The flowers of freedom

How a red carnation freed Portugal of tyranny – 50 years ago today

Reading time: 10 min

April 25, 1974 – and the world witnessed a 48-year authoritarian reign of terror that had stunted industrial development being swept aside in Portugal by a coup led by middle ranking army officers.

Known as the Armed Forces Movement (MFA) they had become radicalised by the Iberian nations determination to retain its sprawling colonial empire, large parts of which in Africa were fighting back and winning. The MFA cut the head off the armed forces by getting rid of 100 generals.

The coup, mainly in Lisbon, unleashed a torrent of workers’ activity that, following a 19-month period when their existed the possibility of a socialist transformation, helped bring about a democratic revolution that dramatically raised Portuguese living standards, freedoms and horizons.

Portugal’s fascist dictator, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar was a contemporary of Hitler, Franco and Mussolini and ruled one of Europe’s oldest countries, a key UK ally, from 1932 to 1968. He died in 1970. 

Sham elections had followed in which the government candidate ran virtually unopposed whilst other parties used the limited freedoms to protest. The secret police – the PIDE – which could arrest anyone considered to be plotting against the regime continued to harass, imprison and murder communists, socialists and trade unionists, forcing all of them to organise secretly.

Meanwhile, brutal colonial wars continued to be waged in Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau by the Portuguese state that, with Salazar keen to retain his title of Emperor, had, unlike other major colonial powers that had abandoned their colonies following WWII, chosen to continue to occupy.

Change was desperately needed. 

Yet hardly anyone was aware when they woke up on April 25, 1974 that it was already happening. A coup had started after rebel soldiers had heard their secretly agreed signal at 12.20am on Radio Renascence. This consisted of the playing of a song by Zeca Afonso ‘Grandola, Vila Morena.’ Following which troops immediately began occupying strategic points of power in the country. The song later became famous as the anthem of the revolution.

When the generals then found troops not involved in the plot were unwilling to follow orders to attack their comrades and were, in fact, desperate to participate in the revolt then it was clear that, despite the PIDE shooting dead four of the demonstrators, an unstoppable movement had begun.

It was one that with rebel troops taking to wearing red carnations in their gun barrels became known as the Carnation Revolution.

A spontaneous mass movement then exploded across the country. Factories were occupied and enormous demonstrations organised.

Teresa Mendes selling flowers at the Mercardo de Ribeira in Lisbon, where carnations would have been given to the revolutionary soldiers on 25th April 1974. Teresa was nine years old at the time.

Now married to Unite Landworker photographer Peter Smith and happily living in Norfolk, the then 17-year-old João Zilanova (pictured in main photo) was a high school student living with her grandparents in the University town of Coimbra outside Lisbon.

She had spent her formative years in Mozambique. Her dad was an agronomist providing technical support to the white farmers, many of whom treated local people very badly, sent to populate the southeast African country occupied by the Portuguese following their arrival there in 1498.

“He was a secret socialist. The local people who worked for us were not treated as servants. My mother, a kindergarten teacher, began providing social services like weighing babies locally for everyone, black and white. We were unusual but being so far from Portugal meant the secret police were not everywhere. We had books from all the great socialist writers.”

The Mozambique War of Independence between the FRELIMO guerilla forces and Portugal had started in 1964. Despite driving everywhere in his Land Rover; João’s dad was never attacked. “The guerilla’s saw their enemy as the Portuguese military led by General Spinola. Dad was often told to stay away from areas that might prove to be dangerous.” João s dad was also in Lisbon on April 25, 1974.

“No one knew what was coming. My sister and I went to High School on the morning of the 25th and at lunchtime they told us to go home. We caught the bus, when we saw a demo, we joined in. My father was delighted,” states Joao.

“The disastrous overseas wars had inspired the initial rebellion but then the workers came to play a big role. It was like the cork coming out of a bottle of Champagne. Workers occupied factories and mass meetings discussed how to re-organise society. The atmosphere was electric, everything seemed possible. Women played a big role.”

Backed by the Catholic Church, Salazar’s reactionary family values had blocked women from working in many workplaces.

The Catholic radio station Renascensa, founded in 1936, was occupied. People tuned to hear what was happening. It told people, who for decades had feared talking openly to their neighbours in case it led to them being reported to the authorities, to come to protest in the streets or support occupations.

Searching for a new way of living was difficult.  In 1975, London born Carlos Guarita, a Unite Community member from Dorset, returned to the country where he had lived with his grandparents in the 1950s.

His Portuguese parents had fled to London to escape poverty and possible persecution after his dad participated in a tram strike that was defeated when his workplace was occupied by the PIDE and military.

Speaking from Lisbon, where he has joined the 50th anniversary celebrations, Carlos, who was later a TGWU steward at Ford Dagenham before becoming a photographer who specialised in working in war zones, said: “It was a very confused situation in 1975. That was not too surprising especially as many people were illiterate plus there was no recent history of open political discussion. There were 13 parties of the left. Workers were left confused. Plus, change had not been initiated from below by the masses. There were no horizontal structures and state power remained.” This later allowed members of the Salazar government and his PIDE thugs to escape justice for their crimes.

A coalition government that included the Socialist Party and the Communist Party was established. Yet despite the fact that the elections in April 1975 took place in a period of revolutionary ferment, most Portuguese voted for parties committed to pluralistic democracy.

Meanwhile, new forms of trade unions had been established. It is estimated that around 380 self-managed factories and 500 co-ops were in operation by the summer of 1975. Empty housing properties too were occupied. Banks were nationalised.

By August 1975 official statistics showed that over 330 different land collectives were operating.

“This was because landless farmworkers seized land allowing them to secure production of crops from their land that were collectively organised and controlled by the workers not the government. This allowed farmworkers to provide themselves with regular employment, lifting themselves out of poverty but also increasing agricultural products to be exported,” explains Bev Clarkson, Unite National Officer for Food, Drink and Agriculture (FDA). “This is the power workers have if they work collectively together, in short this is grass roots trade unionism.”

By September 1975, Guinea-Bissau had gained independence and talks were underway on the liberation of the other colonies. According to retired farmworker John Burbidge, who chairs the Tolpuddle Unite FDA branch, these developments helped create revolutionary change across Southern Africa.  “Ian Smith’s Rhodesia and the Apartheid regime in South Africa could no longer rely on Portuguese military backing and Mozambique became a base for guerilla raids into South Africa by the APLA. This forced De Klerk to release Nelson Mandela and negotiate the end of Apartheid.”

In Portugal in November 1975 an attempted coup by far-left activists keen to establish communism was supressed in favour of more democratic means of running the country.

A new constitution, followed by elections, was accepted in April 1976. By declaring the extensive nationalisations and land seizures of 1975 irreversible meant, even though the co-ops, collectives and workers’ committee had to negotiate on capitalist terms for the price of the labour, a much brighter future lay ahead for the Portuguese people. 

Such has proved to be the case.  “Electrification of the whole country has facilitated a stronger industrial base. There have been massive improvements in the education and health systems,” states Carlos, who is also proud that after 1974, Portuguese exiles in Britain established the International Workers’ Branch in the TGWU. 

João too recognises how life for ordinary Portuguese has improved in the last 50 years.

“When my granddad died, my grandmother did not even have a pension to exist on. People worked till they died. And there were no social services.  That changed after the mid-70s. Life has improved as a result of the April 25, 1974 Revolution that was so exciting to be a part of and that ended fascism in Portugal and brought about a form of social democracy. I am delighted to be here today in Lisbon on the 50th anniversary.”

Sue Longley, general secretary of the International Food, Farm and Hotel workers told UNITElive, “The 50th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution is a timely reminder that we can never take democracy for granted.

“It brought an end Europe’s longest-lasting dictatorship and was the beginning of the end of Portugal’s colonial empire.

“Looking around the world today we see the rise of the right and the increasing attacks on democracy. As in 1974 so now, trade unions around the world must fight to protect democracy. This should be our way to honour the Carnation Revolution.”


João recommended the novel A Small Death in Lisbon by Robert Wilson for readers keen to find out more about the historical context of the 1974 Revolution and its aftermath.

By Mark Metcalf

Photos by Peter Everard-Smith