He was a discreet man of sparse words and cautious actions, a typical product, you might think, of a military hierarchy forged during 48 years of dictatorship. But he put political backbone into the Armed Forces Movement that orchestrated the coup of 25 April, and wrote the "Document of the Nine", the captains' manifesto. Criticised from right and left, he became known as the "intellectual in uniform" and helped steer Portugal through its turbulent - though bloodless - transition to democracy.
Melo Antunes saw that change in Portugal had to come, not from politicians, but from the armed forces. Secondly, he insisted that revolutionary officers who planned and executed their conspiracy with military precision must offer a political programme that went beyond mere military reform.
These two ideas were crucial to the revolution's success. But they seemed preposterous, heretical, to politicians and to military officers in the dictatorship's dying days. He was criticised from all sides for being either a left-wing loony or a lackey of reactionary generals.
Yet Melo Antunes's views flowed from his own background, and the terrible contradiction afflicting Portugal. In the fanatical war to hold the colonies of Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau, those most engaged in the combat realised their efforts were doomed.
Melo Antunes's father was a junior officer at the beginning of Antonio Salazar's Fascist rule. He was posted to Angola when Ernesto was a child, providing him with direct contact with the reality of colonial rule. "I had a perfect understanding of the relations between colonisers and colonised, the structure of racism. I saw countless acts of violence and discrimination against blacks," he said on this year's 25th anniversary of the coup, his last public appearance.
At 15 he suffered a religious crisis: "I lost my Catholic faith." He started reading Voltaire and Rousseau and wanted to study history or philosophy. "But father didn't think this would save my soul. For him, the only thing that would discipline me was a military career." So Melo Antunes attended the Military Academy, but also classes in Literature, Law, History and Philosophy at Lisbon University, where he discovered Marxism, Maoism and the world of clandestine books.
In 1957, aged 24, he was promoted to Second Lieutenant and made contact with what he called "groups in permanent clandestine activity". The secret police, the dreaded PIDE, jumped on his tail and tried to sabotage his career by denouncing him to the Army Ministry. His father "helped to prevent this", Melo Antunes said, but he was banished to the Azores. There he fell in with subversive young officers who studied Proudhon and Gramsci, and plotted to overthrow the regime.
Melo Antunes served in Africa between 1963 and 1965, and from 1966 to 1968. In 1969 he tried to stand as a candidate in limited elections in the Azores, but his superiors vetoed the attempt and returned him to Lisbon. By now he was convinced that Portugal's African colonies must be given independence. "It was the worst trauma of my life: it was a terrible contradiction, to wage war on the wrong side." He served again in Africa from 1971 to 1973 and on his return to Lisbon joined the Movement of the Captains, nucleus of the revolutionary officers.
Melo Antunes was in the Azores on 25 April 1974. Summoned to Lisbon days later, he became a leading figure in the fight to establish democracy. His intervention was crucial in deflecting a threatened anti-Communist counter-coup months later. He insisted that democracy demanded that the hugely popular Communist Party remain part of the government. But he curbed revolutionaries' wilder aims, like full nationalisation of the land. As Foreign Minister from 1975 to 1976 he oversaw the independence of Portugal's African colonies.
In 1981, the Socialist leader Mario Soares found him a niche in Unesco in Paris, where he spent happy years in his study with his books. Melo Antunes, not a party man, joined the Socialists in 1991 on the condition they would not expect him to do anything. He died after a long fight against cancer.
Ernesto Augusto Melo Antunes, army officer and politician: born Lisbon 2 October 1933; twice married (one son, two daughters); died Sintra, Portugal 10 August 1999.Reuse content