Before 1989, there was 1974. Some thirty years after the Second World War, three of the four big Southern European countries were still living under taciturn, oppressive, fascist dictatorships, that were nominally supported by the West because they more or less shared the antagonism for communism. And in 1974-75, all of those regimes came to an end: in April 1974, a group of Portuguese officers seized power from Marcelo Caetano; three months later, the Greek regime collapsed, isolated and exhausted after a student revolt and a Turkish invasion of Cyprus, and in November 1975, after having held Spain in a gagging hold for almost forty years, Francisco Franco breathed his last.
In Portugal, the repressive government had been slowly withering away since the illness of her strongman, General Antonio Salazar in the late 60s. Salazar died in 1970, leaving the country in the hands of Marcelo Caerano, and the disenchantment only grew. The country was not only succumbing to high rate of inflation (some 30%) and trade deficit, it was also fighting expensive and unwinnable colonial wars in Africa, that had claimed more than 13,000 soldiers, and the army was now unwilling to fight on. On the night of 23rd April, at 12.25 a.m. Radio Renaissance played the forbideen song ‘Grandola’, which was the signal for the rebellion. All over Portugal, the armed forces came into action. By 3 a.m. they had occupied the radio and television stations, the airports and the centre of Lisbon.
For most part, the revolution was peaceful. It only claimed one student’s life, when the trapped fascists tried to kill someone before they got captured. Starting from the 25th of April, all the soldiers had a red carnation their rifles, symbolizing their non-aggression. (The choice was largely incidental. A focal meeting place of the revolutionaries was at the Lisbon flower market, which was then richly stocked with carnations because they were in season). An iconic image came out of this struggle: the above poster of a poorly-dressed child, placing a carnation in a gun barrel held by three hands – those of the army and the workers in agriculture and industry.
It was quite remarkable that Western Europe’s oldest dictatorship was overthrown by junior officers. Dismantling of Salazar’s secret police and freeing of political prisoners ushered in a period of febrile activity, social protests, takeovers of factories and agricultural units, purges of institutions related to the previous regime and constant assembleas to decide everything. The Communists emerged with key positions of power, and swaths of nationalization put the country on the road to socialism.Portugal would toy with forces of authoritarianism for next few years, and would witness political instability until 1985.
Outside Portugal too, the revolution had important consequences; Portugal’s new junta hastened to address the underlying problems behind the disenchantment in the country and rapidly began to withdraw from her colonies abroad. They were more concerned with the withdrawal than with creating stable transitions, leaving behind an immature revolutionary movement, FRELIMO, in power in Mozambique, and an internationalized civil war in Angola, where South Africa and Cuba confronted each other. Most importantly, the rapid collapse of the world’s oldest colonial empire deprived the apartheid South Africa of two vital buffer states and gave liberation movements from Rhodesia to Namibia moral and material boosts. The regional balance of power in Southern Africa was altered overnight.