Shy rebel put carnations into Portugal's revolution

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The Independent Online
FEW CELEBRATED the anniversary of Portugal's "Carnation Revolution" yesterday with as much pride and emotion as Celeste Martins, who gave the first bloom to the first soldier on that momentous morning 25 years ago, and created the symbol of an era.

"It was such a simple gesture. I never dreamt it would be something important," says this tiny, timid woman, now 66, revisiting the spot in the heart of Lisbon where rebel soldiers gathered before dawn on 25 April 1974.

"I just did it on the spur of the moment and then I began to see everyone wearing a carnation, and it became the symbol of our revolution."

A clutch of young captains defied their senior officers in a bloodless coup that toppled within hours a 50-year-old fascist dictatorship.

Their action, prompted by catastrophic colonial wars in Africa, aroused a response of unprecedented fervour among the laid-back Portuguese. Celeste worked in a Lisbon cafeteria at the time, which on 25 April 1974 was to celebrate its first year of business. The manager had laid on cigars to give to customers, and flowers that happened to be scarlet carnations - "because they were the cheapest", recalls Celeste with a smile.

"But when he saw tanks in the street he decided to close for the day and send the staff home, telling us to take the flowers with us."

Celeste was curious to see what was happening, and went to downtown Carmo Street where at 7.30am she came face to face with armed troops who had seized a nearby barracks.

"`Do you have a cigarette?' one asked me. Well, in those days it was not usual for a woman to go to a tobacconist. So I said `have a flower' and he took it and put it in the barrel of his rifle. I was happy as I was against the regime, and I walked on and gave the rest of my carnations to other soldiers," she said.

Life in April 1974 was hard for Celeste, a single mother with a four- year-old daughter, who cared for her elderly mother. "We had very little money and we never felt able to say what we thought."

None the less, when she worked in a newsagents, before her restaurant job, she helped to distribute illegal literature. "When the Pide secret police questioned me I hid the material among the newspapers and said I'd received nothing. They were a tough bunch but they didn't suspect me and they never harmed me."

Now retired, and with her daughter happily married, Celeste has some respite from a life that she says was full of cares. Portugal is a stable democracy and enjoys moderate prosperity.

"Some promises of those days were not kept, there is still a lot of poverty. But we have liberty, the freedom to speak freely," she said.

Celeste's voice trembles as she revisits the corner of Carmo Street with a bouquet of carnations. "I live each anniversary of 25 April with the same emotion as that morning. And I will do so for a very long time," she said.