General Vasco Gonĉalves

Marxist prime minister of Portugal

The Portuguese army officer Vasco Gonçalves was at the centre of the 20-month revolution in 1974-75 that, at the height of the Cold War, convinced nervous Western leaders that Portugal was becoming a Soviet bridgehead in Western Europe.

Vasco dos Santos Gonçalves, army officer and politician: born Lisbon 3 May 1921; Prime Minister of Portugal 1974-75; married 1950 Aida Rocha Alfonso (one son, one daughter); died 11 June 2005.

The Portuguese army officer Vasco Gonçalves was at the centre of the 20-month revolution in 1974-75 that, at the height of the Cold War, convinced nervous Western leaders that Portugal was becoming a Soviet bridgehead in Western Europe.

It was unusual to see an institution like the armed forces, normally a bastion of order, embrace Marxist concepts of popular power so avidly. But the army had been radicalised by its involvement in a gruelling war, fought at the insistence of the dictator António Salazar, to preserve Portugal's large empire in Africa. The overthrow of the regime in 1974 enabled Gonçalves to emerge from obscurity to preside over rapid decolonisation, and nationalisation of banks, large firms and landed estates, before being forced out by moderate colleagues alarmed by the danger of civil war.

The son of a businessman and supporter of Salazar, Gonçalves aligned with the Communist Party in his youth and remained a covert Marxist while pursuing an army career. He had attained the rank of captain by 1959, when he was involved in a failed coup attempt against Salazar. In 1973, he was one of the most senior officers to enrol in the Armed Forces Movement (MFA), the underground organisation which toppled the dictatorship on 25 April 1974.

His appointment as Prime Minister on 18 July that year confirmed the ascendancy of revolutionary officers who wished to move conservative and poverty-stricken Portugal in a profoundly radical direction. The Communist Party (PCP) had emerged from clandestinity as the largest and best-organised political movement in the country. Gonçalves, while concealing his allegiance to the party, assisted it to acquire control of much of the central and local bureaucracy, the media and especially private property nationalised during a wave of occupations in March 1975.

This caused alarm in Washington, with the US Republican Senator James Buckley declaring, "There is nothing else now going on in the world - not in South-East Asia, not even in the Middle East - half so important and so ominous as the Communist drive to power in Portugal."

But Gonçalves lacked charisma and decisiveness and was dependent on advice from his Communist allies. His authority began to wane after elections for a constituent assembly on 25 April 1975 gave victory to the moderate Socialist Party led by Mário Soares.

Soares and his allies quit the government in July and launched a campaign of civil disobedience. Gonçalves now found himself out of his depth. He failed to be a unifying influence within the military where different radical factions emerged. The country also split in two, leading to fears of a bloody north-south confrontation.

Gonçalves's address to Communist militants in the Lisbon suburb of Almada on 18 August 1975 was one of the peaks of revolutionary fervour. His enflamed rhetoric raised doubts about his psychological stability, as left-wing moderates from the MFA openly called for him to quit politics. The Communists, realising that his credibility had vanished, abandoned him and Gonçalves was replaced as Prime Minister on 28 August.

He was by now a general, but an attempt to confirm him as head of the armed forces failed. On 25 November 1975, the revolution ended, thanks to a successful coup by the "Group of Nine", moderate officers who had driven him from power earlier. Gonçalves was forcibly retired from the army in 1976. He had presided over a short-lived revolution whose intensity arose from the denial of liberty to the Portuguese for nearly 50 years.

In retirement, Gonçalves occasionally turned up at rallies for the Communists, who continue to have a strong electoral base in parts of the south. At his last public appearance, in 2004, he spoke cordially with his successor as Prime Minister, José Manuel Durão Barroso, an indication of how thoroughly revolutionary passions had been exhausted.

Tom Gallagher

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