Half a century of Salazarism had never engendered as much anti-communism among ordinary people as 18 months of PCP* participation in various governments.
Two-thirds of the Portuguese population lived in the northern part of the country. The northern peasants had provided whatever ‘mass basis’ the previous regime had enjoyed. To this deeply conservative portion of the population (which, besides, formed the majority of Portuguese people) the revolutionary movement made no serious programmatic overtures.
The structure and problems of the North were quite different from those of the South. In southern province Evora 71% of the existing farms comprised less than 4 hectares. But together these numerous farms only covered a minute part of the land (6%). The rest was in the hands of the owners of large estates. At the other end of the spectrum, in the northern region of Viseu, there were very few large estates and some 92% of the land was covered by plots of less than 4 hectares. Similarly, all the major labour intensive factories in Portugal were in the South. Twenty one of 49 factories employing over 1000 workers were in Lisbon and Setubal.
Agrarian reform in the South presented few problems. The latifundianos fled the land (or were driven from it) and the agricultural workers merely walked in and occupied it. In Evora 90% of the population engaged in agriculture were wage earners. In Viana in the North, the figure was only 27%.
Before April 1974 PCP and MDP** theoreticians and economists had only seriously attempted to analyse the situation in the South, where capitalist contradictions were more blatant. They drew up their plans for dismantling the great latifundios and monopolies through agrarian reform. The North, almost forgotten, was now staking its claims to be remembered, and with a vengeance.
In 1968 some 42% of the cultivated land was worked by families who owned or rented their holdings. In 1968 a total of 808,804 agricultural holdings were scattered throughout the country. But the pattern differed strikingly between North and South. In the South a few latifundiarios controlled more than 500 hectares. These occupied 30% of all the land under cultivation in Portugal. In the North over half the holdings were small plots of less than 1 hectare. Here peasant families grew vegetables or kept a few sheep or a cow or two. They subsisted on their own produce. Northern families often lived entirely off the land, eating vegetables, bartering for essentials, seldom using or needing money.
Certain villages were so remote that news that a coup had taken place in Lisbon took a considerable time to sink in. The ‘cultural dynamisation’ programme of the General Staff’s Fifth Division was carried out in many areas in a manner offensive to these peasants. The local power structures were difficult to dismantle, attempts being met by the combined resistance of rural authorities, a very influential clergy and the police. The real roots of power in the countryside had in no way been threatened by the MFA. Of the PIDEs arrested by the First Provisional Government, 75% had been in the South and only some 6% in the North.
It was in the very concentrated industrial zones of South — the suburban belt of Lisbon, in Setubal (and to a lesser extent in the northern city of Porto), that the Communist Party and the extreme left had their base of support. To this must be added the agricultural proletariat of the Alentejo region, in an area where the small landed property of the North was almost non-existent , where most cultivation was conducted on large latifundias, and where the apparatus of the PCP exercised hegemony well before 1974. It was no accident that well after Nov. 25 (1975)***, the government made no effort to attack the seizures of the Alentejo latifundias or to dismantle on the agricultural cooperatives which were operating them.
The firebombings which were to spread throughout the North began in earnest in Fafe (near Porto) on June 11, when a grenade exploded in the PCP offices. Most of the terrorist actions which followed were clearly the work of the right. In Pdvoa de Varzim (near Porto) leaflets were handed out saying that the MDP (Portuguese Democratic Movement) had planned to kidnap a local priest. In Trofa, on June 16, rightist sympathisers organised a demonstration against the PCP. On July 1, the factory workers downed tools and marched from S. Joao da Madeira to the army barracks in Porto. Several hundred workers claimed that the PCP was manipulating the Administrative Council (which had been appointed by Vasco Goncalves). In Lourinha, in the centre of the country, most small farmers and workers had supported the social movements after April 25th. The local PCP criticised a local inn-keeper for renting his hall to the right-wing PPD**** for a meeting. The man was popular in the area, having hired his hall to most of the workers at one time or another for marriage feasts, etc., even charging less to the poorer workers. When the PCP called him a ‘fascist’ and a ‘reactionary’ the local small farmers and agricultural workers rallied en masse to support him. Their demonstration, like many such, was as much against the local PCP cell as in favour of the PPD (or other right-wing forces). During the demonstration fire-bombs were thrown. The only response by the PCP was to label the entire local population ‘reactionary and uneducated’. This paternalism was rampant. In order to explain divisions within the class the left groups were reduced to talking of the backwardness of the proletariat. This inflamed the ‘backward proletariat’ still further.
The backlash continued non-stop throughout July and August. In Santa Combadao, over the weekend of July 26, a crowd raided a local National Republican Guard’s barracks where an ex-PIDE was being held prisoner. In Braganca some 10,000 people turned up to hear the Bishop say Mass and began shouting ‘Down with Otelo*****, Otelo to Mozambique’. In Agueda and Esmoriz the PCP headquarters were destroyed. On July 29 the MDP offices in these towns were burned to the ground to cries of ‘Long live the CDS’. In Lourinha, where the Lisbon papers had been burned during an ‘anti-communist’ demonstration, some 300 small farmers and local businessmen marched to one of the nationalised banks (now controlled by the PCP) and called for the ‘saneamento’ of three PCP members who worked there. They claimed that agricultural credit was being granted according to party colours, and that information concerning the political beliefs of customers was being fed to the bank by local PCP workers.
PCP was accused by some 30 members of the ‘Committee for the Extinction of the PIDE’ of using PIDE files to blackmail people into supporting them. The scandal helped discredit the Fifth Government even more.
There was complete absence of any direct links between the ‘left’ and the underprivileged in the North. The PCP influence in the Ministry of Agriculture did almost nothing for the northern peasants. The situation of many of the small tenant farmers actually deteriorated. Prices increased while ‘wages’ remained fixed. Families could eat because they produced for themselves, but there was little they could afford to buy in the towns. This worsening situation did not add peasants’ sympathies to leftists.
The rightists launched a new offensive against the Goncalves government. They called demonstrations which brought 10,000 people onto the streets chanting ‘Out with Vasco’, ‘For a government of national salvation’. A PCP meeting had to be called off in Porto because of threats. On August 13, soldiers in Braga refused to protect the MDP headquarters, despite orders to do so from PCP northern Commander Corvacho.
In the North the right was in full advance. PCP and other left parties’ offices were burnt down, usually by small groups of 4 to 5 activists, while the local population just looked on, neither preventing nor assisting the arson. Why, indeed, should they defend the PCP or MDP, who had done nothing for them?
The Right was based in all those officers and they were many — who had never identified with the MFA. The commandos in the Lisbon area were their main strike force but it had firm support from most northern units (now under Pires Veloso) and among units in the Azores and Madeira (who threatened to secede from Portugal unless military discipline was restored). They also had support in many of the air bases.
There began talks that the civil war could break out in Portugal, alike to one in Spain, 1936-39.
On November 20 a meeting of right-wing delegates in Porto discussed moving the Constituent Assembly to the North, and later the government too. Later that evening, in Rio Maior, a meeting of CAP (Confederation of Portuguese Farmers) decided that the situation was intolerable. (The group had organised a demonstration against the PCP in Santarem on November 7 and had criticised the ‘wild occupations’ taking place all over the country.) At the meeting there was talk of a ‘left wing’ coup. The solidly conservative farmers decided to ‘cut the country in half’. And they meant it. They had been addressed some weeks earlier by Galvao de Melo, of the CDS******, who had spoken of the necessity ‘to drive the communists into the sea and drown them’. This was now the moment of truth, the cut-off point between southern revolutionaries and the ‘reactionary’ North. CAR members from all over the country — including restored owners from Alentejo and land-renting landlords from the North — pledged themselves to cut down trees and block airports and railways between North and South.
On November 25 an ultra-leftist putsch broke out in Lisbon, but was suppresed in 24 hours. Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho had to resign, COPCON was dissolved.
25 November 1975 is considered to be the end of a turbulent period commonly called the Continuing Revolutionary Process, and the beginning of liberal-democratic reforms, which successed only in 1979, when the first majority government after Apr. 25, 1974 was formed — centre-right cabinet of Fransisco Sa Carneiro.
*) PCP — Portuguese Communist Party
**) MDP — Portuguese Democratic Movement, leftist coalition formed in Salazarist era.
***) date of suppressing of the ultra-leftist putsch
****) People Democratic Party
*****) Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, ultra-leftist general, member of ‘red troika’, commander of COPCON, special shock division of army left-sympathizers.
******) Democratic and Social Centre party