VI. The Agrarian Struggles

Portugal - The Impossible Revolution? -- Phil Mailer



In 1968 some 42% of the cultivated land was worked by families who owned or rented their holdings. In 1960 less than 60% of the total agricultural workforce of 1.3 million were receiving wages as fulltime or part-time farm labourers. Agriculture in Portugal, although capitalist-based, was clearly under-developed.

In 1968 a total of 808,804 agricultural holdings were scattered throughout the country. But the pattern differed strikingly between North and South. In the South a few latifundiarios controlled 1103 latifundios of more than 500 hectares. These occupied 30% of all the land under cultivation in Portugal. In the North there were only 37 latifundios of over 500 hectares. Over half the holdings were small plots of less than 1 hectare (a hectare is about the size of a football field) of usually arid and rocky land. Here whole families eked out a miserable living, growing vegetables or in some cases minding a few sheep or a cow or two. They subsisted on their own produce. About 710,000 (88%) of all the holdings comprised less than 5 hectares but together these only accounted for 22.6% of the land. In a sense these plots re presented nothing more than large derelict backyards. Often families could only make ends meet by trying to find work elsewhere.

The problem of landlordism was complex. Some 029% of all the land was rented. This included a small part of the large latifundios in the South (rented to commercial concerns) and a large proportion of the tiny holdings in the North. In the North 212,111 rented holdings together only covered 332,353 hectares. For anyone with a little imagination this will spell out the size of most of the Northern holdings. (For further details concerning the pattern of agriculture, see Appendices 15A and 15B).

Clearly the smallest plots were underdeveloped. But so too were the large latifundios. In 1966 there were only 18,000 tractors in Portugal (compared with 47,000 in Greece). Most, as might be expected, were on the large estates. Only 42% of the latifundios were irrigated and even little of this was watered and put to use.

Many of the agrarian 'capitalists' never lived on the land themselves, only visiting it at certain times of the year. Eucalyptus and cork trees provided a way out for many, since they required few workers and little care. Other latifundios were only used as hunting grounds. One of the richest latifundiarios, Manuel Vinhas, who was also one of the largest shareholders in SCC (beer), had installed a silver-plated urinal coated with velvet (surely an object of envy for reactionary Dadaists) in his mansion near Alcacer.

Agriculture was in stagnation. It had accounted for 30% of the national product in 1954, but the proportion had fallen to 18.8% by 1975. Cattle-rearing techniques were primitive and vegetable products accounted for over half the total agricultural produce.

The situation for the workers was even worse than these figures might suggest. Rural unemployment was widespread, partly masked by seasonal fluctuations. From November to March there was hardly any work at all. The average yearly wage (3800 escudos) indicates an unbelievable, almost unimaginable poverty.

Protective tariffs were the main custodians of social privilege. They had existed for agricultural products since the time of Salazar and his Estado Novo. Because of the assured home market very little development had taken place. The Junta for Internal Colonisation (a telling title) had, from the 1930's, undertaken a number of studies of the agrarian problem, without ever implementing any of its own findings. The main proposal (the creation of small 'colonies' near the large estates) was designed to provide a ready supply of cheap labour and nothing else.

The Second Economic Development Plan (1960) had called for reform. This had amounted to no more than the parcelling-out of small pockets of land at the expense of some of the larger estates, a feeble attempt by the Government to maintain support in the countryside. Only 400 hectares were ever affected. The scheme remained just one more of the paper reforms of the old regime.

The extraction of surplus labour and surplus value were assured by the GNR and the police. The average daily wage in 1968 was 59 escudos for men, 30 for women. When the great strike movement began in 1953, in the Alentejo, 109 peasants were machine-gunned for demanding a wage increase. A peasant leader, Catarina Euf6mia, who had led a deputation from the fields to the house of the manager to ask for better conditions was ambushed by the GNR and killed. The protest was held to be a communist insurrection and put down very brutally. Such are some of the memories of the agricultural workers of the Alentejo.

The main rural institutions had been inherited from the old regime. These were the Casas do Povo which, on paper at least, provided social services. Money was paid in by agricultural workers, who got very little in return. The medical services offered were only for extreme cases, or for the rich: doctors packed their patients off to sanatoria (where they were fed the cheapest food) taking large sums of money for this service. As one worker said 'you were safer not to go to such places for help, they never cared for the people'. On April 25th the Casas do Povo, as well as the local Parish Juntas, were empty shells. They had no base, either amongst the people or within the economy.


April 25th created its own movement in the country- side. The Union of Agricultural workers in Beja (Alentejo) was one of the first to organise. In September 1974 it proposed a new contract for agricultural workers. Discussions took place with the Free Association of Farmers (ALA)3 in the presence of the Minister of Labour and of representatives of the MFA. The new contract raised the minimum daily wage to 120 escudos. Its third clause allowed 'lands which were either totally or partially undeveloped to be taken over by the number of workers considered necessary to ensure their cultivation'. It prepared the way for 'agrarian reform' and was obviously open to very varying interpretations.

The PCP slogan was 'the land to those who work it!' The Party was seeking to gain the widest possible electoral support in the countryside, from agricultural labourers to smallholders. It directed its critique at the owners of the 50 or so great latifundios, calling for the nationalisation of these estates. This demand was included in the programme of the Ministry of the Economy. In some 180 pages, this programme spelled out, in capitalist terms, the problems of the economy. Inflation was to be controlled by creating unemployment. Rising agricultural prices would ultimately increase rural employment. Sweeping reforms of the industrial sector and of farming were needed, with guaranteed prices for agricultural products. Grants were to be redirected from the latifundios and spread out over a wider basis. Collectivisation of the land was neither envisaged nor advocated.

A number of small unions had sprung up and a 'League of Small and Medium Farmers' began to gain support. It had been set up by the PCP to divert support from ALA. It was most active in the southern Alentejo. Because they lacked organisation workers were fired more easily on the large estates than in the factories. In early November 1974, three hundred workers were sacked from a farm in Serpa, Alentejo, the owners having refused to abide by the new contract. The union, which was under the control of the PCP and whose nucleus had existed prior to April 25th, organised a demonstration on November 4. It urged:

'We must take immediate measures against absenteeism and economic sabotage. This would get rid of the labour surplus and improve productivity in the countryside. The agricultural workers realise the crisis in the country, a crisis for which the are not responsible and which is due to fascist policies and colonial wars, fought in the interests of the large capitalists. We understand the complexity of the economic situation. We are willing to make sacrifices if necessary. We will not press for our immediate demands. BUt the bosses must make sacrifices too. They must agree to increase our miserable wages. They have extorted exorbitant rents. The workers can not forget what the bosses have done during 48 years, however much the bosses might prefer to forget it'.

But new forces were also being thrown up. The Red Committee of Alentejo was gaining support. It referred as follows to the new agreement worked out between the union and the government:

'The agricultural workers have a new contract for a year. But why doesn't the contract guarantee work, and all that work implies? Why, when it rains, does the boss only pay one hour's work? On these days don't we also eat? Why is it that the workers can be fired at two days' notice? Why do the bosses continue to live the high life, while the workers live in shameful poverty? The sowing time ends and the olives are picked. But after that, what happens? The tractor drivers and the rest of the workers are thrown into misery. How long will this go on? Why is there a distinction between full-time and casual employment? In the end we are all full-time workers. Haven't we all worked all our lives for the bosses? If we work one month for the boss, and then change bosses, are we any the less full-time? Who finally makes this distinction? It is clearly the bosses. The rich say we can't all be full-time because there isn't work all the year round. But whose fault is that? Who is it who keeps thousands of hectares in poor condition, just so they can go and hunt? Who puts fierce bulls to graze, where wheat should be planted? The people don't want to know about bull-fights. They want bread for their children. Fierce bulls are put on land which the people need. They are fattened merely to be killed in the ring, while the people need meat. 0And who is it who goes to pick olives, which thousands eat, from the olive trees? And who leaves the olives, lying to die on the olive branches? Who pays for the guns of the 'silent Majority', the guns that have crossed our frontiers? Who is guilty of refusing bread to the poor? Who is going abroad to buy arms to massacre the people? No one should have illusions about all this. The crisis in the economy is going to increase. Having lost the profits of colonial exploitation the bourgeoisie have only one way to maintain their wealth: to increase exploitation in Portugal, causing more redundancies, increasing the work load, obliging the workers to pay with misery for the crisis which the bourgeoisie and they alone created. No one should have any illusions. While there are bosses there will be poverty It is not only in Mentejo that there is unemployment. All over the country the bourgeoisie are causing massive cut-backs. In some places it is said that the bosses are doing this to pit the workers against the government. But to whom are the workers to look, if the government passes laws which allow the employers to do this? Comrades! Against the manoeuvres of the bourgeoisie the workers must answer with revolutionary action. The unity of the workers in town and countryside must be reinforced to overthrow, once and for all, the power of the ruling classes and create. a popular democracy which will give the land to those who work it expropriate all the latifundiarios give the factories to those who toil in them nationalise all the banks, so that the people can administer public money.' Red Committee of Alentejo, November 1974.

The Red Committee represented some thousand workers from the region of Castro Verde, in southern Mentejo. It was non-party. One of its members was arrested for killing a latifundiano (a certain Columbano, who had been a PIDE agent and had caused the imprisonment of dozens of local activists). While the Committee advised against any further 'individualistic acts' it never-theless put what had happened in proper perspective:

'The action of our comrade Jose' Diogo was an act of popular justice, a blow against reaction. It was the almost correct answer to the weal estate owners. We say 'almost correct' because it is not in this manner that we can overthrow the regime of bandits who have always robbed the people. The blow cannot come from the single hand of a single comrade, but from our united hands. Jos& Diogo's reasons are our reasons too. We are the workers on one side of the barricades. On the other side are the robbers, the latifundiarios. After April 25th the workers, without fear, asked for their rights. We were prepared to talk to the owners. But they weren't prepared to talk. They wanted open warfare. If this is what they want we shall give it to them. We, the workers, are not going back. The owners walk like wild beasts. They know that the workers want an end to private property. They know that we want the land for those who work it. Comrades, we are approaching the decisive battles here, in Alentejo. Our comrade Ze' Diogo deserves our support. The boss says that this tractor driver murdered Columbano. The boss' truth is one truth, the truth of the workers is another. Our truth is this: a worker defended his right to work and struck a long-standing fascist. Columbano, an old friend of Salazar, was known to be a PIDE agent. Let us show that the arm of Ze' Diogo is the arm of all workers. An end to misery For the right to work. Solidarity with Z& Diogo. Popular justice, yes. Fascism, no. Long live the working class'.

Diogo was arrested by the PSP. He was released shortly after, only to be re-arrested by the MFA. He would eventually face charges, but for the moment the entire legal system was in chaos, oscillating between the old civil courts and the decisions of the MFA.


At the end of January 1975 A Capital featured an article with a photograph of a land occupation in Outeiro (near Beja, in the Alentejo) carried out by an armed group of workers. Other occupations quickly followed. COPCON often disarmed the groups involved but did not seek to evict them. The occupations took two distinct forms, depending on the area. Basically, these were the re-appropriation of leased plots by evicted tenants, and collective occupations by agricultural labourers.

In Alcacer do Sal, in western Alentejo, some very large estates were to be found. The land was either leased out to tenants who then worked small plots, or it was used to grow olive and eucalyptus trees. Large areas on the estates were going to waste. Tenants who had worked the land for some 40 years had recently been evicted. At first three or four of them reclaimed their holdings ... by occupying them. Others, emboldened, followed suit. They then held a big meeting at which various suggestions were made. One was to work the land individually, each tenant being responsible for his former plot on the estate. Some unemployed workers present disagreed. They wanted a 'solution' that would involve them too Finally it was decided to set up a cooperative and pool all the holdings. The GNR was instructed not to interfere and the local MDP-controlled Municipal Council promised support. One of the leaders, a certain Maria, described events as follows:

'Before, because we could do nothing, we kept quiet But after April 25th we talked about these lands which had once been owned by others. We gave a list of the previous tenants to the Camara. Dona Laura Carracas (the owner) refused to attend a meeting. We decided to occupy the lands ... The land was divided between 90 of us ... We are thinking of creating a cooperative and of uniting with the other occupations to make an even bigger cooperative We have begun to work the land and we hope to get a tractor.' Near Santarem, north of Lisbon, the same was taking place. At Carrascal, in January 1975, some 100 agricultural workers and ex-tenants occupied a farm which had been bought in 1969 by Augusto Felix da Costa. (The latter had evicted all the tenants and many of the local population had been forced to emigrate.) The owner fled. A delegation was sent to the MFA who ratified the occupation. The second type of occupation was carried out solely by agricultural workers. The land of the Duke of Laffes, for instance, had long been left underdeveloped. The workers of Alcoentre, in Ribatejo, had suffered much hardship as a result. They occupied the land, setting up the cooperatives of Torre Bela and Ameixoeira. 0'When the nation needs food, it is a crime to allow the land to lie fallow, or to be overgrown by eucalyptus. What right have the capitalists to leave the land in such a state? the workers asked. Occupying the estate, they requested some old agricultural machinery belonging to a nearby penal colony. 'The agricultural workers demand that these machines, which are lying idle, be put at the service of the people.There are properties managed by the penal colony which are not being cultivated. These could be put at the disposal of the workers of Alcoentre, who are thinking of organising themselves in a cooperative. Collectivisation and socialisation of these lands is the only way of giving control to the producers

In the face of these events, which it initiated but was unable to control, the PCP denounced previous occupations as 'anarchistic'. It proposed that all future occupations be undertaken and managed by the unions (which they controlled).

The workers, however, didn't listen to this suggestion. Most of the occupations which were to follow were or organised by workers recently made redundant. In Case res (in Alentejo, near Alcacer) workers occupied land in the parish of 'Our Lady of Machede'. The PCP, present at the original meeting, advised against the occupation. A certain Captain Cardoso, of the MFA, said that 'if the workers lifted a finger against these particuar lands, they would all end up in prison'. A PCP member informed the local garrison in Evora and troops were sent out to stop the action. A meeting was arranged between the workers and a group of small farmers in the. area, who likewise advised against the occupation. The workers complained to COPCON, who offered support. The women walked out of the meeting, rounded up the men, and went ahead with the occupation. The land in question belonged to a Don Joao de Noronha, a latifundiano. Some 1500 hectares were involved at this stage. Later, after March 11, all 4000 hectares of the estate were occupied. As in many occupations it was the women here who took the initiative.

There were many other such cases (in Monte da Virgem, in Vendinha, and in Reguengos de Monsaraz, to mention but a few). After the occupations had been - completed the union would usually appear on the scene, seeking to give it an 'objective', such as the 45-hour week or a minimum wage. At the demonstration at Beja, on February 2, 1975 the Minister of Agriculture, Esteves Belo, had spelled out the government's line: 'The country at present imports many agricultural products for national consumption. All land must be worked fully to create new wealth. The state will undertake the expropriation of land from large estate owners. These lands will be administered by the state. A certain cultural revolution will be made in these estates, which in the end will ensure maximum productivity. The owners will be obliged to cooperate. The state agrees with and supports all occupations of land not at present under cultivation'. But not all the great estates were to be taken over: 'there are estate owners who are doing their job. They must receive our respect'.

A pattern was beginning to emerge whereby every spontaneous struggle led to an intervention of the state, there by widening and strengthening its area of social control. We shall return to this theme later. This state-capitalist programme was supported by all the political parties in the coalition. Occupations of uncultivated land continued. Some far- sighted landowners actually supported the movement, handing over selected parts of,their estates to the workers.

Of greater importance were the moves taken by such autonomous groups as the Red Committee of Alentejo. After the PCP and MDP they were the groups most to be reckoned with. The PCP' and MDP were important, not because of their mass support, but because they had taken over the old rural apparatus: the Juntas, the Casas do Iovo and the administrative centres. The Red Committee and others were important because they more closely expressed the aspirations of ordinary agricultural workers.

At this stage there was no serious attempt to implement collectivisation of the land, or to abolish capitalist norms of distribution. These matters remained restricted to discussions among left-wing intellectuals. Both the PCP and MDP accepted collectivisation in y, but made no attempt (either before March 11th or after) to implement it in practice. Some of the sweeping reforms being called for from below were actually dampened down or denounced by the PCP.

In the North the situation was very different. It was here that most of the smallholdings existed, and here that political ignorance and old fears died hardest. The ex-ANP estate owners, in the rich, wine-growing districts of the Douro valley, were now members of the CDS or PPD. Workers were still left with their old insecurity. The Church in most cases was anti-communist, 'communism' being depicted in terms of the PCP. Sermons and CDS leaftets spelled all this out in no uncertain terms. The evening papers from Porto or Lisbon rarely reached these regions and, when they did, were likely to be several days old. At least 35% of the people, possibly more, were illiterate.

Two forces sprung up to challenge this. The first was the MFA who, since September 1974 had initiated what they called a campaign of 'Cultural Dynamisation'. Groups of MFA supporters would enter a village, play some revolutionary songs and talk to the people about their problems. They would explain what April 25th meant: anyonec ould speak his mind, now that the PIDE agents had been imprisoned. In general these visits were successful, though often only the 'natural leader' of the village spoke out. In some cases the meeting produced surprising results, at times broadcast over television. In one village, for example, the MFA arrived, sang songs, talked about April 25th, and then asked the villagers to speak. An old man said that there were very few problems in the village. When the MFA insisted that some problems surely existed the old man replied that there were none. 'There were one or two communists but they weren't really a problem'.

Another force in the countryside was the students. Making use of the demand for higher education the government had decreed that before anyone could enter a university, a technical college, or a school of agronomy, he or she ad to do a year of field-work. The idea was to send educated young people into the provinces, to teach the others to read, and to impart to them what skills they had. Some 28,000 students were involved. The plan was supported by the UEC, the PCP's student organisation.

This Servico Civico was criticised by most students, and from both right and left-wing positions. It was also criticised by the northern workers and farmers as 'insulting'. Right-wing students objected to the scheme because it jeopardised the social privileges of the middle and upper class youth: the only way round the Servico Civico was to give up going to university altogether. Left-wing students criticised the scheme from a variety of positions. A MES teachers' group issued a statement which epitomised such attitudes to the plan (see Appendix 16). What the left-wing students objected to was not the principle of Servico Civico, but its organisation and planning by a capitalist Government.

Students of the 'agricultural colleges' at one stage occupied their colleges. They insisted.

a) that they would undertake no work which could be done by the agricultural workers who were being made redundant.

b) that they should have complete autonomy from the MFA and from party-politicians. They would only implement decisions taken by joint plenarios of agricultural workers and students.

Thousands of students nevertheless went to the country-side, teaching and working on the farms. They constituted a mini-army of militants, who 'helped' in organising occupations and planning. Education in agricultural techniques, soil analysis and 'agitation' went hand in hand. Other problems, like distribution of food to the cities, were also discussed. Collectivisation of land remained however the prerequisite to any reorganisation of agriculture. While, theoretically, this might not prove too great a problem in the latifundios of the south, it would be a very different matter in the north.