I first saw him almost on a daily basis when I was 10 years old and he was courting the daughter of a general who lived in our street. Always in uniform, with monocled right eye and horse-rider's swagger-stick, he was known in our neighbourhood as one of the young generation of officers ready to fight for Fascism and empire in the 1930s. The son of a senior official in the dictator Antonio Salazar's regime, he fought for Franco's side in the Spanish Civil War, and completed his training with Hitler's army as an observer on the Russian front.
After the Allied victory and decades of enforced stability both in Portugal and the far-flung empire, all that training and experience seemed somewhat wasted until the 1960s when, by then a lieutenant-colonel, he was sent to Angola to quell the first African nationalist uprising which eventually, with Soviet bloc support, was extended to Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique.
As a military commander in Guinea-Bissau, and after a relatively successful Africanisation programme largely based upon more modern models used in Vietnam and elsewhere, whereby nearly half of the (Portuguese) Guinean army was formed by African troops, he became something of a hero in the Portuguese colonial wars.
By then the decades old national-colonialist regime created by Salazar and half-heartedly carried on by his successor Marcelo Caetano had reached a mortal impasse. As so often happens with prolonged personal dictatorship the long experience of enforced stability degenerated into mutual fear and paralysis within the ranks of the regime, and the inability of the democratic opposition to organise a convincing alternative. It was then that Spnola played a crucial and truly heroic role.
Since the initiative for the dramatic political impasse could only come from within the ranks of the regime, he wrote a book in which, after acknowledging that the colonial impasse could only be resolved by political, rather than military means, he put forward a plan for a Pan- Portuguese multi-racial federation or community, similar to the British Commonwealth and its French equivalent, as a way out.
In the event the book, Portugal and the Future, published in February 1974, was like the key that opened the door for the military pronunciamento cum popular and festive revolution that was to follow the arrests and deportation to Madeira first of the token President Americo Thomas and Prime Minister Caetano.
As for Spnola, he was chosen to become President of the restored Democratic Republic, almost as a reward. However, subsequent events were to show that, having opened the door to liberalisation, he was soon overtaken by the revolutionary crowd that rushed through it. During his five-month tenure of the presidency he tried to find solutions for successive crises and the prospect of the disintegration of the old empire, with meetings with other improbable heads of state, including President Mobutu of Zaire and President Nixon of the United States, then already facing impeachment, whom he met in mid-Atlantic in the Azores.
After he was elbowed out of power in September 1974 and replaced by his left-wing rival General Costa Gomes, likewise a prominent colonial commander, the widespread fear of a Communist takeover led him to seek exile in Brazil, from where he travelled to gather support for what would be tantamount to a counter-revolution. The perceived Communist threat was eventually thwarted when a new balance of forces within the regime succeeded in re- establishing a country of law and order.
After returning to Portugal in 1976 Spnola opted for retirement in his farmhouse near Lisbon. He became a mere spectator to Portugal's accelerated development upon integration into the EEC in the 1980s under a centre-right government more to his liking. He lived to witness the Portuguese eventually become richer than they had ever been while they had clung to the empire, through the vagaries of history and the benefits of Portugal's return to its European condition.
Democratic, capitalist- orientated Portugal is now one of the main investors in the war-ravaged but potentially rich former colonies of Angola and Mozambique. And, only two weeks ago, the Community of the Countries of Portuguese Language, comprising all the former five African colonies as well as Brazil, was finally formalised at a Pan-Portuguese summit in Lisbon. Antnio Sebastiao Ribeiro de Spnola, soldier: born Estremoz, Portugal 11 April 1910; Commander, 345th Cavalry Group, Angola 1961-64; Provost Marshal 1964-65; Cavalry Inspector 1966-67; Deputy Commander, National Republican Guard 1967-68; Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Portuguese Guinea 1968-73; Deputy Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces 1973-74; Head, Junta Nacional de Salvacao 1974; President of Portugal, 1974; married 1932 Maria Monteiro de Barros; died Lisbon 13 August 1996.Reuse content