Celebrating the Carnation Revolution With an Eye to the Future

Written By Araci Almeida

Today marks 49 years since the Carnation Revolution of April 25, 1974, and among almost fifty years of democracy, we may ask ourselves, what more can we say about that beautiful day?

For those who are unaware of it, I will again stress that Portugal, living under a fascist dictatorship — the longest one Western Europe has ever witnessed — woke up that day seeing soldiers marching on its capital and in a so-called peaceful revolution, managed to put an end to an obsolete fascist regime that had lasted since 1933. 

Among key figures one associates to this day, the name of Salgueiro Maia comes immediately to mind. Maia would become the brave soldier who rallied his troops and, in an inspiring speech that would go down in history said,

“There are many kinds of states. There are the socialist states, the so-called communist states, the capitalist states, and there is the state we’ve reached,” and continuing with his simple but fearless words to his soldiers, he added, “we’re going to march to Lisbon to put an end to the state we’ve reached. Whoever wants to stay can abandon the parade and return to the barracks. Those who want to come, step forward”.

We know what happened – everyone took a step forward and joined him. You don’t have to be Portuguese to be moved by such an act of courage. On that day, which I did not experience ,  but which was experienced by my father ,  this man would take the Terreiro do Paço under the threat of fire from a frigate. He would also have to negotiate with a brigadier on the streets of Lisbon, who had ordered that he be fired upon.

This would be another touching moment since all the soldiers disobeyed that order and went over to the side of the revolution, turning their backs on 48 years of fascism, which had left a country plunged into obscurantism and illiteracy — a problem that still haunts us today — political repression, censorship, and which since 1961 had been sending young military men to die for a lost cause in the Portuguese Colonial War, a ridiculous and vain attempt to keep the so-called “overseas provinces,” today the countries of Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea Bissau.

On this day, April 25th, exactly 49 years ago, the Carnation Revolution  – known as such since florists in the squares in Lisbon began distributing the flowers to the soldiers who put them on the barrels of their guns – would mark the end of that bloody war. 

We talk about these critical moments every year. The famous song by José Afonso, better known as Zeca Afonso, “Grândola Vila Morena,” was played on the radios and was the second signal to get the military to march, starting the whole revolutionary process. Also not to be forgotten is the first password, the song “E depois do adeus”, (And after the Goodbye), a song sung by Paulo de Carvalho.

Today is always the day to play those freedom songs on our radios. It’s been this way since 1974. But, one may wonder, how long will we keep this flame alive?

I am not the daughter of the revolution myself, but, one could say, its granddaughter. I didn’t live it. I didn’t witness the changes that took place in Portugal during those days. I was born in 1990, in the middle of the democratic regime, and four years after Portugal joined the then EEC, later renamed as the European Union. 

I don’t know, for a fact. I can only feel in my heart how real the hope was felt in those days and months after the revolution. The same hope that led people on April 25, 1975, to vote in the elections that were the most participated in at the time. 

In the photographic and video graphic records, you can feel and see the joy represented by the smiles of all the people standing in line to vote. Men, women, young and old, waited not only hours during that day but decades for that moment when they could finally have direct political participation in a democratic regime. One dreamed definitively of a Portugal different from the one then left behind. 

However, now that more time has passed in a democracy than in a dictatorship, the hope brought by April seems to be, unfortunately, only mere and pale memory. One more year celebrating this holiday also means one more year in which we Portuguese distance ourselves more and more from that day when freedom returned to the Portuguese streets and hope for the future finally gave meaning to the green of our flag. 

It also means that the generation that experienced the day and made the revolution is aging and disappearing and that the younger generations, the grandchildren — like me — and the great-grandchildren of the revolution are distancing themselves more and more from what that day meant in their country.

It is a distancing, nonetheless inevitable. So it is with every historical chapter that filled one generation with hope and meaning, which is eventually taken for granted by the following ones. 

But this alienation also proves that the dreams that April brought were partly fulfilled and partly achieved. Many Portuguese today acknowledge that there was indeed a political revolution and that democracy brought full rights that were never dreamed of during those years of dictatorship.

The enormous prohibitions imposed by the dictatorship, which ranged from the pathetic prohibition of walking barefoot in the street so as not to show one’s poverty to prohibiting a woman from traveling without her husband present, have been abolished, and society has made a huge step towards the future.

Nevertheless, almost fifty years later, a civic revolution was and is still missing. The images of the people’s participation in those first elections for the Constituent Assembly were never repeated. The Portuguese, increasingly disbelieving in the political system, have increasingly abstained from participating in the life of the country.

Disillusionment also followed when the people saw that the elites of the Estado Novo regime had given way to these new elites of freedom, one could say the “April elites,” and that the democratic regime, although different, had inherited many of the vicissitudes of the previous one. 

The revolution did not erase the elitism. It was instead molded, accepted, and fully incorporated into political life. And these dark legacies are also present in the lack of intelligence in the governance of the country.

We continue to send good brains abroad, and we privilege elites who don’t always prove to be competent but who nevertheless manage to climb up and succeed in political life, becoming merely a career in their lives. 

We have the most qualified generation ever, we have more degrees and more doctorates, and women have been able to access education. But we don’t see them performing high functions. We send them to other places by force of a lack of opportunities or due to the fact they are not part of an elite and, therefore, are not given any chances.

Forty-nine years later, we must continue to talk about the 25th of April, what it brought us, and how Portugal was during those days of fascism. It’s imperative even more today that we have, for the first time in this 49 years of democracy, an open extreme-right party that is now the third biggest political force in the country. 

For all this and more, this is why it’s also equally, if not more important, to talk about the Portugal of the present so that we can build a Portugal of the future. And this, this neglect, has always been our real stumbling block. 

These 49 years of democracy have been marked by 49 years of improvisation, of thinking only in the short term, of each year celebrating past dates with great pride without shaking the present to build a better future. 

Maybe we need a new 25th of April, but from the many legacies we have, it seems we haven’t inherited the courage and bravery of that man who dared to face almost 50 years of a rotten system and who brought hope to all of us. After all this time, this is what we would need again.

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