Freedom Day, 25th April, History

Freedom Day, 25th April

Picture (1998)
Soldiers during the ‘Carnation’ Revolution, Museu Guarda Nacional Republicana, Lisbon
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Newspaper reports of the ‘Carnation’ Revolution, Lisbon Story Museum, Lisbon

Walk around any town or city in Portugal and you will see streets and squares named after significant dates in Portuguese history: Avenida 24 de Julho in Lisbon, Rua 31 de Janeiro in Porto, Avenida 5 de Outubro and Rua 1° de Maio in Faro and Largo 1° de Dezembro in Portimão. Since 1974 many streets and other public places have been named after the most recent significant event in Portuguese history, the Carnation Revolution of 25th April 1974. The most famous example is Ponte 25 de Abril (25th April Bridge) in Lisbon, the former Salazar Bridge, which was renamed after the revolution.

The revolution ended the dictatorship which had oppressed the country since 1926. During that period one man had dominated Portuguese politics, António de Oliveira Salazar, who was prime minister from 1932 to 1968. He was an economist and during his years as prime minister he created a ‘New State’ and brought about economic recovery, but his economic policies meant that the country wasn’t able to develop and many people lived in poverty and had a low level of education. The New State was an ultra-right-wing dictatorship: it was nationalist, conservative, Catholic and colonial. There was widespread censorship, repression of political dissent and elections were rigged. People who spoke out against the regime were arrested and tortured by the secret police force, the PIDE. In the African territories of Angola, Guinea (now Guinea-Bissau) and Mozambique the 1960s and early 1970s were marked by the Colonial War, where the indigenous people were fighting for independence from Portuguese rule. There was a large Portuguese military presence in these territories and enormous amounts of money were being spent on this war. Many members of the military who had fought in Africa had become critical of the amount of money and lives being wasted in these conflicts and were in favour of these countries gaining independence. General António de Spínola, who had served in Guinea, voiced these opinions in a book entitled Portugal and the Future. A group of army rebels comprising left-wing officers who opposed the regime formed the MFA (Armed Forces Movement) and began plotting a coup.

By 1974 Salazar was dead. In fact, he hadn’t been prime minister since 1968 when an accident left him brain damaged. He died in 1970, but his successor, Dr Marcelo Caetano was continuing his legacy. The MFA planned the revolution to take place on 25th April 1974 and shortly before midnight on 24th April a radio station played a pop song which signalled the start of the revolution and at a little after midnight on 25th April another radio station played the song which has become synonymous with the revolution, ‘Grândola, Vila Morena’ by José (Zeca) Afonso. Afonso was a political folk musician and much of his music was banned from being played on Portuguese radio by the regime. The song’s lyrics begin: ‘Grândola, sunburnt town / Land of brotherhood / It is the people who give the orders / Within you, oh town’.

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Street art of José Afonso on Rua 25 de Abril, Lagoa. ‘Em cada esquina um amigo‘ (‘On every corner a friend’) is a line from the song ‘Grândola, Vila Morena’.

At this signal the army rebel troops began taking over key strategic places throughout the country. Caetano and his ministers took refuge in the GNR headquarters in Largo do Carmo, which the rebel troops surrounded, forcing Caetano to surrender and go into exile. Amazingly, it was an almost bloodless coup and the name ‘Carnation Revolution’ comes from the red carnations that were put in the barrels of the soldiers’ rifles as a symbol of this lack of bloodshed.

Picture (1993)
Gun with carnation from the 1974 revolution in Museu Guarda Nacional Republicana, Lisbon

Political stability didn’t come immediately and the period after the revolution was chaotic with several provisional governments and a counter-coup. The first free elections since 1926 were held in April 1975, but it wasn’t until late 1975, when another planned coup failed, that there were the beginnings of stability. However, Portugal was in turmoil for quite a few years after the revolution. The new left-wing provisional governments began undoing the economic policies of the Salazar regime, by nationalizing industry and distributing land to the peasants. The military were withdrawn from the African territories and it was agreed to give these countries independence, but as a result many Portuguese who had lived for decades in these countries fled to Portugal, causing an unprecedented influx of people into the country.

Freedom Day is a public holiday in Portugal. The main celebrations are in Lisbon where there is a march down Avenida da Liberdade, led by a tank followed by political parties, left-wing groups and unions. Some towns and cities hold musical concerts. Many people carry or wear a symbolic red carnation and join in with singing ‘Grândola, Vila Morena’, which continues to have significance as a song of freedom.