The Thorns of the Portuguese Revolution

Courtesy Reuters

During the early hours of that remote Portuguese spring of 1974, a graffito appeared at the Technical Institute of Lisbon. It read: "Revolution of roses: petals for the bourgeoisie, thorns for the people." Twenty months later, with Portugal on the brink of civil war and Angola plunged into fratricidal warfare, it is surprising anyone should have been so sanguine. There would be thorns enough for everybody. Real political, economic and strategic assets were threatened when Premier Marcello Caetano was packed off to a comfortable exile in Brazil. If this was not perceived at the time, it was because these assets had been taken entirely for granted for so long, and the end was so sudden and effortless.

But change is peaceful only as long as it is not opposed, and once the issues at stake in Portugal and Africa became clearer, opposition was inevitable. Although the uprising on April 25, 1974, was not yet a true revolution, it was no ordinary coup d'état either. It brought down Europe's oldest dictatorship, ended Europe's oldest empire, and thrust to the forefront a very curious hybrid, a group of young European military officers, profoundly influenced by the theory and practice of national liberation struggles outside Europe, who saw themselves as a revolutionary vanguard. That much should have been clear at the time. It was not. Portugal's Western allies were unprepared for what happened, and during 12 critical months the panicked, make-shift and defensive measures the Western powers devised as policy have established precedents with very profound and dangerous implications for the future.

Four interrelated sets of factors made Portugal a critical fulcrum. Each is essential to an understanding of the sometimes baffling reactions to events in Lisbon over the past year.


The Portuguese had led European overseas expansion. Discovering the wind systems of the Atlantic, perfecting techniques of navigation and adapting their ships for long-range voyages, the Portuguese opened the trade routes to Africa and the Indian Ocean. By so doing, they initiated the explosive interaction

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