Portuguese coup celebrations marked by political fireworks: 20th anniversary rally provides a platform for economic dissent, writes Phil Davison in Lisbon

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT SOUNDED like another coup d'etat and much noisier than its famous predecessor. Twenty-five minutes into yesterday, explosions erupted around Lisbon, 20 years to the second after the start of the revolution that ended nearly half a century of dictatorship. The bangs, however, were only from celebratory fireworks.

In a re-enactment of 25 April 1974, an armoured vehicle, with the name Bula painted up front, rumbled on to the Largo do Parmo in Lisbon's old town, and pointed its gun turret towards a police barracks. It was the same vehicle that did so 20 years ago, commanded by Major Fernando Salgueiro Maia, then aged 29, who won the surrender of the dictator, Marcello Caetano, without firing a shot.

Major Salgueiro Maia was virtually the only coup leader missing, as thousands packed the tree-lined square to commemorate the coup that became a revolution. He died of cancer two years ago, a national hero, not least because he was the only coup leader to stay out of the ensuing political muddle.

On the podium were General Antonio Spinola, now 83, the monocled cavalry officer who became the first post-coup President, and the radical leftist, Major Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, free while appealing against a 17-year jail term for alleged involvement in an urban guerrilla movement.

In a ceremony that turned into a pro-Socialist and anti- government rally, President Mario Soares, a Socialist, and Major Salgueiro Maia's widow, laid carnations on a memorial stone alongside the armoured vehicle. Its name, Bula, had came from a place in Portugal's former colony, Guinea-Bissau, where he had served.

Comrades recalled how the young major had walked alone, with a grenade in his pocket, up to an army unit that was loyal to the dictatorship. After he called on its commander, a brigadier, to surrender, the brigadier ordered one of his soldiers: 'Shoot that man.' When the soldier refused, the brigadier realised his men were not with him, and the unit joined the coup.

Mr Soares's popularity, with two years left until the end of his second five-year term, was evident. In sharp contrast, the Prime Minister, Anibal Cavaco Silva, was loudly jeered as he was introduced among the dignitaries.

Mr Cavaco Silva is leader of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), which is strongly nationalist. With Portugal in economic crisis, and facing job losses, Mr Cavaco Silva's liberal economic policies have brought about a sharp fall in his popularity, in the run-up to next year's elections. The Socialists are on the up, and Mr Soares discreetly slipped in some electioneering during the ceremony.

With hundreds of schoolchildren and students in the front rows, the President reminded them they could not have gathered like this 20 years and one day ago. As people threw carnations from bal conies at Mr Soares, Mr Cavaco Silva was forced to face a large banner held up by students 20 yards away. 'This is how the government makes its economic policy,' it read, alongside a crude depiction of someone excreting over a lavatory pan.

Loudspeakers around the square blared out the stirring folk song 'Grandola Vila Morena' ('Oh fair town of Grandola'), which, played on a radio station at 12.25am on 25 April 1974, served as a secret signal for the coup to begin.

The coup anniversary comes at a time when passions are running high over what many Portuguese feel is a whitewashing of the 46-year dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, and then Caetano. Former agents of the dictatorship's hated PIDE secret police have come out of the woodwork, denying tales of torture and infuriating those, including Mr Soares, who suffered at their hands.

In an effort to counteract what is seen here as the equivalent of the 'Auschwitz lie' - insisting it never happened - the government will today open the PIDE's files to the public. Anyone will be able

to see their own file, but only after considerable bureaucracy. And the names of those who denounced others will be withheld.