English Version | Revolutionary regression in progress

13 Apr 2023
By Diego Armés

49 years have gone by since occurred what would forever be known as the Carnation Revolution. Romantic like no other, the coup d'état led by the Portuguese military in 1974 is about to turn half a century old. Before the announced commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the 25th of April take over the media agenda, it is time to take a critical look at "the state things have reached" again. There is a clear feeling that there is a revolution left to be accomplished.

49 years have gone by since occurred what would forever be known as the Carnation Revolution. Romantic like no other, the coup d'état led by the Portuguese military in 1974 is about to turn half a century old. Before the announced commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the 25th of April take over the media agenda, it is time to take a critical look at "the state things have reached" again. There is a clear feeling that there is a revolution left to be accomplished.

Artwork by João Oliveira
Artwork by João Oliveira

Portuguese musician and songwriter Sérgio Godinho has been singing, since at least 1974, in Liberdade, that "there is only real freedom when there is peace, bread, housing, health, education." The "intervention singer" had insight and astuteness - he himself argues, along with other contemporary artists, that the designation is useful, but incoherent, since all music is or should be intervention music - when, faced with the change of regime, and while contemplating and reflecting on the new paradigm that was beginning to be drawn, he concluded what we now realize as obvious: freedom is not a vague word. It is rather a complex concept, composed of several layers, ranging from possibilities to restrictions, however paradoxical this may seem. To shout freedom is not necessarily to make freedom. It needs to be built, with balance and support, so that it is not lost, or usurped, hijacked, misrepresented or distorted.

It was in the aftermath of the so-called Marcelist Spring, which turned out to be a mirage, that the ideal scenario for the overthrow of the Estado Novo regime began to take shape. The Liberal Wing of the National Assembly, disillusioned with the political direction the government led by Marcelo Caetano was taking the country, slammed the door. Young congressmen such as Francisco Sá Carneiro, Francisco Pinto Balsemão, and Joaquim Magalhães Mota (who would later found the PPD - Popular Democratic Party, today the PSD - Social Democratic Party), João Mota Amaral, and Miller Guerra, among others, hoped that Marcelo Caetano's ascension to the post of President of the Council of Ministers, replacing António de Oliveira Salazar, would bring a new, more liberal and Europeanist approach to national politics.

Internally, expectations were also high that the regime, including the abolition of censorship and the decolonization of the African territories, was also high. It was also hoped that the repression and persecution of opponents of the ruling power would finally end. And, from 1968 to 1970, the illusion that this opening would be consummated existed. However, with the country struggling with a war in Africa - a colonial war for some, a war of independence for others, and an overseas war for many - in the then Portuguese colonies of Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau, Marcelo Caetano proved incapable of renewing a regime that was showing signs of saturation.

After a period of some easing of restrictions, namely in terms of censorship and repression, the Marcelist Spring revealed its worst face, and the treatment of opponents was harsh and implacable. In this context, the most liberal deputies, seeing their expectations of a gradual and peaceful transition to a fully democratic regime defrauded, began to leave the National Assembly. The first of all was Sá Carneiro, in 1973. His famous expression, "It's the end!", when he left parliament, became famous. Other deputies aligned with Sá Carneiro eventually followed in his footsteps.

It was in a context created by these events and positions that we arrived in April 1974, on the night of the 24th, possibly the most important night in the recent history of Portugal. In Santarém, at the Cavalry Practical School, Captain Fernando José Salgueiro Maia ordered the troops to form and, in front of them, delivered an epic speech that would go down in history, which included the following passage: "As you know, there are various types of States. The socialist states, the capitalist states, and the current state of things. We are going to march to Lisbon to put an end to the state things have reached. Those who want to stay can abandon the parade and retire to their barracks. Whoever wants to come step forward." Everyone stepped forward and the troops headed to Lisbon with the intention of overthrowing the regime. What followed is History, April 25th of 1974 was the first day of the rest of our lives: Portugal freed itself from the Estado Novo, Marcelo Caetano fled and went into exile. Other figures of the Estado Novo and big businessmen who acted and enriched themselves under the protection of the regime followed suit.

In the times that followed, there were attempts at a counter coup to reestablish the regime, but they were not successful. The PREC (Revolutionary Process in Course) was instated, which lasted until November 25, 1975. It was on that day that, once again, the military decided to put an end to the political instability of the PREC, beginning the definitive stabilization of the democratic regime in Portugal, without any return to the Estado Novo or incentives for proto-socialist mirages.

The aftermath

The hardest part was done, the dictatorship was overthrown. Now all that was left was the rest. But the rest was a lot, it was everything, all the promises that April had brought to a people thirsty for democracy, freedom and opportunities. If peace was obtained - the war in Africa officially ended with the 1974 revolution; the decolonization process began months later -, the bread, housing, health, and education that Sérgio Godinho's song spoke of have been subject to fluctuations and setbacks from time to time. Democracy itself has been shaken, as recent international reports indicate. Revolutionary regression is in progress. A booming middle class is one of the undeniable achievements of the Carnation Revolution. The reduction of poverty and the near eradication of misery were goals achieved over the first four decades of the democratic regime, but the last decade, marked by the post-crisis of 2012, the austerity policy imposed by Troika, and, in the last three years, a pandemic and a war in Europe - and the fact that both events have broad backs and serve as an excuse and justification for many practices - have created serious difficulties for a significant part of the population, weakening the once solid tissue of this so-called middle class that emerged in the post-Revolution. This year, rising inflation and interest rates promise to be relentless. Meanwhile, immoral and illegal practices on the part of supermarket chains, for example, are being revealed. Banks bailed out by public money half a dozen years ago, or a little more, are loading up on commissions and interest, while showing millionaire profits - in some cases record profits. The price of fuel remains sky-high, at a level never seen before, under the guise of excuses about the war in Ukraine. And yet the oil companies, like the major banks, show record profits and record results. The gap between rich and poor seems to be increasing.

As for housing, it is true that the suburbs of big cities are, fortunately, no longer the sea of shacks that photographers like Alfredo Cunha - especially Alfredo Cunha - knew how to portray with art. Little by little, over almost five decades, the cities and their suburbs have become more dignified places with their new buildings. Social housing took the place of shantytowns, while the middle class population grew stronger, as did the class itself, after the 25th of April revolution and, above all, after joining the EEC, now the European Union, in 1986. It is therefore particularly sad and deeply offensive that 49 years later, after so much effort and investment, we now passively observe the progressive and aggressive emptying of these same cities and their suburbs. With rents at prohibitive prices for the average income and with the increasing difficulties in buying a house thanks to the galloping growth of real estate prices, Portuguese cities are being acquired by foreign investors who almost always make them profitable in the tourism market. The housing that is left over and enters the long-term rental market is often snapped up by people with high purchasing power, often foreign citizens on the move around the world and with no fixed abode: armed with high incomes, the so-called "digital nomads" opulently step forward and take over, at exorbitant prices, small, medium, and large apartments in once popular areas. In the midst of all this, the possibility of living downtown, within a real community with real ties and common interests, has become little more than a megalomaniacal mirage for any young native entering the job market. Not to mention those who, less young and well into the job market, feel themselves being pushed out of the cities and communities they helped to grow and enrich.

Peace, bread and housing have already been discussed. What about health? What kind of health is there in a country that piles its patients into decrepit hospital corridors? Lying on precarious beds, in plain sight, exposed to everything that goes on around them, this is how our citizens are submitted to the care of a State that once dreamed of, designed, established and implemented the National Health Service, the cornerstone of the Social State that the new democratic regime instituted in the wake of the Revolution. We added the power of the private sector to health care, but instead of doing it in the name of a healthy complement to the saturated public system, we turned everything into a business and further impoverished the already fragile health care, handled by all taxpayers' money. More and more, health is a luxury within the reach of those who can afford insurance. Public institutions are doing what they can with the means they have at their disposal and in the facilities they have left over. But they don't have much left, and what's left is far from being in good condition. Doctors and nurses are looking for more dignified working conditions, here or abroad. The waiting lines, meanwhile, are growing. There are extreme cases, such as the not too distant one (dating back to 2019) of the Pediatric Oncology Service - beware: pediatric oncology - of the São João Hospital, in Porto, with hospitalizations in containers without the minimum conditions to do so. It rained inside some of them, for example.

And there is still education to talk about. A century ago, Portugal had over 65% of its population illiterate. When the Revolution took place, this percentage had been reduced, during the Estado Novo period, to around 30%. Today, the illiterate percentage of the Portuguese population is residual, below 5%, and the incidence is almost exclusively among the older strata of society. However, besides literacy, there are other serious problems, which, sooner or later, will cause the lack of care with education to end up blowing up in our faces. What future lies ahead for a country where teachers are mistreated to the point that the profession has lost almost everything, from benefits to prestige? In the developed states, the ones we constantly take - and rightly so - as examples to point to, the teaching profession is prestigious, respected and coveted, well paid, benefiting from perks. Why? Because it is known that without consistent education, the future can only be decadent. Meanwhile, we around here devalue what should be one of the noblest professions that exists, to the point that in the near future, too near, there is a risk that it will be performed not by those who have merit, talent and vocation, but rather by those who are left over, by those who are left on the market because they were unable to fit into the careers they aspired to and studied for. We will then have a country where public education, society's basic education, will be in the hands of the mediocre, the well-off, and those who do the rest. It is a frightening scenario. 

A diseased democracy

This is the dawn I was hoping forThe initial day whole and clearWhere we emerge from the night and the silenceAnd free we inhabit the substance of time(25 de abril, poem by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen)

We have not been doing, as a people and as a State, an exemplary job after the 25th of April. We conquered freedom, we instituted democracy. Today, we can speak and read and write without fear of censorship by the State, although we have to deal with restrictions of other kinds when it comes to freedom of expression - which exists on paper, which is enshrined in law, but which increasingly feels narrowed and constrained (but that's a whole other topic). On the other hand, and as we have seen previously, it seems that, somewhere in the recent past, we reached a peak of progress and that we are now going backwards, losing quality of life, giving up on fundamental achievements, essential to a State that wants to be fair and based on the rule of law. Fortunately, we can change everything and improve everything, since we live in a democracy, although it is frightening that even the full status of the regime in force has been weakened in recent years (according to the Economist's Democracy Index 2022, Portugal is in 28th place in the table of democratic regimes, classified with 7.95 points and with a regime described as a "flawed democracy").

Unfortunately, the main reason for this weakness has to do with political culture - or, better, with the deficit of political culture on the part of the Portuguese population (Eritrea, at position 152 in the ranking of democracies, which scores 0 in the electoral process, shows 6.88 points in political culture, precisely the same as Portugal). The people, united or disunited, will never be victorious until they are educated and cultivated politically, until they have to wait for someone like Salgueiro Maia, who speaks about "the state things have reached", so that "the initial day whole and clear" that Sophia so longed for can happen again. It is necessary to take care of the following day. Of all the following days.

Originally translated from The Revolution Issue, published April 2023.Full stories and credits on the print issue. 

Diego Armés By Diego Armés

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