Marking 50 years of Portuguese democracy

  • Freddy Nevison-Andrews

On 25 April, Portugal commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution. At Canning House, the day was marked with a panel discussion, featuring leading academics on Portugal’s history, politics and economy.

Marking 50 years of Portuguese democracy

On 25 April, Portugal commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution. On that day in April 1974, virtually without a single shot being fired, the authoritarian Estado Novo regime, which had governed Portugal since 1933 under Prime Ministers António de Oliveira Salazar and, latterly, Marcelo Caetano, was overthrown. Carnations, the flowers placed in the barrels of soldiers' guns or on their uniforms, became an iconic and abiding symbol of the revolutionary day.

The day is celebrated in Portugal as the anniversary of the beginning of the country’s era of democracy. On the same day in 1974, or shortly thereafter, Portugal's long-running wars in theatres across Africa ended, with several of its colonies soon becoming independent, as the sovereign states of Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Cabo Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe and East Timor.

At Canning House, the 50th anniversary was marked with a panel discussion, featuring leading academics on Portugal’s history, politics and economy. In the eclectic audience were several senior diplomats, academics, analysts and journalists, businesspeople, cultural voices, and others.

The event began with words of welcome from Canning House’s Chair, Nick McCall, who introduced Prof. Francisco Bethencourt, Charles Boxer Professor of History at King's College London (KCL), as the panel’s moderator.

Francisco began the evening’s discussion by introducing some of the key themes to consider in this period of Portuguese history. These included colonialism and independence, the democratisation of Europe, synchronous revolutions across southern Europe, migration, and a reversal of previous experiences in military coups.

Prof. Ricardo Reis, Arthur Williams Phillips Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics, then delivered his remarks, tracking the economy of Portugal since the early 20th century, with a focus on its period of crisis.

Ricardo described how from 1973 to 1978, Portugal experienced its longest recession since 1910. However, he emphasised that, though the 1974 Revolution was a contributor, the country faced a raft of other economic challenges in this period, each alone tantamount to a recessionary shock.

The 1973 oil crisis deeply affected the Portuguese economy, essentially cutting off the country’s oil supply. From 1974, nationalisations, fleeing capital and a dramatic decline in agricultural productivity caused economic slowdown; while an enormous influx of people from Portugal’s former colonies, many of whom were public servants, guaranteed jobs in Portugal, hugely expanded public expenditure. Finally, a 1977-78 International Monetary Fund stabilisation programme led to a swift decline in Portuguese gold reserves.

He went on to explain that Portugal’s industrialisation and opening to foreign trade has exposed it to “small, open economy type recessions,” and how its fiscal policy may have contributed to their avoidance or, indeed, their cause.

The panel’s second speaker, Dr Alexandra Lourenço Dias, Camões Lecturer in Lusophone Studies and Director of the Camões Centre at KCL, discussed her research on the production and role of comic book and graphic novel accounts of 25 April.

Alexandra described two periods in comic book production in Portugal – pre-, and post-revolution. Pre-revolution, that is, before 25 April 1974, comic books took on a denunciatory role – produced in small scale, clandestine form, navigating the highly effective censorship regime of the Estado Novo. Post-revolution, graphical depictions of April 25 shifted to “exaltation,” deeply steeped in the iconography of the carnation and other symbols of the historic day.

Additionally, some post-revolution works served as works of political indoctrination – both Marxist and anti-communist, as well as educational tools on the value of democracy; increasingly so for a new generation, increasingly remote from the events of 25 April, and their historical context. In these works that “straddle the line of fiction and non-fiction,” aesthetic and thematic changes have continued, with new focus on “secondary characters” – the common people living under censorship – and the recognition of trauma.

Focusing on the political context behind the Carnation Revolution, Dr Tiago Fernandes, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Policy at ISCTE, Instituto Universitário de Lisboa, addressed the question: why did social revolution to lead to liberal democracy in Portugal?

First, Tiago explained that Portugal’s military had experienced a transformation as a result of its colonial wars – the military’s professionalisation leading to an erosion of reactionary components, leading to a more liberal culture. Additionally, the military was influenced by American democratising doctrines post-WWII, with Portugal as a founding member of NATO.

Also important were debates within western Marxism – with the emergent political consensus in Portugal post-revolution one of non-authoritarian Marxism, accepting a compatibility of socialism and democracy, amidst diminished social polarisation with the end of Portugal’s colonial wars. Moreover, a consensus on nationalisation and redistribution as a feasible politics, with cross-party resolution to create a strong public economy and welfare state; and a united political opposition, offering a realistic alternative in a democratic system, allowed for the establishment reinforcement of liberal democracy from social revolution.

Questions from the audience addressed topics including the UK’s relationship with Portugal in the twentieth century, and further discussed the role of comic books during the Carnation Revolution.

The session was followed by a networking reception.

Canning House thanks our moderator and speakers for their insights, and our audience for their engagement and interest.

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