In Portugal, crowds in the streets celebrate democracy at the 50th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution

Celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution in Porto, Portugal, this April 25, 2024. Photo by Bibiana Canofre, used with permission

”O povo é quem mais ordena” (“The people are those who command the most”) are the words in a verse of the song Grândola, Vila Morena. Composed by Zeca Afonso, the song worked as a signal to ignite the events of April 25, 1974, that put an end to 48 years of dictatorship in Portugal — the longest in Western Europe during the 20th century.

Now, 50 years later, at the anniversary of the Carnation Revolution, thousands of people chanted it again in squares and streets of cities such as Lisbon, Porto and Coimbra, celebrating decades of freedom. Leftist parliamentarians also chanted it in the parliament at the end of a solemn session.

50 years of April 25, 1974. ”We are many, many thousands to continue April” and today those many thousands replicated themselves through Terreiro do Paço, Largo do Carmo e Avenida da Liberdade (places in Lisbon).

The song became a national anthem in Portugal on April 25 that year, when a radio station played it at 20 minutes past midnight, as one of the two signs agreed upon by the rebels of the MFA (Armed Forces Movement) to take the streets. It was recorded by Afonso while in exile in France.

This year, the traditional carnations appeared alongside posters remembering the importance of democracy and current demands, such as affordable housing and rights for women and immigrants. This came amid the ascension of right and far-right parties following last March's elections when Luís Montenegro was named prime minister. He is the leader of the center-right coalition AD (Democratic Alliance).

A poster in Porto reads: The rich should pay for the crisis … and the dinner. People 1974 – People 2024. Photo by Bibiana Canofre, used with permission.

The 1974 revolution

In the early hours of April 25, 1974, a group of military men, part of the MFA, also known as the “Captains’ Movement,” put into practice the plan that had been worked out for months to overturn the New State regime. They opposed the Colonial War (1961-1974), as African countries such as Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique fought Portuguese colonialism.

António Salazar, the dictator who ruled the country for over 35 years, was replaced by Marcelo Caetano in 1968, but little had changed. Portuguese people continued to endure repression, poverty, and a war overseas that cost lives and resources.

As the BBC reports, Captain Salgueiro Maia, one of the MFA's leaders, started the actions of that day at a military unit in Santarém, saying to his colleagues:

Há várias modalidades de organização dos estados: há o estado socialista, o estado comunista, o estado capitalista e o estado a que isto chegou. Eu proponho acabar com o estado a que isto chegou. Vamos para Lisboa acabar com isto. Quem quiser vir comigo vai formar lá fora, quem não quiser fica aqui.

There are several ways of state organization: there is the socialist state, the communist state, the capitalist state and the state at which this has arrived. I propose to end the state that this has come to. Let's go to Lisbon to end it. Who wants to come with me will get in formation outside, who doesn't, stays here.

The column with 160 men traveled to the capital, and by early afternoon, the government surrendered without violence. The revolution would be named after the carnations Celeste Caeiro handed over to armed military men in the streets. The flowers were bought to celebrate the anniversary of the restaurant where she worked in Lisbon, but the place had to close due to the events of that day.

Celeste Caeiro, 90 years old, who handed out red carnations to the military who took part in the April 25 Portuguese Revolution, today in Lisbon.

A date in dispute

A study by the Lisbon University Institute (Instituto Universitário de Lisboa) showed that 75 percent of Portuguese people see April 25, 1974, as the most important event in Portugal's history, above the Republic and the Restoration of Independence in the 17th century.

In a speech at the parliament, Deputy of the Portuguese Assembly of the Republic Rui Tavares remembered a time when Portuguese people lived in fear, were arrested and tortured, and highlighted the revolution's importance:

Cientistas políticos, aliás bastante conservadores, dizem que o 25 de Abril iniciou a terceira vaga de democratização no mundo, que foi pelo sul da Europa, à América Latina, ao Sudeste Asiático, à Europa do Leste, até muito recentemente se iniciar a partir de 2016 a contra-revolução dessa vaga.

E a razão por que o 25 de Abril deu a volta ao mundo é porque o 25 de Abril foi belo, foi a mais bela revolução do século XX. E é nossa.

Political scientists, very conservative ones, say April 25 started the third wave of democratization in the world, that went through the south of Europe, to Latin America, to South East Asia, to Eastern Europe, until very recently starting, from 2016, the counter-revolution to such wave.

And the reason why April 25 went around the world is because April 25 was beautiful, the most beautiful revolution of the 20th century. And it's ours.

People celebrating the April 25 revolution in Porto, Portugal, this April 25, 2024. Photo by Bibiana Canofre, used with permission.

According to the Portuguese press, this year's celebrations brought a record number of people to the streets. In Lisbon, a crowd gathered on the eve of the 25th at Largo do Carmo, the same place where the regime took refuge from the rebels in 1974. The traditional celebration was turned into a spontaneous occupation after being canceled for ”lack of support by the City Chamber.”

Among the crowds were veterans, children, unionists, students, and politicians from the left and the right. Still, after the fall of former Prime Minister António Costa, a leftist, last November, and with the ascension of far-right Chega following March's elections, the date is in dispute.

Some tried to defend the importance of November 25, 1975, above April 25. The date recalls what took place a year and a half after the revolution, with political and ideological tensions brewing among the military. After a far-left group attempted an insurrection, a ”right-wing” one tried to shut it down, putting the country under a state of siege, explains SIC news outlet.

Now, Portugal is a semi-presidential democratic republic with the president as head of state. Traditionally, the head of government refrains from speaking in parliament during the April 25 sessions. But in a short speech addressing the youth at the prime minister's official residence, Luis Montenegro declared that “more than contemplating the 50 years that have passed [since the revolution], we are focused on the years to come.”

In his speech at the national assembly, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa stated:

Reconheçamos essa força vital da democracia e tenhamos a humildade e a inteligência de preferir sempre a democracia, mesmo que imperfeita, à ditadura.

Let's us recognize this vital force of democracy and let's us have the humility and intelligence to always prefer democracy, even an imperfect one, rather than the dictatorship.

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