A Different Kind of Coup: As Portugal Seeks to Build New Partnerships with Its Former African Colonies, We Should Not Lose Sight of the Importance of the 25th April 1974 Coup in Lisbon. It Even Speeded Up the Demise of Ian Smith's Regime in Zimbabwe and Apartheid in South Africa

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Having been deeply involved in the struggle against colonialism, I still think that the final verdict on the 25th April 1974 Lisbon coup (see NA, March) that brought about the radical withdrawal of Portugal from its African colonies, is a sober "better late than never".


After all, for nearly half a century, the army had been the mainstay of the dictatorial regime of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar which had made Portugal a prisoner of a rigid "national colonialist" constitution. This, under Article 141 of the Penal Code, prescribed that:

"Any Portuguese who attempts by violent or fraudulent means, or with foreign help to separate the Motherland [from its 'overseas provinces'] or to hand to a foreign country all or part of the Portuguese territory, or by any of those means offends and endangers the independence of the country ... shall be liable to a sentence of, from 20 to 25 years in prison."

The Portuguese civilian democratic resistance, which I had joined at the age of 17 in Mozambique, had fought for decades to restore democracy, hoping to follow the British and French models of decolonisation. This made Salazar shiver, especially after his statement that "slavery had been a good instrument of civilisation". He also had the macabre distinction of having remained in exile even after his death. It was not until after the April 1974 coup--nine years later--that his remains were transferred to Lisbon from a local cemetery in Spain. Strangely, Amilcar Cabral, the leader of the PAIGC (the Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde independence party), issued a statement mourning his death.

Another macabre coincidence, somewhat symbolic of the unity of the struggle and purpose between the Portuguese democratic resistance and the African liberation movement, is that the very same PIDE [Portuguese secret police] hitman, Casimiro Monteiro, who murdered General Delgado in 1965, having been promoted to a leading role in "counter insurgency" in Mozambique--within the so-called "Flechas"--was the same man who assassinated the FRELIMO leader. Eduardo Mondlane in 1969--this time by a postal bomb sent to the FRELIMO headquarters in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

With these and many other memories of the anti-colonialist struggle in which I was so involved, it was with mixed feelings of jubilation and sadness that I arrived in Lisbon soon after the coup of April 1974 and even then as a correspondent for The Guardian and the BBC. Curiously enough, having arrived, not as a politician seeking a career or reward but as a bi-lingual journalist, I can also bear witness to the fact that the coup had been a genuine all-Portuguese outburst.

Attending the first press conference by the leadership of the then improved Armed Forces Movement, chaired by none other than the would-be president general, Costa Gomes, the gathering of international journalists found there was no interpreter. It was I who, in the circumstances, moved to the platform, much to the surprise of everybody, to act as the translator. Even today I still remember thinking there and then that at least--unlike Britain, France, Belgium, or indeed the USA, who had free parliamentary institutions--the Portuguese had needed a ruthless dictatorship to inflict imperialism on others.

But although the young captains' revolt had been carried out romantically with "the wave of a rifle and a flash of red carnations", I still think that the most apt words of farewell to the empire were those pronounced in June 1975 by Colonel Vasco Goncalves (then the Portuguese prime minister), in Lourenco Marques (now Maputo) upon the transfer of power to FRELIMO:

"The same forces that oppressed the peoples of the former territories under Portuguese administration also oppressed the Portuguese people. It is with great modesty and humility that we must say, without ambiguities, that the struggle of the colonial peoples against Portuguese fascism also aided our liberation from the same fascist rule. …