Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho Photo: RTP cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (linked at bottom of article) Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho Photo: RTP cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (linked at bottom of article)

Chris Bambery remembers Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, the mastermind behind the ‘Carnation Revolution’ in Portugal, who died on Sunday

It is a rare thing for Counterfire to publish an obituary of a high ranking military officer but in this case 84 year old Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, who died on Sunday, deserves to have his life remembered. Otelo, as he was known in Portugal, was the key planner of the 25 April 1974 rebellion which ended more than four decades of authoritarian dictatorship.

The Carnation Revolution, as it became known, brought crowds onto the streets alongside the military and unleashed a far reaching purge of the so called “Estado Novo” (New State) regime, especially of the hated and feared secret police, the PIDE.

In the year and a half that followed, Portugal entered into a revolutionary crisis when it seemed it was on the verge of creating workers’ power. It was a high point of working class struggle, unmatched by anything that had happened in Western Europe since the 1936 revolution in Catalonia.

Otelo was born in in 1936 in Mozambique, then a Portuguese colony. Portugal, the most backward country in Western Europe, was driven by that to exploit its African colonies harshly. Naturally by the 1960s, as anti-colonial rebellions swept the Global South, that led to armed revolt. Joining the Portuguese army as a Lieutenant, he fought in Angola and Portuguese Guinea for six years, reaching the rank of captain.

His involvement in these wars led to his becoming radicalised, accepting much of the ideology of the liberation movements he was supposedly combatting.

In Portugal, António de Oliveira Salazar had been prime minister from 1932 until 1968, when a brain haemorrhage forced him to retire. Salazar’s regime was not fascist in that he did not create a mass, paramilitary movement similar to Hitler’s Brownshirts or Mussolini’s Blackshirts. But it was similar to the Franco dictatorship in neighbouring Spain. Salazar was replaced by one of his right-hand men, Marcello Caetano.

But the cost of Portugal’s colonial wars, the glaring weakness of its economy, which meant living standards which were the lowest in Western Europe, and the onset of a global recession in 1973, meant the dictatorship was fatally weakened.

Otelo was one of the officers who founded the Armed Forces Movement (MFA) which aimed to liberate Portugal from the Estado Novo regime and to end the colonial wars. It grew to involve 400 junior officers, known as the April Captains.

At 12:20am on 25 April, Rádio Renascença broadcast “Grândola, Vila Morena” (a song by Zeca Afonso, an influential political folk musician who was banned from Portugal’s airwaves). This was the signal for military units loyal to the MFA to take over strategic points in the capital Lisbon and across the country. Initially the MFA told people to stay at home. Despite that, people rushed out into the streets to fraternise with the soldiers and sailors, handing them red carnations, which were then in season. Together the people and the rank and file military tore down the symbols of the dictatorship, freed the political prisoners and arrested known police informers and the PIDE torturers.

Nominally, control was in the hands of the new government, headed by General António de Spinola, who had fought as a volunteer in Hitler’s armies during the Second World War. But for the next 18 months, power lay in the streets and in the barracks.

Workers took over workplaces, including radio stations and newspapers they ran under democratic control. Women workers came into their own, leading strikes run by elected strike committees. 

By March 1975, Spinola had been ousted but responded with an attempted coup. This was crushed by the spontaneous reaction of workers and soldiers, and brought a further radicalisation of the revolution.

Otelo radicalised too and was a hugely popular figure. But the German, French, Swedish and British Socialist and Labour Parties spent huge amounts of money on building up the Portuguese Socialist Party which opposed any idea of revolution and wanted a Portugal as part of the European Union and NATO. To its left stood the powerful Communist Party, which like much of the growing far left looked not to workers’ revolution but to the radical junior officers like Otelo to take power.

The purge of Salazar’s judges, secret police and their spies, contrasted with what took place in Spain after Franco died in November 1975. There the Francoist state remained largely in place along with its personnel, after the transition to parliamentary democracy. In Portugal it was all swept away.

But in November 1975, the right felt confident to launch its own coup aimed at the crack troops Otelo commanded. They quickly succeeded in taking them under control. It marked the end of the revolution.

Otelo was jailed for three months. Out of jail he stood for president in 1976 on a platform of popular power and socialism, coming second with 792,760 votes (16.46%). Four years later he stood again but made little impact.

Ten years later, in 1985, he was arrested, accused of being a leader of a far-left terrorist group known as the FP-25. The group was held responsible for a series of killings and bomb attacks. The subsequent guilty verdict and sentence of 15 years in jail were widely viewed as the revenge of the right. In 1989, he received an amnesty because of the way his trial was conducted.

Otelo continued to stand on the left and denounced the austerity measures which were imposed following the 2008 financial crash.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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