Portugal - The Impossible Revolution? -- Phil Mailer
After RR had been blown up by a paratrooper unit on November 7 Vasco Lourenco went to Tancos Base. On behalf of the Council, he explained the decision to a plenario called by the officers. A few soldiers turned up, told him what they thought of him, and left to attend a counter-plenario called by the sergeants. On the following day 123 officers from the base resigned their commissions. On November 19 Commander Morais e Silva took drastic action: he ordered some 1200 soldiers to take immediate leave, and to evacuate the base. The paras could not accept this decision. They 'fired' their commanding officer and placed themselves under the authority of COPCON. 'We offer you 20,000 shots per minute', one of the sergeants said.
On the base no one quite knew what was happening. The right were on the offensive in a big way. Or was it a camouflaged PCP offensive? People phoned one another to report troop movements in various parts of the country and to ask if there were soldiers in the streets of Lisbon. Rumours reverberate d. It was hard to distinguish between truths manipulated by party interests and lies manufactured to protect them. One story was that there was a plan to a) seal off Lisbon (where most of the left-wing troops were stationed); b) gain control of the North; c) cut off all electricity and gas should Lisbon then still hold out.The group around 'the Nine' were tightening up their organisation. No one was sure if the initiative was really theirs or whether they were a front for other forces. 'Portugal will not be the Chile of Europe' was a common PRP-MES slogan at this time.
On November 20 a meeting of PS-PPD delegates in Porto discussed moving the Constituent Assembly to the North, and later the government too. A large PCP-FUR demonstration calling for a 'revolutionary government' went to Belem - of all places - to ask for it. The inevitable Costa Gomes appeared at the window. As usual he was able to float above the crowds who, in a sense, were against him. He thanked them for their support. He warned them of the dangers of civil war. Later in the evening a manifesto of the 'Inter-comissoes of Soldiers and Sailors' was read. This federation, born a few days earlier, had met in Obidos to discuss 'concrete issues relating to soldiers'. It was really the (UDP-PRP) SUVs, reorganising and attempting to take a lead. The manifesto called for a wage of 2500 escudos a month (instead of 250) and for free transport. Another manifesto - signed this time - was read from a 'Group of Progressive Officers'. It was a rehash of the August COPCON document, with one important difference: it called for the arming of the working class.
On the same day officers at Beirolas barracks promised to distribute guns to the workers ('enough to arm a demonstration'). The Army brass (whether they supported the Frente Militar Unida, COPCON, 'the Nine', the few remaining Goncalvists, the PS, the PPD or the PCP) were in uproar and panic. 'The Nine' (supported by the whole right-wing) decided to remain firm. It was like in a western. 'Whoever moves first will eat it', as the Portnguese put it. No one wanted to advance ... or to retreat. Most of the rumours of coups and counter-coups were just bluff, aimed at gaining the upper hand. Most, but not all.
On November 21 the RAL-1s held their morning drill as usual. This time it was a drill with a difference. General Fabiao was present. So were representatives from many local CTs and CMs. 'We soldiers swear to be loyal to the Motherland and to struggle for its liberty and independence. We swear to be always, always, on the side of the people, at the service of the working class, of the peasants, of the working people. We swear to struggle with all our strength, voluntarily accepting revolutionary discipline, against fascism, against imperialism, for democracy, for people's power, or the victory of the socialist revolution'. A worker who spoke at the assembly said he was glad 'the soldiers would no longer accept blind discipline'. But he was being taken in by the folklore of the event. It was a horrible sight to watch on TV: the new 'progressive' officers and generals standing at ease while the soldiers dutifully and obediently recited the prescribed words. To hell with military discipline, 'left' or 'right'.
It was a show, of course, carried out by PCP-Gonqalvist forces seeking to take over from (or with, they weren't fussy) the Sixth Government. But 'the Nine' were no fools. On the following day they decided that Otelo would have to go. They called on Vasco Lourenco (one of their own group) to take his place. Lourenco accepted, on condition Otelo did too. Many COPCON officers refused to accept all this. Inter-Comissoes pledged support for Otelo. The RAL-1 men likewise refused to accept the proposed change, as did most of the officers of the Lisbon command. Otelo agreed to retain his post after a meeting, in Alto do Duque, of key officers of the Lisbon region.
The commandos were not only against Otelo. They also disliked the nomination of Vasco Lourenco. 'There are many competent colonels around who could do the job as well', said Jaime Ncves. The CICAP in Cascais, who had arrested MES militants some days earlier for painting a great mural outside their barracks, were also against Lourenco. Pires Veloso hadn't made up his mind. He sent a message to be read in all northern regiments, at the flag saluting ceremony, urging 'voluntary and total acceptance and sub ordination to military duties, to discipline, and to respect for the hierarchy.'
On Sunday, November 23 the PS called a large demonstration which criticised Otelo and Costa Gomes. Soares came out in support of Vasco Lourenqo. He also supported Pires Veloso. Again the ominous chant of 'discipline, discipline' was heard. It had been a hot weekend, in every sense of the word. PPD and PS were whipping it up against what they called 'the Lisbon Commune'. The PCP, politically promiscuous as usual, were wooing everyone simultaneously. They realised that Lisbon and the Alentejo, alone, could only last a few days against the right.
For most people in the capital, however, things continued as usual. There were the customary traffic jams, the bus queues to work, the bus queues back from work, the buying of groceries, the visits to relatives.Workers in the co-operatives or in the bigger firms were perhaps more aware of the general crisis.
The weekend resolved nothing. The 1500 paratroopers, all officially on leave, remained firmly implanted at Tancos, 130 km from Lisbon. Fooled on September 28 and on March 11, manipulated into the bom mg of RR, they were now revolting against their 'Nazi commanders'. A member of their committee told Republica (November 22): 'There are vast differences between US: in the messes, in the food, even in the cutlery, not to mention the cost of living allowances which the officers receive... The rank-and4ile committee works in conjunction with the sergeants' committee. There's no party manipulation. Or, if you like, the only manipulation, is from the PS who supports the officers. Solidarity is increasing day by day. We have the support of many CTs in the area'.
The CTs of the Lisbon industrial belt called a 2-hour stoppage for Monday, November 24, to discuss the situation. Paratroopers who had arrived from Angola on the Sunday, and who had been stationed at the Air Force base at Ota, pledged support for the paras in Tancos. In Tancos itself civilians had elected a committee to look after the kitchens. Air Force Base 3' through their SUV committee, criticised their commanding officer and pledged support to Tancos and to their own second-in-command. Otelo made a speech on TV, criticising the 'anti-working class' nature of the Sixth Government.
At a demonstration on November 23 Soares had said that the PS were not afraid of civil war and that 'they too had guns'. This was tantamount to inciting 'the Nine' not to give an inch. 'There is no left alternative to the Sixth Government' he said, berating the PCP for the present crisis and denouncing those 'soldiers who organise within the armed forces and serve as an instrument of the PCP to impose its dictatorship'. He had singled out Dinis de Almeida, of the RAL-1s, the most heavily armed group in the entire Lisbon area.
Later that evening, in Rio Maior, a meeting of CAP (Confederation of Portuguese Farmers) decided that the situation was intolerable. The group had organised a demonstration against the PCP in Santarem on November 7 and had criticised the 'wild occupations' taking place all over the country. It comprised ex-ALA members (see Chapter 5), i.e. latifundianos and their supporters. At the meeting there was talk of a 'left wing' coup by the RAL-1s. The solidly conservative farmers decided to 'cut the country in half'. And they meant it. They had been addressed some weeks earlier by Galvao de Melo, of the CDS, who had spoken of the necessity 'to drive the communists into the sea and drown them'. This was now the moment of truth, the cut-off point between southern revolutionary folklore and the 'reactionary' North. CAR members from all over the country - including restored owners from Alentejo and land-renting landlords from the North-pledged themselves to cut down trees and block airports and railways between North and South. The meeting had originally been called to mobilise support against the IRA. Its timing turned out to be a lucky coincidence for the right.
At 4 am, on November 25, commandos took up positions outside the palace of Belem. There was nothing strange in this, as military units were increasingly taking 'the law' into their own hands. At about this time a group of CAP members were leaving the palace, their demands 'having been satisfied'. The y said they would take down the barricades. COPCON alerted its members. By 5 am COPCON guards had been set up in EN and RTP. Rumours of a right-wing coup spread like wildfire over the telephones. The soldiers (paras) occupied their bases at Monte Real and Montijo, as well as in Monsanto, to defend themselves against any reactionary manoeuvre, and to support their comrades in Tancos. These actions were purely defensive.
The Council of the Revolution had not as yet confirmed the demotion of Otelo. In the 'official' version of events COPCON officers, waiting in nearby Alto do Duque, were accused of having given the order to occupy the bases. But feeling in the bases had been brewing for some days, and it was probably a series of coincidences which led to them being occupied. At 5.30 am forces from EPAM (Lisbon Military School) took over the TV transmitter outside Lisbon.
The morning news on Radio Clube Portugues stated that Vasco Lourenco had been nominated Military Commander of the Lisbon Region, without Otelo's endorsement. The broadcast called on all PCP and MDP militants to report to their local headquarters. It also reported a PRP-MES manifesto supporting the occupation of the Tancos base. The manifestos of Inter-Comissaes (of Soldiers and Sailors) and of the 'group of progressive officers' were read out, again and again. When news leaked that the TV broadcasting station in Monsanto had been occupied, some workers began to arm themselves.
The radio reports that northern troops as a whole are behind Pires Veloso and the Council. At 3 pm a telex from the Council prohibits all further military statements except those emanating from its own offices. At 4 pm a 'state of emergency' is declared. Ramalho Eanes proceeds to Commando Headquarters in Amadora and announces he is taking over al[ military operations on behalf of 'the Nine'. Throughout Lisbon rumours abound of a coup 'a' la Pinochet'. EPAM troops take up positions on the roofs of certain buildings such as General Electric. A note from the Chief of the Armed Forces says that 'the pretext of a rebellion (by the paras) is a struggle against Morais e Silva and Pinho Freire' but that this is 'obviously not the real objective of the manipulation to which they are being subjected'.
Captain Clemente, who had organised the occupation of the TV transmitter, had spoken to potential viewers in the middle of the afternoon. But as the TV had never functioned before at this hour very few people can have heard his message. Over the RCP radio, Inter-sindical called for mobilisation. At 4.30 pm a few workers set up barricades in Lisbon, using buses. At 5.30 pm RCP called on the 'popular masses' for support. But people were otherwise engaged. At 6 pm a few groups of 20 to 30 workers from various factories tried to block the path of the commandos in Monsanto. A similar barricade was set up at Rua Castilho, again by a small group of workers. Most of their mates were unaware of what was happening. They were in their factories, without radios. And most of those who knew did nothing.
At 7 pm Captain Clemente reads two communique's from the Union of Metalworkers calling for a 'general strike' and 'condemning the State of Emergency' and the curfew. At 9 a.m. news breaks that Otelo is being held prisoner in Belem. 'To prove he is free' Otelo makes a speech from a Belem window ... to 300 or 400 people below. The commandos take over the TV transmitter near Lisbon, dislodging without bloodshed the leftist troops that had occupied it that morning. It is obvious that the paras are losing. Only RCP remains as a source of information. A building worker (speaking on behalf of his union) urges all workers to turn up at their union offices with heavy machinery. 'The revolution is in danger' he says, echoing the calls of 1793. The appeal is virtually ignored. Militancy is not suddenly improvised after months of systematic demobilisation. Direct action, long denounced as 'leftist adventurism', can't abruptly be switched on like water from a tap.
But it went much, much deeper than that. Like everyone else I was in the streets. In cafe's and squares people argued animatedly, in groups. 'Is this a PCP coup? ' someone asked. 'This is the revolution, I think' another replied. 'What about Russia, then? ' came in a third. The discussions were lively but it was all external to people's real life. It might have been happening in another world. In no wa y were the workers going to support one side or the other. After 20 months of the 'revolutionary process' and of leftist talk they had drawn one conclusion: revolution and counter-revolution were jobs for specialists. And anyway, they had to work tomorrow. A group of us went to the local barracks. We genuinely expected(had only half the folklore been true) to be given guns. But the soldiers on guard said they didn't know what was on: they hadn't heard the news. Their commander came out, brusquely asking us our business. What did we want? We longed to say 'guns'. We passionately wanted to talk about great things like 'fighting for the revolution'. Instead, we just asked him if he knew what was happening. 'It's nothing, nothing really' he said, signalling his men to get inside. The soldiers, stepping smartly to attention, almost jumped back into their barracks. So much for our guns!
We went to the LUAR headquarters, near where we live. There we found a bunch of confused militants trying to pick up the BBC. No guns. No leaders. No plans. Not even a well functioning radio set. Nothing. Only the myths of the past. Towards midnight the streets rapidly became deserted, everyone going off to bed as instructed.
At 10 pm the State of Emergency was promoted to a State of Siege. At 1 am (on November 26) the barricades of Rua Castilho, set up by workers trom E.C. Esteves (PCP) were peacefully dismantled, most of the workers manning them having retired to bed. The streets of Lisbon were quiet, peopled only by a few drunks and haunted by a few revolutionary spirits like ourselves, wandering aimlessly around. The 'Lisbon Commune' was a ghost town.
* * * The bubble had burst. By 3 am the Nine and the right wing were in firm control of the situation (through the Frente Militar Unida and the commandos). Near Belem a few revolutionary poltergeists were shot at by commandos. Three were wounded. A friend who phoned me at 5 am from a house nearby said the Military Police were still holding out. She apologised for phoning at that hour, 'not knowing whether it was early or late'. At 7 am a call from Belem to the Military Police told them they had until 8 am to surrender. Majors Campos e Andrade, Tom& and Cuco Rosa called a plenano, which decided to hold out. Campos e Andrade then decided to give himself up, anyway, but before he could do so the commandos arrived. Shots were fired over the barracks. Two Military Police and one commando were killed. Campos e Andrade phoned Costa Gomes, asking for a cease-fire but to no avail. Major Tome' called on his troops to stop firing 'to avoid further bloodshed'. The three majors were then arrested. By 3 pm all the Military Police were sent home on leave. It was a sad scene: 'the armed vanguard of the revolution' lugging their bags past a group of 300 startled onlookers.
In other parts of the country, in the south in particular, the situation had been slightly different. In Alcacer agricultural workers had demonstrated in front of the union, on the 24th, asking what was going on. The union said they had received no orders: everyone should therefore go home. The workers were undecided. A union official climbed onto a truck and declared the hour to be 'serious'. But it was, he felt, better for everyone to disperse and await instructions. Some 2000 workers were involved. On the 25th and 26th they began to realise that the union didn't know - or didn't want to know. 'Something is happening in Setubal someone said. Many workers wanted to go there. The PCP and the unions -4 very quickly this time - set up barricades to stop the workers from leaving Alcacer. The situation, they were told, was under control. There were only a few leftists in Settibal, anyway.
In Vendas Novas, on November 25, workers from some 30 co-operatives joined up and decided to go to the union building. Again the union told them to go home. They protested and were then told to go to the barracks in Vendas Novas - 'to defend the troops' (sic). PRP militants told them that a certain Captain R had promised guns, and that they should wait. The PRP guns were on the way, they said. The workers, distrusting the PRP, decided to go to the IRA centre for guns. The bewildered IRA workers told them they had none. The workers didn't believe them. The younger men went back to the barracks to await their guns, but they never got them.
In Evora the situation was one of utter confusion. No one knew what to do. Everyone waited. The radio and press having been suspended the local population was at the mercy of rumours brought in by party militants. Anyone arriving was questioned at length. In other regions, the same confusion and ignorance prevailed.
Many militants went to Tancos. Meeting after meeting called for revolutionary discipline. Zeca Afonso sang revolutionary songs and everyone joined in. The atmosphere was frantic. It had been learnt that not only was Otelo to be dismissed, but that the base itself was to be closed down. The failure of COPCON to mobilise any kind of united action (and the success of 'the Nine' and of their military Front) threw the left politicians into complete disarray.
Air Force planes buzzed over Lisbon on the 26th, signalling their victory. Communique's over the radio (EN) and the Porto TV told the same story. 'At 1 pm (26th) the base area of Montijo surrendered'. 'Base area no.3 (Tancos) is also being normalised'. On November 27, in the working class district of Forte de Almada, a Captain Luz was arrested. This was a PCP stronghold and although the PCP tried to demobilise a spontaneous demonstration, the workers went to the barracks en masse, seeking information.
Settibal was perhaps the only area which went further. A 'Struggle Committee' (made up of PRP-UDP militants) was activated. The town, at this time, was witnessing a fierce struggle by CMs against rents and the cost of living. On the 26th this Committee called on everyone to mass in front of Infantry base II. Guns were called for - and some were handed out secretly, to known militants. Planes buzzed over the Camara which the Committee had taken over as headquarters. The Committee abandoned the building and met in the offices of 0 Setubalense (the local paper). A special edition was prepared. 0 Setuba/ense was the only daily published in the South at this time. It gave information on Tancos and the other para bases, and called for popular mobilisation against the commandos. On the 27th all the workers on the newspaper were arrested. There was no militia to defend them.
At 10 am on the 27th, in the Lisnave shipyards, the workers met to discuss the situation, as they did in many other factories. A deputation from Setenave, the sister company, turned up. Soldiers from nearby Forte de Almada were also present. The PCP argued against any show of force by the workers. The PRP-UDP workers argued that 'something had to be done'. A 'Committee of Struggle' was set up by 40 workers (out of 8400). It called for a strike. The majority of workers totally ignored the call. Troops were moved down from the North. One by one the dubious units were neutralised. Meanwhile 'the Nine' (to justify themselves) began to invent a coup by the left which they, the real revolutionaries, were allegedly dismantling. 'The Nine' were clearly dominating the crisis. Hundreds gathered outside the RAL-1s barracks, asking for information. The guards at the gates fed garbled messages to the crowds, who carried them to other units in still more garbled form. Wall newspapers went up outside party offices and on street corners. The MRPP supported the government and attacked the social-fascist c the end of the day Otelo and Fabiao had officially resigned from the Council.
The PRP had been active in Setubal, the UDP in Lisbon. CTs from 20-30 factories gathered in Baixa da Banheira, just across the river. The gathering constituted itself the 'Federation of Organs of Popular Unity'. They published a broad-sheet on November 29 called Estado de Sitio (State of Siege). While the Setubal meeting on November 26 (given the tense and confused situation) brought together many genuine workers and took place in a completely non-party atmosphere, the UDP meeting proved different. The broad-sheet of November 29 asked 'And now? Are we to stay indifferent with our arms crossed? ' and proceeded to call for a plenario in Baixa da Banheira on November 30 'where all CTs and CMs and other base organisations should meet'. It brought a new UDP front organisation into existence and no more.
By Wednesday November 27, most of the country was back to normal. The northern newspapers enjoyed a mint-boom. Certain Goncalvist officers fled, others were arrested. Workers, too, were arrested: those who had set up the barricades as well as workers from one or two companies (for instance J. Pimenta) who had sent out scouts on the night of the 26th to see what was happening.
On the 28th the paras tried to negotiate an agreement with the Council. Rumours had it that they were to be bombed out of the last of their occupied bases. A plenario decided that it was futile to struggle on, and that only senseless bloodshed would result. On leaving the barracks certain paratroopers were in tears. They said they had been 'betrayed yet again'. The scene was pitiful. An official communique' rubbed home the message. 'The spirit that made April 25th was a non-party spirit unfortunately certain soldiers have allowed themselves to be manipulated, accepting relationships with the parties
They sought their pobtical survival under the false banner of a self-proclaimed progressivism which the situation of the coup has unmasked...' The communique' called for the arrest of Captain Clemente and of Varela Gomes (ex-Fifth Division officers). On the same day Vasco Lourenco took charge as Chief of the Lisbon Military Area.