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  • Reflections on the Portuguese Revolution
  • Diogo Freitas do Amaral (bio)

According to Samuel P. Huntington, Portugal in 1974–75 carried out a successful democratic transition that initiated the global “third wave” of transitions from dictatorships to democracies.1 If one looks solely at the final result, it is hard to deny the success of the Portuguese transition: At the start of 1974, Portugal was a dictatorship; by the middle of 1976, it had been transformed into a young pluralist democracy. Nonetheless, the Portuguese transition was not a peaceful one, and I do not believe that it provides a model worthy of emulation by other countries.

Portugal’s democratic transition occurred far later and far less peacefully than it could have. During the years from 1968 to 1974–75, the Portuguese people were twice deprived of the possibility of enjoying a peaceful democratic transition, first due to the influence of the extreme right during the final years of the dictatorship under Marcello Caetano, and again during the period when the totalitarian left dominated the revolution. These two missed opportunities had damaging consequences for the country.

When António de Salazar, who had ruled Portugal with an iron fist since 1932, became incapacitated in 1968, Marcello Caetano was chosen to succeed him as prime minister. Formerly a close associate of [End Page 113] Salazar, Caetano permitted a measure of limited liberalization, including some relaxation of secret police activity and the return from exile of Socialist Party leader Mário Soares. Some observers believe that most Portuguese citizens were satisfied at the time with this partial opening up of their country: with the “continuity and evolution” program; the policy of giving priority to economic development rather than political liberalization; the high rates of growth; and the improvements in education and social security. In this view, it was only military discontent over the ongoing wars that Portugal was waging to hold on to its colonies in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau that hastened the downfall of the regime. While I do not share this opinion (I believe that by the end of his days in office, Caetano found himself without significant support on either the left or the right), I admit that the early days of Caetano’s rule constituted a sort of “political spring,” a period in which the majority of the Portuguese population, while not entirely satisfied with the status quo, had hopes for economic development, political liberalization, and the reform of their regime.

Two public-opinion surveys are interesting in this regard. The first was carried out in Spain in 1980 and reprinted by the Spanish newspaper El País in 1997. According to this survey, on the day that their dictator Francisco Franco died, the political attitudes of the Spanish were as follows: those in favor of retaining the regime unaltered, 13 percent; those in favor of a complete political and economic break (in other words, a socialist revolution), 17 percent; those in favor of gradual transformation, 47 percent. No such poll seems to have been carried out in Portugal at the time of Salazar’s incapacitation, but a survey in 1984 conducted by “Norma-Semanário” on the tenth anniversary of Portugal’s 25 April revolution showed that only 7 percent of the Portuguese people longed for the Salazar regime, while more than 80 percent were satisfied with the freedom that they had won. (We also know that in the April 1975 elections for the Constituent Assembly, the Communists and the extreme left obtained only 20 percent of the total vote, while the three main democratic parties—the Portuguese Socialist Party, the Popular Democratic Party [subsequently renamed the Social Democratic Party] and the Social Democratic Center—won approximately 70 percent.) Given these survey results and the considerable similarity of the two Iberian countries in their political structures and the mentalities of their peoples, it seems reasonable to estimate that during the “Marcello spring” 10–20 percent of the Portuguese population were in favor of maintaining the status quo, 20–25 percent wanted a socialist revolution, and between 45 and 60 percent supported a peaceful transition to democracy.

Aware of this popular sentiment, Marcello Caetano began to implement “political decompression...