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The Baron's Briefings

The turmoil of Portugal's Revolution remembered

Fifty years ago, Portugal was in uproar. Army captains had just overthrown a rightist dictatorship, but the provisional government that emerged had collapsed. What followed over the next 18 months was a rollercoaster of chaos, radical change, unrest on the streets and military putsches, Marcus Ferrar told the latest Baron’s Briefing

He had arrived in July 1974, three months after a coup overthrew the right-wing dictatorship, in his twenties and without much knowledge of Portuguese, to start the most exciting posting in his 35-year career with Reuters.

Every day saw unexpected twists and turns as events raced furiously ahead, from early morning to night. In his Briefing on June 27, Marcus spoke of the challenges of making sense of the turmoil – and coping with exhaustion.

The captains had been fighting a losing war against independence movements in Portugal’s African colonies – Angola, Mozambique and Portuguese Guinea. They were set on decolonisation, but army General Antonio Spinola tried to rally the population against it, Marcus said.

On the morning of 15th March 1975, Marcus saw warplanes flying low past his flat overlooking the Tagus river. Minutes later the office called, yelling: “They are bombing a radical leftist army barracks, it’s a coup!” It failed and Spinola fled the country.

Eventually all three colonies became independent, though in Angola – rich with oil, gold and diamonds – a 27-year, brutal civil war broke out between rival movements backed by the Soviet Union, Cuba, the United States and South Africa.

When Portuguese Guinea celebrated independence to become Guinea-Bissau in September 1974, Marcus had his first and last experience of reporting in Africa. He suffered in sweltering, humid heat, lodged in a dismal bungalow in the capital Bissau, where mosquitoes devoured him at night. In the jungle, he came across a giant, bearded soldier who spoke perfect American – one of the Cuban proxy troops there on behalf of the Soviet Union.  

Back in Portugal, shooting broke out at rallies, leftists blockaded the main government building, and mobs threatened the U.S. embassy. Banks and industrial conglomerates were nationalised and radical leftists took over most of the media. Then moderate officers and the Socialist Party headed by Mario Soares staged a fightback – helped by one million embittered Portuguese who had returned from the colonies. In November 1975, parachutists blew up a leftist radio station – and that was the end of the violent revolution, Marcus recalled.  

Portugal moved on to democratic elections and civilian rule, and eventually joined the European Community, the eurozone and the border-free Schengen area.

Despite the destructive turmoil, Marcus believes Portugal needed drastic change, and decolonisation was bound to be traumatic. Amazingly, he said, hardly anybody was killed. Portugal’s Revolution helped inspire democratic change also in Greece, Spain and Eastern Europe.

It was his most exhilarating assignment. “I still feel a soft spot for the young soldiers, about my age, still in jungle fatigues, who toppled a dictatorship and eventually created a free and fairer society.”