From Fri Apr 9 13:00:06 2004
From: Le Monde diplomatique <>
To: Le Monde diplomatique <>
Date: Fri, 9 Apr 2004 18:08:13 +0200 (CEST)
Subject: Carnation revolution

Carnation revolution

By Mia Couto, Le Monde diplomatique, April 2004

THIRTY years ago this month young officers ended Portugal's 40-year dictatorship with the bloodless carnation revolution that led to independence for its African colonies. Mozambique reacted to the events of 25 April 1974 with joy and apprehension. The victims of fascism and colonialism felt pure happiness, others had less obvious reasons for celebrating. Even colonial organisations welcomed the revolution. Five months later, far-right colonials in Lourenço Marques (as Maputo was called then) attempted a violent coup against the Portuguese-Mozambican peace agreement, which had been signed by Mario Soares and Samora Machel.

The joy was versatile. How could groups with such divergent, even conflicting, interests celebrate the same thing? The answer was that the regime had become a burden for almost all polit icians across the spectrum. The revolution was a crocodile's egg; it could develop as male or female, depending on the ambient temperature.

The apprehension took almost as many different forms as the joy. The Junta of National Salvation (JSN) (1) included generals who had long resisted African liberation movements. Some, like Galvao de Melo, had been hawks in the Portuguese military apparatus. Others, like Antonio Spinola, saw themselves as the architects of a reformed colonial policy. They were not opposed to the regime; they merely disagreed with the tactics it had used to maintain the Portuguese presence.

The junta's first declarations were ambiguous. On 29 April 1974 General Spinola promised that “what we have in mind is an acceleration of the process by which the African peoples will achieve self-determination under the Portuguese flag”. Even General Costa Gomes, much more leftwing, declared that “we intend to fight the guerrillas until they agree to our proposal to lay down their weapons and become political parties”. It took a long, hard fight by the revolutionary soldiers of the Armed Forces Movement (MFA) before the idea of continued colonialism was fully vanquished.

Thousands of demonstrators marched in Portugal chanting “Not one more soldier for the colonies”. At the same time, in Mozambique, hundreds of young people secretly joined the guerrilla army. Some were not keen to sign up. Others dreamed of the guerrilla life.

After the revolution, the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) decided to continue its military struggle: “We have not been fighting just to end fascism in Portugal,” explained nationalist guerrilla leaders, “but above all to end colonialism in Mozambique.” Liberation movements in Portugal's other African colonies (Angola, São Tomé, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau) welcomed with satisfaction the fall of the dictatorship in which their own struggles had been a key factor.

Nor were they surprised that April day. Frelimo knew about rebellions in the colonial army, thanks to its undercover agents in Portugal. One of these, Leite de Vasconcelos, a radio DJ, notified the April captains of the revolution by playing José Alfonso's song Grandola Vila Morena. Joaquim Chissano, current president of Mozambique, was then in charge of Frelimo's security services. He later revealed that the Front “already knew of the captains' movement. We were paying close attention to the discontent swelling at the heart of the Portuguese army. We were in contact with informers within the army.”

On 27 April Frelimo's executive committee rejected the suggested policy of “democracy at home and democratic colonialism in the overseas territories” and declared “if the Portuguese people have the right to independence and democracy, the Mozambican people cannot be denied those same rights. Frelimo's objectives are clear: full and total independence for the Mozambican people and the end of Portuguese colonialism.”

In 1974 Frelimo built up a strong base in rural areas - almost half of Mozambique, particularly in the north and centre—but the movement needed more time to organise in urban areas, where its small undercover cells had been swiftly dismantled by the Portuguese secret police, the sinister DGS. The front had the support of intellectuals in the cities, but it needed to establish itself more firmly and coherently. This is why, immediately after 25 April, young city-dwellers seized radio stations and newspapers to prepare against any attempt to promote a policy of neo-colonial transition.

I was a student in Lourenço Marques in the early 1970s. We lived in a heady atmosphere of struggle and protest. Some students, children of colonials and assimilated people, barely questioned Portuguese domination. They were happy just to celebrate Portugal's transition to democracy. Others aimed for an end to colonialism.

In March 1974 I was working on an evening newspaper in Lourenço Marques. I was an activist with the underground groups supporting Frelimo. The Front had asked me to abandon my studies and get a job with a newspaper, to infiltrate the Portuguese-controlled media with educated Mozambicans.

Then came 25 April. Next day most of the city's newspaper headlines were on the side of colonial ideology. No one wrote of a revolution or a coup. “General Spinola, leader of the Portuguese nation,” proclaimed Noticias. “Though we do not have official information, it appears that a military junta has taken power.” A Tribuna, the evening paper took a similar line, adding: “The junta wants to guarantee the survival of the nation as a sovereign state across all of its inter-continental [territory].”

Ill-defined conflicts raged over months. The DGS had not been immediately dissolved in Mozambique and the regime's main agents kept up their activities. Colonial troops were all over the country. Only certain units, on their own initiative, laid down their arms. Soldiers and officers negotiated directly with the guerrillas to create areas of freedom amid the chaos of war. These pockets of pacifism were a blow to partisans of the continuity model. Mozambique became a fixation: 65% of Portuguese forces were deployed there, 53% of them black Mozambicans. Not many soldiers were prepared to die in a war like that, a war with which they did not identify.

Frelimo's strategy was based on a fear that the Portuguese right would take advantage of the new political climate. They were afraid that it would reverse perceptions of the cause and effect relationship between the fall of the regime and the liberation of the African colonies. There was strong support, even from some on the left, for revising the view that liberation movements in the colonies had combined with the Portuguese people's own struggle to bring about the revolution. An alternative reading of history claimed that the Portuguese had liberated the Africans. This interpretation is still dominant in the Portuguese understanding of decolonisation. Who decolon-ised whom? The Africans have found a simple answer to this question: they have erased the word from their vocabularies.

In September 1974 a provisional government with a Mozambican majority took power in Maputo. Most of the 250,000 Portuguese in Mozambique, with a strong sense of history and its changes, saw the event as treason. This incomprehension gave rise to violent protest movements; it was a miracle there wasn’t a bloodbath. Most of these Portuguese Mozambicans rose up against the revolutionaries and progressives who had led the anti-fascist, anti-colonial movement in Portugal, attacking Almeida Santos and the future president, Mario Soares. These colonial groups summed up the negotiations for an end to the conflict bitterly, saying: “These traitors are selling us off to the blacks.” The peace treaty was not formally signed until 7 September 1974—five months separate the revolution from the end of the war. The suffering on both sides continued. In war, every day is a lifetime.

In 1999 my Portuguese publisher asked me to write a piece for an anthology commemorating the 25th anniversary of the April revolution. I refused, and explained why. The Mozambique anniversary commemorates a 25th day, but not that of April. I said this to a range of media and was not always understood. Some were hurt, thinking that I was distancing myself from Portugal because of resentment. That is not the case. But Africans cannot be expected to celebrate 25 April as the Portuguese do. It is an important anniversary for us and we cele brate it. But we do so with the respectful attitude of a guest, not the exhilaration of a host. We don’t expect the Portuguese to celebrate our independ ence day, 25 June 1975, in the same way we do.

I wrote a novel instead, Vinte e Zinco (2)—a pun on the Portuguese for 25. I wanted to underline the distinction between two worlds whose vision of the same event is quite different. Those who lived in the zinc-roofed houses in poor areas didn’t really celebrate until 25 June 1975, when Mozambique gained independence. On 25 April 1974 they smiled. On 25 June 1975 they sang and danced, although some already suspected it would be generations before poverty was eradicated.


(1) Created by the Armed Forces Movement, the JSN, with General Antonio Spinola at its head, took over the government of Portugal the day after the revolution.

(2) The title would translate as Twenty and Zinc. No English translation is as yet available. Vinte e Zinco, Editorial Caminho, Lisbon, 2003.