Portugal divided over honour to coup leaders

Left calls for rehabilitation of officers who overthrew dictatorship in 1974
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The Independent Online
THIS MONTH Portugal commemorates the 25th anniversary of the "Carnation Revolution", the bloodless uprising by a clutch of romantic young army officers who overthrew a 48-year-old fascist dictatorship on 25 April 1974. But a quarter of a century later the legacy of the revolution is still dividing the country.

In the years that followed the fall of the Caetano dictatorship, revolutionary officers like Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, Melo Atunes and Vitor Alves saw their careers cut short - Saraiva de Carvalho was later accused of leading an urban guerrilla group. Recently, however, it was proposed that they should all now be promoted to the rank of general, setting off furious denunciation from opponents and equally passionate support among allies.

The Portuguese right-wing is outraged at the suggestion that junior officers who disobeyed their commanders should be honoured, but the communists support the proposal wholeheartedly. The socialist government, while keen to "correct injustices", is reluctant to stir controversy with elections due later this year.

The 25 April Association, which is pressing the case of the revolutionary officers, is furious at the uproar. "All we're asking is to put right the injustices afflicting a group of up to 500 officers who were forced to abandon their military careers for political reasons," said the association's president, Vasco Lourenco. "The dignity of the officers of 25 April who brought democracy to Portugal can never be bought with favours, nor their commitment to the struggle against injustice confused with the pursuit of gifts."

The promotions are largely symbolic. Most of the officers are now retired so, apart from glory, they would receive only improved pensions. Portuguese conservatives oppose the initiative on principle, while the communists and the 25 April Association say the cost to the state would be minuscule.

The row became so heated that the former socialist prime minister, Mario Soares, now the grand old man of Portuguese politics, intervened to try to calm things down. "I have nothing against the idea," he said. "It would be to grant a well-deserved distinction. Those captains who fought for freedom naturally deserve that distinction."

But the socialists are themselves divided: the Prime Minister, Antonio Guterres, says he will take no action, while his party has drafted a joint parliamentary proposal with the communists. "Our country cannot be the only one in the world that punishes its officers for carrying out a peaceful revolution that overthrew a dictatorship," said one socialist leader.

But one liberal critic, Miguel Sousa Tavares, reckons the revolutionary officers were not as enlightened as is generally thought. "I remember seeing the tanks in the streets that April morning in 1974," he said, "and thinking `Are these the same officers who supported the catastrophic wars in Angola and Mozambique, and collaborated with the PIDE secret police? They are.' Many of them just wanted to further their careers. Are we to conclude that they will stop at nothing to be made generals?"

Public opinion is broadly in sympathy with the officers. But in characteristically relaxed fashion, most Portuguese do not think their actions merit any special distinction. A survey carried out by the centre-left newspaper Publico found that 56 per cent of Portuguese thought the revolutionary officers had been "doing their duty" and 40 per cent considered them "heroes", while only 4 per cent thought them "traitors". But 61 per cent opposed promoting them to general, compared with 39 per cent in favour.

With that kind of electoral arithmetic, Mr Guterres may be tempted to drop the whole idea, or to concoct some inspired compromise that will sweeten the festive flypasts, military parades and showers of carnations planned a fortnight from today.