For almost two months, from 4 October 2015, Portugal had de facto no government. Until 24 November, President Aníbal Cavaco Silva—who, incidentally, in 1967, under the dictatorship, offered his services to the secret police (PIDE DGS) 1Although this was always officially denied, Silva’s PIDE file can be easily found online: http://docslide.com.br/documents/anibal-cavaco-silva-inscricao-na-pidedgs.html (accessed 30 November 2015).—refused to appoint a left-wing coalition government even though they secured an absolute majority in the Portuguese parliamentary election. The reason he gave for not respecting democratic process was that neither the Communist Party (traditionally anti-NATO and anti-EU) nor the anti-austerity platforms could be allowed to govern: this would send “false signals to financial institutions, investors and markets.” Hence, the president demanded that all parties comply with “EU rules,” in order to stave off a resurrected “red threat.” Another Syriza moment must be avoided, and Silva has no qualms in propagating economic dogma at the cost of democracy.
The “red threat” picture above was published on the cover of Time magazine in August 1975. From right to left, you see the Portuguese president Francisco da Costa Gomes, Premier Vasco dos Santos Gonçalves, and revolutionary leader General Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho. I had forgotten this image until I saw it again recently, when Portuguese theorist Delfim Sardo gave a talk about the SAAL social housing program at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, within the context of the “Housing Question,” an exhibition which tackles the current housing crisis in Europe. The image, he told me, is at once an illustration of the past and a comment on the present.
The summer of 1975 became known in Portugal as the “hot summer”(verão quente): the summer in which the country teetered on the brink of a civil war. The revolution, which toppled the dictatorship a year before, on 25 April 1974, has been widely romanticized as a peaceful, bloodless movement. Emulating the flower-power protesters who marched on the Pentagon in 1967, its symbol became the carnation, often placed down the barrel of a rifle. But a bloodless revolution is an oxymoron.
Prior to that April, Portugal had experienced forty-eight years of uninterrupted autocratic rule—the longest dictatorship in Western Europe. Unlike Italian fascism, which forged an alliance with modernism, Portuguese fascism was anti-modern, ruralist, and insular. Poverty was a state policy (“honored poverty” was the state’s motto): in the 1970s, about 36 percent of Portuguese households lacked electricity, 53 percent running water, and 42 percent were not equipped with proper plumbing. Child labor was widespread, vast urban areas were occupied by slums, and illiteracy ranged over 30 percent. 2See: Luís Graça, O Período de 1926-1974: A Modernização Bloqueada. 3.1. Nacionalismo e Corporativismo (1926–1958) [Portugal, 1926–1974: the Blocked Modernization Process. 3.1. Nationalism and Corporativism (1926–1958)] (Lisbon: Universidade Nova de Lisboa, 1999). By the time the regime fell, over two million Portuguese people had emigrated to France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Germany to escape hunger and unemployment.
After 1961 Portugal was also fighting a costly war with its African colonies, Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea, and by 1974 this had become unsustainable. Five families alone controlled the extraction industry in the colonies, and their economic activities were key to both Portugal’s isolationist policies and the dictator’s domestic survival, a fact that explains why the regime pitted itself against its increasingly disgruntled military.
The carnation revolution of 25 April started off as a military coup whose goal was simply to end the colonial war, which some factions of the army increasingly saw as logistically unsustainable. Overwhelming popular support changed the course of events however, pushing the insurgent military units (MFA) to forge an alliance with the people (Aliança Povo/MFA).
In lieu of a peaceful surrender, however, the regime’s premier, Marcelo Caetano, imposed António de Spínola as his successor. Spínola, an army general, had been involved in orchestrating the coup, but was not part of the MFA, nor was he sympathetic to the left-wing leanings of the insurgent officers. His objective was to negotiate a truce with the Portuguese colonies in order to implement a sort of commonwealth federation, not to grant them independence. Spínola spent his short term as president attempting to block the MFA’s revolutionary program and ended up resigning. On 11 March 1975, he engineered a counter-coup after allegedly being informed by Franco’s secret police that the Communists, with the support of the Soviet Union, were preparing a blitz of political assassinations.
In 2014, several files belonging to the US State Department were made public (Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1977, volume E-15, part II) which detail that Kissinger stated his support for a right-wing coup, against the opinion of CIA deputy director Frank Carlucci and William Hyland (deputy national security advisor to President Gerald Ford) who thought Spínola was “too dangerous.” It would seem that the false intelligence concerning the Soviet plan was intended to prompt Spínola to act, but it is not clear whether the United States intended him to succeed or, rather, to fail, in order to force his removal.
Once the coup was aborted, Spínola fled to Spain, then to Brazil (also a military dictatorship at the time), where he began to organize the ELP (Exército de Libertação de Portugal, the Liberation Army of Portugal), a right-wing paramilitary terrorist group, and its twin organization the MDLP (Movimento Democrático de Libertação de Portugal, Democratic Movement for the Liberation of Portugal), an anti-communist terror network under the leadership of the exiled chief of the secret police, now operating from Spain with the support of Franco’s regime. Together with the Catholic-led Maria da Fonte—a terror cell organized by the Canon of Braga, Eduardo Melo, using the Church’s institutional clout—the three groups, united by a virulent anti-communism, waged a terror campaign against the budding democratic state. In an article published at the time in Harper’s Magazine, Robert Moss reported that beyond the Spanish border the ELP was in the process of recruiting and organizing an army in order to launch an invasion. The CIA knew of these activities, but the American response was divided between those who would support a civil war (Kissinger) and those who believed a political solution was more expedient (Hyland, Carlucci).
Either way, anti-communist hysteria peaked after Spínola’s failed coup. The new Portuguese president Francisco Costa Gomes appointed Vasco Gonçalves, who had strong ties with Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, as his prime minister. From Kissinger’s perspective, the whole Portuguese cabinet was now red. To make matters worse, the coup had prompted Gonçalves to escalate the “revolutionary process”: he nationalized the banks, the insurance companies, and the shipping industry, and implemented ambitious social programs such as a minimum wage, land reform, universal education, and social housing (this latter program, SAAL, enjoyed overwhelming public support, though constantly under threat: its offices were bombed and one of its chief architects, Alexandre Alves Costa, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt). Still, Portuguese society remained intensely polarized and the north-south divide became insurmountable, with the north, composed of mostly small-scale merchants and rural landowners, radicalized by anti-communist propaganda spread by the Church’s parochial network.
The “hot summer” started on 13 July, when, instigated by the Catholic Church and the militias connected to the deposed fascist regime, a mob attacked a Communist center and the headquarters of the Socialist Front. In the following days and weeks over eighty office buildings used by the Communists, Socialists, labor unions, and several other left-leaning political parties were assailed by mobs. Over fifty more were the targets of bomb attacks or arson. The assaults are most often narrated as a spontaneous expression of popular animosity to the Left’s policies, particularly to land reform. According to the testimonies of the victims however, most were orchestrated by Spínola’s MDLP, and two other terror cells, Maria da Fonte and ELP. The ELP was also responsible for—as well as many other attacks—the murder of a young priest, Padre Max, and a nineteen-year-old female student, with a remote-controlled car bomb. This was a particularly gruesome crime, but although the perpetrators were known (among those indicted was Melo, the Canon of Braga), no one was ever convicted. While these events were ignored, the American press gave extensive coverage to a leftist attack on the Spanish embassy in Lisbon, with CBS repeatedly featuring all available images.
At the same time, NATO initiated operation Locked Gate-75, meant to “contain the influence of the Portuguese communist party,” anchoring the supercarrier USS Saratoga and several other vessels in the Tagus river delta, aimed at the presidential palace in Belém. For Kissinger, Pinochet’s 1973 coup was the blueprint for an armed intervention. Frank Carlucci had a different vision however. He saw in the leader of the Socialist Party, Mário Soares, a power-hungry politician, who could be groomed to do NATO’s bidding.
Under the strain of unrelenting attacks, the Left grew increasingly divided. The more radical groups called for an armed insurrection and proposed to distribute weapons to the population in order to fight off the imminent invasion. Gonçalves was urged to “step up the revolutionary process.” Fearing a Chile-style bloodbath, the Communist Party took a moderate position.
Wedged between the radical Left and mounting external pressure, the interim government fell. On 25 November 1975, one last attempted coup, this time round by leftist elements, brought an end to the “revolutionary process” and sealed the country’s fate. Without the support of the Communist Party, the coup was promptly quashed. Ramalho Eanes, the new commander-in-chief of the army, arrested Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho. The Socialists close ranks with the Right to accuse the Communist Party of supporting the coup and plotting a Soviet takeover. The “revolutionary process” came to a sudden halt, the MFA was dismantled, and radical-left parties were outlawed.
In the following years almost all revolutionary actions were rolled back, and the status quo fully restored. Spínola was given the highest state honors and his terror cells morphed into respectable political parties, such as the CDS-PP or the PSD. The SAAL housing program was suspended, and property rights were restored. Carlucci got it right, Mário Soares could be trusted, as, in his own words, ironically speaking as the head of the Socialist Party: It was time to shelf socialism. The red threat was over.
Portugal’s structural problems—democratic deficit, nepotism, and corruption—were never solved, but merely masked by the European Union’s social and financial programs. Rather than endless prosperity, the highways the European Union built brought cheaper agricultural produce and low-cost goods. The economy shrunk in inverse proportion to German export growth. 3See, for instance: http://yanisvaroufakis.eu/2012/04/21/german-mercantilism-and-the-failure-of-the-eurozone-guest-post-by-heiner-flassbeck/ (accessed 30 November 2015). The effects of a multi-dimensional accumulation policy are in full sight, but the silent coup Portugal underwent this last month was met with a wall of silence by European media, presumably drowned by the barrage of coverage that followed the Paris attacks.
Seemingly unrelated events are all epiphenomena of an imperial order, which only becomes visible when under threat. Just as in 1975, in Paris in 2015 systemic injustice is masked by cultural difference. “They have weapons. […] We have champagne,” we are told, as if it would be possible to generalize the experience of the leisure class. 4From the cover of Charlie Hebdo in the aftermath of the Paris attacks (17 November 2015). In truth, we do not have champagne; we have zero-hour contracts and increasing precarity. But the easiest way to avert reckoning with the social consequences of financialization and austerity is to instill paranoia, division, and moral panic.