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The Carnation Revolution: How Portugal Shed Dictatorship


For decades, the Estado Novo’s iron fist held Portugal in an illusion of grandeur. António de Salazar, the nation’s unwavering dictator, painted a picture of a  transcontinental Portugal, its colonies not burdens but extensions of the motherland. It was a carefully crafted lie to justify the regime’s harshness–the suppression of dissent, the secret police, and the ceaseless, draining colonial wars.

But Salazar, the once shrewd architect of Portugal’s authoritarian rule, began to falter. He aged, his grip loosened. The new Prime Minister, Marcelo Caetano, was no Salazar. The economy, once propped up by colonial exploitation, stumbled under the weight of the wars and the 1973 oil crisis. The Portuguese people began to feel the true cost of the regime’s ambitions.

In far-off Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau, the flames of resistance grew. The cracks in Portugal’s colonial facade widened.  Nationalist movements that were once dismissed as mere rabble-rousers, waged guerrilla warfare with increasing effectiveness. Young Portuguese men were shipped off, many never to return, all to fight wars few believed Portugal could win.

Discontent brewed even in the heart of the regime: the armed forces. Low-ranking officers, frustrated and disillusioned, formed a clandestine group – the Movimento das Forças Armadas (MFA). These were idealistic men, hardened by the horrors of colonial conflict and eager to see their nation break free. Among their ranks was a rising star, a charismatic general named António de Spínola. His book, “Portugal and the Future”, openly criticized the regime, costing him his position but making him a voice for change.

The MFA remained hidden, a coiled spring waiting for the right moment. That moment, at first, seemed almost trivial. A banned song, “Grândola, Vila Morena,” associated with leftist movements, dared to play on the radio. But for the revolutionaries, this was a beacon, a signal to move. On April 24th, 1974, the tension in Portugal was like a stretched wire—any tremor could set it singing.

Late at night, the first clandestine movements began. MFA forces seized key strategic points across Lisbon and Porto: military installations, radio stations, airports. Their movements were swift, precise, fueled by years of meticulously suppressed anger. The Portuguese people, long accustomed to silence and fear, awoke to the intoxicating scent of rebellion.

The heart of the uprising was Terreiro do Paço, a grand square in Lisbon. Here, government ministries huddled, their occupants likely terrified and confused by the rapid turn of events. The MFA had them surrounded, but the outcome was far from certain. The loyalist forces were still formidable. One wrong move, one act of violent desperation, could plunge the city into chaos.

The hours were a whirlwind of audacity and tension.  A loyalist military ship aimed its guns at the Terreiro do Paço, and the rebels stared back, their resolve unwavering.  Within government units, a battle between authority and conscience played out. Many officers, faced with disobeying and potentially fighting against their countrymen, refused. The regime’s foundation was crumbling from within.

The sharp crack of gunfire echoed through the streets surrounding the PIDE/DGS headquarters. The secret police, the regime’s enforcers and torturers, were making a final, desperate stand. Fear rippled through the crowd, but the MFA soldiers did not waver. They returned fire, the siege escalating into a tense firefight.  Bullets ricocheted off stone, shattering windows and gouging scars into the historic facades.

With each shot, the weight of the four citizens’ deaths pressed heavier. Their loss wasn’t just a tragedy; it was a clarion call, galvanizing the people of Lisbon and the soldiers alike. The PIDE’s resistance no longer seemed valiant but despicable, a reminder of the brutality from which Portugal sought escape.

Amidst the pandemonium, the flower seller Celeste Caeiro emerged.  Perhaps she had surplus flowers to sell after a day of dwindling business; perhaps she acted out of a deep instinct for hope. Regardless of the reason, her action was transformative. Moving with quiet courage, she approached the soldiers encircling the PIDE, red carnations in hand.

One by one, she slipped the flowers into the barrels of their rifles. The soldiers, hardened veterans of pointless wars, could not help but be touched. The carnations were not bullets, not weapons, but blooms. They spoke of the yearning for peace, for life instead of death, after so many years of repression.

Inspired by Celeste’s act, the crowd surged forward. Soon a sea of red carnations flowed around the PIDE building. Soldiers, once locked in tense combat, found flowers tucked into their uniforms, placed in their hands. The transformation was breathtaking–instruments of war had become symbols of hope. The Carnation Revolution, as it was christened, had reached its symbolic zenith.

However, the revolution was not won with flowers alone. Inside the PIDE building, resistance faltered, then crumbled. Negotiations became the only option for the remaining loyalist holdouts. Meanwhile, the MFA’s focus shifted to the final, crucial stage: securing the Prime Minister’s surrender.

Troops moved on the Carmo Barracks, where Marcelo Caetano had sought refuge. The encirclement was swift. Yet Caetano, a man who’d long held the reins of power, refused to capitulate to a mere general. Only to the esteemed António de Spínola, the once-exiled war hero, would he relinquish power.

A tense conversation crackled over the phone lines. Caetano lamented surrendering to “the streets,” but his options were dwindling. Finally, with what remained of his authority, he agreed to a handover of power to General Spínola.

As the Prime Minister was escorted out of the barracks, a crowd erupted in cheers and jeers. This once-untouchable leader was now vulnerable, his era undeniably over.  Spínola, driven to the scene, was hailed as the hero of the hour, despite having played a limited hand in the rebellion itself. He would briefly become Portugal’s first post-revolution president, a symbol of change marred by his belief in Portugal clinging to some form of colonial control.

With the day waning, the Carnation Revolution wasn’t just a successful coup, it was a testament to collective will. The Portuguese people, soldiers, and a humble flower seller had toppled a dictatorship. Yet the road ahead was long.  Freedom won, it would need to be nurtured, sustained. Colonial wars would end,  democratic institutions rebuilt, and the wounds of the past would need time to heal. But on April 25th, 1974, Portugal took its first, euphoric breath of a new life.

The 50th Anniversary of the Carnation Revolution arrives amidst a time of discontent. The Portugal of today faces its own challenges, proving that the hard-won freedoms of the past are not to be taken for granted. Economic struggles and political frustrations ripple through society. Yet, perhaps this unrest is not a sign of a nation crumbling, but one grappling with how to best live up to the ideals that bloomed 50 years ago.

It’s easy to romanticize the past, to yearn for the euphoria of those first days of freedom. However, true democracy is not born in a single day but forged continuously. It demands active participation, holding leaders accountable, and cherishing the rights so bravely won. It requires the messy, sometimes frustrating, work of compromise, of building a just society for all.

The Carnation Revolution should not only be a day of remembrance but one of inspiration and, crucially, of action. The spirit of those who defied oppression lives on within the Portuguese people’s desire for a better future. Today, let the carnations remind us not just of victory, but of the ongoing responsibility for each generation to shape the Portugal they want – a nation true to its revolutionary spirit, where democracy and freedoms aren’t just history, but a vibrant, ever-evolving reality.


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