Last night, I was brushing my teeth when our flat was rocked with a deep BOOM.
“Fletcher!” my wife called. “Come here! Fireworks!”
I dashed down the hall and out to our smaller veranda, where Maria was already watching the show. We hadn’t expected this, because it hasn’t happened for several years due to lack of funds.
“It must be midnight,” I said as a huge ball of green sparks expanded over the southwest sky.
And it was. 12:01 a.m. on 25 April, meaning it was now the Dia da Liberdade, the anniversary of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution. The 1974 Revolution ended the 40-year Estado Novo (New State), a right-wing dictatorship that suppressed civil rights, jailed political dissidents, and waged a 13-year war to maintain control of its colonies. That war proved to be the last straw for opponents of the regime, who saw their nation spending a staggering 40% of its budget on the Colonial War — with no end in sight.
The Revolution was a military coup, but what gave it so much strength was the involvement of the people.
It began with two secret signals, both aired on the radio. First, at 10:55 p.m. on 24 April 1974, the rebel captains and soldiers were notified to get into position by a station playing that year’s Portuguese entry into the Eurovision Song Contest, “E Depois do Adeus.” One hour and 25 minutes later, at 12:20 a.m. on 25 April, a different Lisboa station played “Grândola, Vila Morena,” by Zeca Afonso. This was the signal to attack and take over strategic points of power.
The significance of the second song is that Zeca Afonso, a well-known folk singer, had seen many of his songs banned from Portuguese radio because the regime viewed them as Communist. Ironically, “Grândola, Vila Morena” was not one of the banned songs. But one month earlier, at a Lisboa concert on 24 March, Zeca performed this song and the entire audience joined in, creating a memorable moment of unity in a suppressed population. For this reason, the coup organizers chose this song as their signal to begin the revolution.
Despite radio broadcasts pleading with citizens to stay home and not get involved, thousands of people poured onto the streets of Lisboa, mingling with the insurgents and turning the coup into a people’s revolution. One of the spontaneous gathering points was the Lisboa flower market, stocked at the time with carnations, which were then in season. Many people took red carnations and held them aloft, because red symbolized socialism and communism, ideals of “power to the people” that the regime had brutally suppressed. Some of the insurgents put carnations in their gun barrels, signifying that they would not use force against the people. Photographs were taken and sent around the world, and the coup became known as the Carnation Revolution.
The spontaneous involvement of the people made it clear that the insurgents had the power of the population behind them, and the Prime Minister — who had taken refuge in a Lisboa police station, which was then surrounded by insurgents — ceded power to a popular general he had previously tried to remove due to his opposition to the Colonial War.
The entire revolution had taken six hours. The only known fatalities were four insurgents killed by the regime’s political police before the surrender. It was, in essence, a bloodless revolution. A Carnation Revolution. And it all began with this simple folk song.