Alvaro Cunhal

Portuguese Communist leader whose hopes were dashed by the 1974 revolution

Tuesday 21 June 2005 00:00 BST

The dominant figure in the Portuguese Communist movement for over 50 years, Alvaro Cunhal was a brilliant intellectual and implacable political fighter whose biography needed no embellishment in order for him to be presented as an international Communist hero.

Alvaro Barreirinhas Cunhal, politician: born Coimbra, Portugal 10 November 1913; General Secretary, Portuguese Communist Party 1961-92; married Fernanda Barroso (one daughter by Isaura Dias); died Lisbon 13 June 2005.

The dominant figure in the Portuguese Communist movement for over 50 years, Alvaro Cunhal was a brilliant intellectual and implacable political fighter whose biography needed no embellishment in order for him to be presented as an international Communist hero.

After decades of imprisonment and exile, he briefly exercised power from behind the scenes during the 1974-75 Portuguese revolution. But his unconditional loyalty to Moscow alienated youthful Marxist radicals as well as the majority of what remained a conservative society. His role in the revolution is still unexplained in key respects and he remains an enigma, having once said that "a true Communist doesn't speak about his private life".

Once political passions cooled, he acquired respect for his indomitability as well as his gifts as a writer, beyond the Marxist faithful. Despite a political career that must ultimately be judged a failure, many regard him as the most notable public figure of 20th-century Portugal after his great ideological enemy, the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar.

Cunhal was born in 1913 in the university city of Coimbra. His own family reflected the divisions in Portuguese society during the unstable parliamentary republic that lasted from 1910 to 1926. His father was a freethinking lawyer while his religiously devout mother ensured that Alvaro was baptised and went on to make his first Holy Communion. The family had moved to Lisbon by the time of the installation of what would be Europe's lengthiest right-wing dictatorship following the military coup of 1926. He began his law studies in 1931, the year in which he also joined the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP). In 1935, the year of his first visit to the Soviet Union, he became head of the party's youth movement. He went underground and was imprisoned for almost a year in 1937.

In 1939, when the time came to defend his law thesis prior to graduation, Cunhal was back in prison. He was taken under police escort to Lisbon University, where he defended his position, supporting the legalisation of abortion, before three professors who would be ministers under Salazar, including Marcelo Caetano, Salazar's successor. These conservative professors gave him high marks even though they profoundly disagreed with his thesis. Upon his release, Cunhal received a teaching post at a private school run by the father of Mário Soares, later to be his great rival on the left.

In 1943, the first congress of the PCP was held, in clandestinity, and by now Cunhal (known by the pseudonym "Duarte") was the uncontested leader of the party (although he did not officially become general secretary until 1961). He threw himself into the task of building up the party in the factories and among intellectuals. A wave of strikes in 1943 and 1944 revealed its strength and may have influenced Salazar to resist pressure for democratic change.

Cunhal spent 11 years in prison, eight of them in solitary confinement, from 1949 until his daring escape from the fort of Peniche on 3 January 1960, in circumstances still not satisfactorily explained. An iron disciplinarian, he ensured that the PCP was one of the few Western Communist parties fully to endorse the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. His relations with the Italian and Spanish Communist parties, which were moving away from Leninism, were poor and got worse. Nor did Cunhal enjoy close links with the African guerrilla movements, mainly Marxist in sympathy, seeking to topple Portuguese colonialism. Many younger Communists tired of Cunhal's Leninist orthodoxy and they formed breakaway Maoist and Trotskyite groups which would rise to prominence when the dictatorship was overthrown by disaffected military officers on 25 April 1974.

He returned from exile on 30 April and participated in a huge left-wing rally on May Day with Mário Soares, the leader of the Socialist Party. But both the civilian left and eventually their radical military allies were gripped by serious differences over how radical the unfolding revolution should be, and whether there was indeed any room for a conventional democratic system.

According to Soviet KGB records, published in the West in 2000 as the Mitrokhin Archive, Cunhal was convinced that the revolution in Portugal would play a decisive role in consolidating the Marxist cause worldwide following the reverse in Chile with the overthrow of the Allende government in 1973. Despite his equivocal stance towards the liberation movements in Africa before 1974, he dedicated himself to ensuring that Portugal's former colonies fell under Marxist rule and, with Soviet help, he aimed to convert Portugal into a state at least as radical as Castro's Cuba.

For a year, everything swung in his favour. There was no great resistance to the precipitate withdrawal from colonies which had been the scene of unpopular wars which had drained Portugal of its wealth and manpower. The right was disorientated, its chief standard-bearer, General António de Spinola, fleeing into exile in March 1975 after being trapped into mounting a coup. A wave of nationalisations occurred which brought private companies, banks, and vast landed estates in the south under the control of PCP activists.

Cunhal was in the government as minister without portfolio from May 1974 until July 1975, mainly serving under General Vasco Gonçalves, a longstanding Communist sympathiser. There seemed no likelihood of a US-backed coup to reverse the Marxist gains since, for most of 1974-75, Washington was paralysed by the Watergate affair. But Cunhal knew that popular support for his party stood at little more than 15 per cent. He therefore tried to shelve elections for a constituent assembly, due to be held on the first anniversary of the 1974 coup, on the grounds that the people were insufficiently prepared for democracy. But, when other party leaders agreed to the demand of radical officers that the Armed Forces Movement (MFA) could override the assembly, it was decided to hold the election. On a 91.7 per cent turnout, his more moderate opponents won over 70 per cent of the vote.

Cunhal's line then hardened. He told the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci:

If you think the Socialist Party with its 40 per cent and the Popular Democrats with its 27 per cent constitutes the majority, you're the victim of a misunderstanding . . . I'm telling you that elections have nothing or very little to do with the dynamics of a revolution . . . I promise you there will be no parliament in Portugal.

Cunhal found a determined opponent in Soares, the socialist leader, who quit the government in July 1975 after the last independent daily paper had been seized by pro-Communist forces. Cunhal later admitted that he had underestimated the petit bourgeoisie and its ability to crush his revolutionary hopes. The West European democratic left rallied behind Soares, and a rural revolt then erupted in the conservative north. Many PCP offices were destroyed.

The unexpected ferocity of the challenge from peasant farmers fearing the expropriation of their land forced Cunhal and his allies into a profound rethink. The Communists had become isolated even in the "Red South" where ultra-leftists scorned the PCP for its refusal to unleash a full-scale revolution. With the departure of Gonçalves by the end of August, Cunhal had no real allies left at the top of an increasingly disorientated military movement.

Taken by surprise by the turn of events, the Soviet Union banked on consolidating its gains in Angola and Mozambique while hoping Portugal could stay very left-wing but still part of the West. It was the ultra-left which made the running during the last chaotic months of the revolution before moderate leftist officers restored order in November 1975. Demands to make the PCP illegal were resisted and it continued to be the third largest party in most elections, with Cunhal staying on as leader until 1992.

Portugal gradually became a conventional democracy, with the nationalisations reversed and the country inside the EU by 1986. As he became better known, Cunhal began to be reassessed. He appeared less like an ogre ready to impose a brutal police state on Portugal and more like an idealist ready to dedicate his entire being to the cause that he fervently believed in. The revelation in 1995 that he had written four novels under the pseudonym "Manuel Tiago", as well as his gifts as a painter and the imposing personal presence that he retained into his eighties, enabled him to be seen in broader terms.

But, for Cunhal, the Soviet Union remained "the sunlight for our planet" which Mikhail Gorbachev had betrayed with his perestroika and glasnost.

Tom Gallagher

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