiet pasture for rambunctious right-wingers who had gotten out of hand, such as William Tapley Bennett, Jr., of Dominican Republic fame, and Admiral George W. Anderson, Jr., late of the Cuban blockade. In Portugal they were surrounded by an exceptionally congenial expatriate community. Ensconced among the mimosa groves of Estoril and Cascais or the almond blossoms of the Algarve were fallen dictators (the late Fulgencio Batista), would-be or former monarchs (Don Juan of Spain, Umberto of Italy), arthritic British colonels, a handful of ex-Nazis, and Elliott Roosevelt with his stud farm and his real estate interests in Torralta.

They all seem to have enjoyed Portugal; Admiral Anderson bought a villa in the south. Like so many others rehabilitated by the Nixon years, such men were not without influence. William Tapley Bennett, Jr. became assistant US ambassador to the UN. Admiral Anderson was appointed chairman of the President’s foreign intelligence advisory board. They were a sure source of “unbiased” views on the scruffy soldiers and assorted “reds” who emerged last year from the woodwork of old Portugal to ruin “their” paradise.

There were precious few other sources of information when the Caetano regime was toppled. Within the State Department there had never been any real disagreement over Portugal. The only “irritant” in US-Portuguese relations was caused by the US government’s own equivocation and double standards in its dealings with southern Africa. So oblivious had Washington been to the political forces in Portugal, so unwilling to have even informal connections with the democratic groups opposing the dictatorship, that it knew none of them. The Pentagon knew something, especially about the rightist generals and their plans, but next to nothing about the men who would soon be running the country.

The academic community was of little help. Its Iberian experts, with few exceptions, are disciples of the voluble Yale sociologist Juan Linz, and purveyors of his theories of “authoritarianism.” For the past fifteen years they have been persuading themselves, sometimes at the expense of the Spanish government, that the Franco and Salazar regimes would reform themselves from within, a dangerous and pathetic apologetics that General Spínola himself found contemptible. Unlike bureaucrats, politicians, and Marcello Caetano, however, academics are rarely held accountable. So Juan Linz and his disciples, having left “authoritarianism” behind for a while, are now experts on “sources of radicalism in the Iberian peninsula.” (Linz has become the conduit for research on Portugal in the US financed by the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon.) A more honest comment came from a Western diplomat surveying the scene in Lisbon with some bemusement last year: “We don’t know why they are doing all this, and we don’t even know who most of them are.”

The CIA station in Lisbon was of low importance and was regarded as a “retirement post.” Since the late 1950s, however, the CIA had worked closely with the Portuguese political police (PIDE/DGS). Many Portuguese agents came to the US for four-month training courses. Allen Dulles found them “of high caliber, diligent and gracious visitors,” as he wrote in a letter discovered after the April 1974 coup. Most of those sent to the US were from the bureau of investigation, responsible for interrogation and, in numerous documented cases, for the torture of political prisoners. The inevitable result of these arrangements was that within a dying system the CIA was linked to the one element least anxious for change, and, as it proved in the event, the last to know that the real threat to the regime existed within the army.

In Portugal PIDE/DGS formed a grotesque state within a state, locked in continuous struggle with real or phantom communists of the PCP. As always, it was a struggle of mutual advantage, the importance of the PCP and PIDE each reflected in the survival of the other. But when PIDE was dissolved last year following the April coup, the CIA lost its local “assets” overnight. Contrary to the arguments of the CIA’s current defenders, the nature of the CIA connections in Portugal, far from adding to Washington’s knowledge, helped to blind it. 1

After the coup, a “commission” including former political prisoners was set up to root out the political police and its vast network of spies and informers. (The scale of the network amazed even PIDE’s most stringent critics, for the documents discovered at the fortress prison of Caxias outside Lisbon revealed that perhaps as many as one in every four hundred Portuguese had at some time been paid for information by the secret police.) As the twenty-two-member central committee of the PCP had collectively spent 308 years in Salazarist jails, the commission inevitably contained communist militants. The CIA connection and that of several other intelligence agencies was thus threatened with exposure.

Or so they thought. In fact the communists could be counted on for the utmost discretion. The PIDE archives were more useful for blackmail than for public exposure. And their contents were of as much concern to the communist leader Álvaro Cunhal as to anyone else, for the PCP had some very embarrassing skeletons of its own that it had no desire to see resurrected, not least that of the assassinated General Delgado. The PCP will probably find good use for the skills of the former PIDE agents in time. Major (now Brigadier General) Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, commander of the MFA’s not so praetorian guard COPCON, in his best-selling Five Months Changed Portugal (Cinco Meses Mudaram Portugal, Lisbon, 1975), has already argued that the majority of the PIDE agents “were only state functionaries, fathers of families, earning a living for themselves and theirs like anyone else.” (COPCON is more familiarly known these days as “Como Organizar a PIDE Com Outro Nome“—how to organize PIDE with another name.)

Certainly PIDE’s connections with Western intelligence were no surprise to the Portuguese communists. PIDE agents often boasted of the CIA connection to their prisoners, including on one occasion to Mário Soares, now leader of the Portuguese Socialist party. In fact Abilio Pires, the PIDE agent who accompanied Soares to the plane that deported him to São Tomé, had, since the late 1950s, been on the CIA payroll. (He started at $500 a month.) Most of the work of the commission was handled by young miliciano officers in their twenties with no more love for the “social fascists” of the PCP than for the CIA. And the commission contained members of other parties who saw no reason for discretion and were subject to no party discipline. Some information did leak despite the frantic effort to prevent it of General Galvão de Melo, the member of the junta of National Salvation responsible for the “dismantling” process. Le Nouvel Observateur published some highly damaging information on the role of French intelligence in Portugal and a photostat of the Dulles letter I have mentioned.2

Later Bruno Crimi in Jeune Afrique (January 31, 1975) reported in detail on those responsible for the assassination of Amílcar Cabral, not only implicating some of Spínola’s closest associates in Guinea but again revealing some highly incriminating activities of French and German intelligence. None of these developments, however, endeared the new regime in Lisbon to those shadowy, dangerous forces on which Western governments relied, perhaps with more confidence than was deserved, for accurate information.

The combination of diplomatic ignorance on the one hand with the poisonous antagonism and apprehension of the intelligence “community” on the other was only compounded by General Spínola when, with an eye on domestic politics, he invited the communist leader Álvaro Cunhal into the first provisional government. Unlike the PCP, Spínola had not learned the lessons of Chile. He totally misjudged, probably did not even consider, the reactions of Henry Kissinger.

  1. 1

    Ray S. Cline, “The Value of the CIA,” The New York Times, November 1, 1974; “Erasing the ‘C’ in ‘Covert’: In omplete Se urity,” The New York Times, February 27, 1975.

  2. 2

    Rene Backmann, “Portugal: Les archives de tortionnaires,” Le Nouvel Observateur, September 2, 1974.

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