If you are interested in knowing more about the Carnation Revolution, we present you a special collaboration, its author is Carlos Gil Fernández, passionate about history and specialized in Military History by the UNED. We hope you enjoy it, thanks for your contribution, Carlos.

Why did the Carnation Revolution occur?

What were the real objectives that led the Portuguese military to revolt on April 25, 1974? Was the ultimate objective to establish a democratic regime or was it simply to overthrow the dictatorship to end the colonial wars?


Historic context:

In 1974 Portugal has the oldest Dictatorship in Europe. Once the Monarchy was overthrown and to try to fix the economic chaos in which the country lived, in 1928, the Military Junta appointed Professor Antonio de Oliveira Salazar as Minister of Finance. In a few years, he seized absolute power and created, at the beginning of the 1930s, the so-called Estado Novo, which would be a kind of semi-fascist state that would integrate different elements from Mussolini’s Italy and Franco’s Spain, although with an idiosyncrasy of its own.

Thus, the Estado Novo is not supported by any party or mass movement, as in the two aforementioned countries, but rather it was a corporatist and nationalist structure seasoned with strong doses of religiosity (not in vain, Salazar had been seminarian in his youth). The last support of the regime was the Armed Forces.

This State also creates systems of strong control of society, among which the PIDE (International State Defense Police, that is, the secret police) stands out, which becomes the highest repressive body of the regime and which has, in a first moment, with the help of instructors from the German Gestapo.

Despite its sympathy for the Axis, Portugal managed to maintain a much more neutral position than that of its neighbor Spain during World War II, which, together with its traditional friendship with the United Kingdom, meant that in the postwar period, Portugal enjoyed a comfortable international position, to the point that it was invited to join NATO in 1949.

In 1968, and due to a domestic accident, Salazar was forced to leave power, being Professor Marcelo Caetano his successor at the head of the government. Caetano, despite conceiving some hopes of opening up the regime, very soon draws a line of continuity with the previous dictator, so that the actions are nothing more than a mere institutional make-up that only happens through the change of name of some of the State institutions (the PIDE will be renamed the General Directorate of Security, DGS, for example) and the colonies become Overseas Provinces.

That is why popular discontent at all levels reached its peak in the 70s of the last century. This is important to understand the ease with which the Dictatorship collapsed on April 25, 1974.

Economic and social context

In 1974, Portugal had a population of more than eight and a half million inhabitants. Until the 1960s, the Portuguese economy was practically stagnant, since the country lived in an autarkic economic regime. It is in 1960, with the entry into EFTA, when a certain economic takeoff begins with the commercial opening towards Europe.

However, the good economic prospects were soon cut short by the start of war activity in the African colonies, beginning with the uprising in Angola and continuing with fully open wars in Mozambique and Guinea Bissau.

In this way, and in order to maintain the war effort that a war on three fronts entailed, the Portuguese State managed to spend half of its Gross Domestic Product on defense in 1973. In that same year, Spain only invested 2.35% of your GDP.

The country could not afford this huge military spending, but the Caetano government seems not to be aware of it and places the country on the brink of economic collapse, with an inflation rate of 20%, a per capita income of $717 (the half that of Spain) and the worst standard of living in Western Europe: as an example, suffice it to say that in Portugal in 1974 there was a telephone for every 12.4 inhabitants, while in Spain there was every 4.4.

All this, together with the strong repression exerted by the PIDE, means that Portuguese society is increasingly distant from the regime, which has less and less support, including the Armed Forces, which, as we will see below, and despite the widespread belief, they are also gradually becoming enemies of the regime.

The maintenance of the empire

In reality, the biggest problem facing the country was the dictatorship’s absurd policy of maintaining its African colonies at all costs.

Starting in the 1950s, a wave of decolonizations has been experienced throughout Africa and Asia. The old European metropolises, with more or less desire, begin to admit processes of emancipation of their territories. Sometimes, these processes are preceded by more or less hidden wars (as happened in Indochina or Algeria), and on other occasions, independence is achieved without violence, as happened with Spanish Guinea.

However, both the governments of Salazar and that of his heir Marcelo Caetano live on the fringes of this current. This policy will bring about, or at least hasten, the end of the dictatorship.

The first colonial crisis in the country occurred in the so-called Portuguese India, which comprised several small enclaves, the largest being Goa. In 1961, India invades them with an army of 45,000 men. The Portuguese forces in these enclaves did not reach five thousand soldiers, so given the great enemy superiority, they surrendered in a few hours. The Salazarist government, which had asked its men to fight to the death, is outraged and belittles the soldiers who, in its opinion, have failed to defend themselves. Even the commander-in-chief of the colonial forces and several high-ranking officers are expelled from the army.

This will be the first disagreement between the Army and the Government. In the following years, as we will see below, relations will become more and more rare.

The dictatorship considers that the so-called overseas territories (Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique) form an integral part of the country and are as Portuguese as Madeira or Cascais, and they were further proof of the country’s greatness. On the other hand, in these three African colonies live more than a million Portuguese settlers.

It is from 1961 when the war appears in these territories, in which guerrilla groups of communist influence are formed (MPLA in Angola or FRELIMO in Mozambique). The Portuguese State mobilizes and reinforces its army in the area, raising it to more than 150,000 troops. We are in the middle of the Cold War, and the United States will support Portugal militarily.

For more than 10 years, a savage guerrilla war is going to develop in the African jungles of the three aforementioned colonies. In addition to the social trauma and the economic cost involved, more than 8,000 Portuguese would die to save the Overseas Provinces, and close to 15,000 would suffer mutilations and serious injuries.

The figures are eloquent: more than a million Portuguese would serve in the overseas army (out of a population of eight and a half), and more than 100,000 young people fled the country to avoid going to “Portuguese Vietnam”. Therefore, it is not surprising the great trauma that these wars caused for Portuguese society, and this has been reflected in the recent literature of this country: it is enough to remember several novels by Antonio Lobo Antunes, who participated for more than two years as an officer doctor in the war in Angola, or some former settlers who returned to the metropolis, such as the novelist Dulce María Carnoso.

In addition, the colonial wars had other repercussions of great importance that would make the army, once the main support of the regime, gradually move away from the dictatorship.

In the first place, mainly due to the duration and extreme harshness of the colonial wars (and to a lesser extent due to the poor working conditions), there is a profound change in the social origin of the aspiring cadets of the military academies, who spend from being the children of the aristocracy of Lisbon and Porto to coming from the lower middle class or non-commissioned officers.

According to studies by the sociologist María Carrillo, cited by Diego Carcedo in his book on the Revolution, in the 1940s, more than 40% of the cadets were children of senior officers and only 3.4% were of employees. middle administrative. In contrast, in the 1970s, only 10% of applicants were sons of officers. Also very significant is the fact that in 1974 only 14% of the vacancies in the military academies were filled.

This change in the social background of the officers (the future captains of April), makes them much more permeable to ideas of the left, and even those of the extreme left, especially those who are posted overseas. These officers will be attracted by the Marxist ideas of their enemies from FRELIMO in Mozambique or from PAIGC in Guinea-Bissau, such is the case of then Captain Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, a true coup strategist and veteran of the Mozambique war, who always He defended political ideas close to the extreme left.

It will be the lieutenants, captains and majors who are going to bear the brunt of the guerrilla war in Africa, which given its characteristics will be waged fundamentally at the Company level, commanded by a captain, which according to Josep Sánchez “allowed them to test their ability to community leadership”.

The senselessness of these conflicts on African soil and the frequent massacres and crimes perpetrated by both sides (for example, those of Wirimayu, denounced by Spanish missionaries in which a group of paratroopers machine-gunned and burned 400 civilians alive in Mozambique), provoke that the army is increasingly demoralized. The belief that this war cannot be won and that the only possible solution is political and not military is spreading in its ranks.

Some high-ranking military officials also express themselves in this regard, such as General Spínola, former governor of Guinea-Bissau, who in his book Portugal and the future recommends a negotiated solution to the conflict in the colonies. The book produced a great scandal in Portugal and the Caetano government dismissed both Spínola and his superior, Costa Gomes. Both will lead the upcoming coup.

In the words of Arnold Toynbee, Portugal will become the first and the last colonial power in Africa.



Paradoxically, the origin of the Portuguese revolution is not to be found in the colonial wars or in the repression of the Dictatorship, but rather in a labor dispute between career army officers.

In July 1973, the Government published a Decree-law in which officers were equated…