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Why April 25th is a holiday – the Carnation Revolution and the events of 1974

carnationFreedom Day, Revolution Day or simply, Carnation Day, the 25th of April is a national holiday commemorating both the 1974 military coup and the first free elections on that date in 1975.

Peter Booker, the President of the Algarve History Association, writes about at the lead-up to the events in 1974 that changed Portugal from an unhappy, tense place under the Estado Novo regime, even after the death of the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, into a fledgling democracy:

The dictatorship in Portugal had its roots in the military coup of 28 May, 1926, and this day was officially celebrated until 1974.  The disestablishment of the republic was a military affair, and when António de Oliveira Salazar came to power, he never forgot that his success depended on keeping the armed forces happy, or at least quiet.  His successor, Marcelo Caetano, was unable to follow the same guideline.

Opposition to the Estado Novo of Salazar was continuous during the life of the Estado Novo (1933 – 1974), and it became noticeable on a number of occasions.  In 1937, Salazar narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in Lisbon.   Founded with government permission in 1945, the Movimento de Unidade Democrática (MUD) attracted so much support that it was banned in 1948.  In 1958, General Humberto Delgado was disqualified from the Presidency only because the authorities rigged the vote.  There was an attempted coup in 1961 by the Minister for Defence Botelho Moniz, and also in 1961 the hijacking of the cruise liner Santa Maria was designed to raise international awareness of Portugal´s lack of democracy. In 1962, students demonstrated against the colonial war, and were forcibly repressed. The main continuing opposition was from the PCP, the communists, who were driven underground, but maintained an active presence in the country during the whole of Salazar´s dictatorship.  

Goa was occupied by India in December 1961, and the freedom struggle broke out in Angola in 1961, with Moçambique, Guiné, Cabo Verde and São Tomé and Príncipe soon following suit. While every other colonising power was granting independence to its colonies, Salazar decided to hang on to the Portuguese Províncias Ultramarinas.  He broadcast to the nation, and in a famous phrase declared that the Portuguese stood proudly alone (orgulhosamente sós).

After Salazar´s death in 1970, there was a growing opposition to the colonial wars (1961 – 1974), principally among the younger and more educated deputies of the Ala Liberal (the liberal wing) but a major factor behind the eventual fall of the regime was the world financial crisis of 1973.  The worlds of finance, business and the professions aligned with the working men´s movements in opposition to the costly effort to retain the African colonies, the Provincias Ultramarinas.  The people of Portugal felt the economic pressure of these expensive wars, and the support for the regime now rested only on the armed forces.  Even some of the clergy wanted a change.  There was violence perpetrated by the communist supported Brigadas Revolucionárias (BR) and Acção Revolucionária Armada (ARA), aimed mainly at the supply of matériel for the African wars.

The armed forces became more and more discontented at the length of the wars and the growing realisation that it was impossible for Portugal to win them.  Pressed to find a political solution, Caetano´s government blocked its ears, and insisted on continuing its policy of holding the colonies by force, and it then became plain that the wars could end only if the government fell.

A major factor in the military revolt was the discontent of the junior officers. It was they who led the eventual revolt, albeit with the tacit support of their superiors. Because of the continuing secret emigration throughout the 1960s of educated young men of military age, the army had trouble in finding enough junior officers for the war effort.  As the army expanded, militia men (the equivalent of the Territorials) began to experience rapid promotion, often over the heads of regular officers, which caused enormous resentment among the regulars.  Added to which, the regime did not want to acknowledge that these wars were a major effort, and returning soldiers were discouraged from wearing their uniforms in the street.  It was almost as if Portuguese society was ashamed of them.

In 1973, General Spínola published a book (Portugal e o Futuro) in which he maintained that the African wars could never be won.  Salazar´s successor Marcelo Caetano read this book, and realised that if the army did not back the government in prosecuting the African wars, the government had now lost its remaining pillar of support.  Since its inception, the Estado Novo had been a military dictatorship, and how can such a dictatorship survive without the support of the army?  In March 1974, Caetano held an audience in which senior military men promised their support to the government.  The principal military opponents to the African wars, Generals Costa Gomes and Spínola, absented themselves, and of course were dismissed.  These two generals later became the first two presidents of the new democratic republic.

Junior officers (mainly captains) organized themselves into the Movimento das Forças Armadas (MFA) and their slogan, distributed in barracks all around the country and in the Províncias Ultramarinas, was the three Ds, Democratizar, Descolonizar e Desenvolver (democratise, decolonise and develop).

In a sense, everyone was waiting for the revolution to happen.  It nearly did on 16 March, 1974 but the attempt of the units from Caldas da Rainha was not successful.  
Five weeks later, on 25 April a separate revolt broke out. There were two signals the previous night, broadcast on the radio.  The first was the song E depois do Adeus, which gave the green light for the occupation of radio stations and other points in Lisbon itself.  This operation was led by Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho.  The second signal, the song Grândola, Vila Morena, was broadcast at 00h20 on 25 April on Radio Renascença.  This song had been banned by the government because of its allusion to communism.  

In response to this signal, troops from the Santarém barracks of the Escola Prática de Cavalaria under the command of Capitão Salgueiro Maia drove their armoured vehicles including tanks down to Lisbon to occupy the Terreiro do Paço in the centre of the city.  Salgueiro Maia later that day also confronted head of government Marcelo Caetano at the police barracks of Quartel do Carmo.  Caetano left the barracks in an armoured car and he and the President of Portugal, Américo Tomás, were sent to Madeira, and days later went into exile in Brazil.  In an operation in the north of Portugal similar to that in Lisbon, Lieutenant Colonel Carlos de Azeredo led the troops which occupied the main barracks in Porto, while others occupied the airport.

The only fatalities which occurred on this day, momentous in the history of Portugal, were inflicted by agents of the DGS, the former PIDE secret police, who fired out of their headquarters in the Rua António Maria Cardoso in Lisbon, killing four demonstrators in the street.

The success of the military coup was soon transformed into a full-scale political revolution, because the whole of the country was ready for it.  The African wars were brought to a hasty end, and the Províncias Ultramarinas which Salazar had determined to hang on to, were abandoned with almost indecent speed, and by September, 1975 Portugal´s empire had all but disappeared.

The Carnation Revolution is so called because of its relatively peaceful nature.  Flower sellers in Lisbon donated carnations for soldiers to insert into the barrels of their guns.  It is said that the idea originated with one Celeste Caeiro in a restaurant in Lisbon.  She began to hand out carnations from the restaurant, and the idea caught on.  But the term Carnation Revolution is a misnomer.  It would be more accurate to call it a Carnation Mutiny, since it was a manifestation of disquiet in the army.  Only after the government fell to a military mutiny did it become a proper political revolution.

One enduring poem emerged from this important day.  This one verse is an icon for Portuguese people, and was written by one of Portugal´s most famous authors of the resistance.  It illustrates well and briefly the sense of relief as Portugal emerged from forty-eight years of military dictatorship, and re-entered the world of western liberal democracy.


Esta é a madrugada que eu esperava 

O dia inicial inteiro e limpo

Onde emergimos da noite e do silêncio

E livres habitamos a substância do tempo



This is the dawn I was waiting for

The first day, whole and clean

Where we emerged from night and silence

And free, we live in real time



Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen – 1974


© Peter Booker, Presidente, Associação dos Historiadores do Algarve (Algarve History Association)

The Algarve History Association aims to promote interest in Portuguese culture and history using the English language as the main medium but with an increasing number of articles in Portuguese.  The organisation is non-profit making and undertaken on a voluntary basis. The Association charges no membership fee, and there is no charge to attend presentations unless there is a need to cover expenses of visiting lecturers. We ask that you leave your email address so that we may keep you personally informed of events.

There are regular talks and presentations and an increasing number of cultural events. The outline programmes of event can be found using the link below.  For more detailed information see the sections on ‘Forthcoming Presentations’ and ‘Forthcoming Events’.  Any member of the public with an interest and an ability to present their specialist cultural or historical knowledge may contact us to participate in the annual programme, which runs from September to June inclusive.


Contact Lynne Booker

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