Marshal Francisco da Costa Gomes

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The Independent Online

Francisco da Costa Gomes, army officer: born Chaves, Portugal 30 June 1914; Chief of Staff, Portuguese Armed Forces 1972-74, 1974-76; President of Portugal 1974-76; married 1952 Maria Estela Furtado de Antas Varejão (one son); died Lisbon 31 July 2001.

As president of Portugal from September 1974 to July 1976, Francisco da Costa Gomes oversaw the country's transition from post- revolutionary turmoil to democracy. His death has brought tributes from Portuguese political and military leaders, providing them with an opportunity to revisit the still contentious events of the 1974 Revolution and its aftermath.

Portugal's current head of state, President Jorge Sampaio, said that his fellow countrymen and women owed Costa Gomes "a gesture of homage, respect and recognition". While some of his actions caused controversy, "the balance was broadly positive, and thanks to him we avoided confrontation and brought the Revolution back onto its original, democratic course".

Costa Gomes was appointed head of state in September 1974 by a revolutionary junta dominated by middle-ranking officers five months after the coup that ended almost 50 years of right-wing dictatorship. He had been commander-in-chief of the armed forces from October 1972 until March 1974, when he was sacked for refusing to declare his loyalty to a regime committed to clearly unwinnable wars in the African colonies. He regained his job after the coup in April, also becoming a member of the revolutionary junta.

Costa Gomes took over as president from the relatively conservative General António Spínola. In March of the following year, Costa Gomes was to face a coup attempt by Spínola – just one in a series of delicate moments for the fledgling democracy. The unelected president also had to cope with the manoeuvrings of the Portuguese Communist Party which, with the support of radical officers in the MFA, the armed forces movement, was seeking to institute a Marxist regime.

António Guterres, the current Portuguese prime minister, described Costa Gomes as "one of the figures that had most influence on the democratic transition in Portugal." His influence was not always clear cut, however.

Mario Soares, a moderate leftist whose years in exile turned him into a symbol of the resistance to the dictatorship, and who himself later became president, made a more ambivalent tribute. In an interview with Portuguese radio, he described Costa Gomes as "a man of light and shade, a man with ambiguities." While Gomes made an important contribution to the democratic revolution, Soares said, he also "gave courage to those who brought it into question."

To some he was always a controversial figure. But Vasco Lourenço, a member of the MFA, stressed the marshal's importance as a transitional figure, whose turbulent period as president preceded the more stable 10-year period under General Ramalho Eanes:

He was the man who managed to avoid greater conflicts, even within the MFA, and then later, as is rarely mentioned, to hand on the position of president to the first president of the republic to be democratically elected in Portugal. He was fundamental in avoiding a civil war.

Despite his key role in steering Portugal through a complex political transition, Costa Gomes was always a military man. Born in the northern town of Chaves in 1914, he went to a military school at the age of 11. Still with the army, in 1944 he gained a degree in mathematics at Oporto University and was promoted to captain. In 1958 he was appointed under secretary of army staff by the dictator António Salazar.

His opposition to the regime's colonial policy led to his replacement, and he was transferred to the command of Portuguese forces in Mozambique, and then in Angola, before being appointed commander in chief of the armed forces in 1972.

Alison Roberts

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