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The International Writers Magazine
: Portugal

THE TANK THAT GREW A CARNATION by James Skinner in Vigo, Spain  

Americans take democracy for granted. No doubt about it. Ever since the end of the Civil War, which was a turning point in their history, the United States has thrived on those basic ingredients that make up the foundations of the country. In simple terms these form a system of freedom and equality for all, managed by an elected government that in turn swears to abide by the laws established within a solid legal framework. On the other hand, as civilization and progress developed, the American Constitution was designed from the beginning to allow for any necessary change and adaptation. Hence the powerful, creative and entrepreneurial strength of its population can be attributed to this always-present flexibility. Every citizen of America, native or adopted loves his country and its flag. The sense of duty, honour and respect towards the homeland flows through his veins. Slowly, over recent years the barriers such as race, sex and religion have been broken down and equality now oozes from every pore of the nation. But America is a young country, just under 250 years old and like all young pups it keeps trying to tell the older generation what to do. From Korea to Liberia, from Somalia to Afghanistan, United States governments insist that their model of world management is best. Deep down they are right. It’s just the way they go about it that keeps irritating non-Americans. Iraq is a classic example. Hence the reason for much of the animosity in the rest of the world towards any imposition of order dictated by America. Europe is no exception.

Like an old crock, Europe has been in a constant battle with itself over the same human rights issues. It took two world wars and a cold one to bring to an end centuries of stagnant decadence of freedom abuses. Despite Uncle Sam bailing the ‘old’ continent out on every occasion, the envy brought out in the form of antagonism by Europeans of America’s democratic achievements continues to this very day. Apart from possibly Britain, they just cannot stop burning effigies of the current US President or stamping all over mutilated US flags whenever demonstrations flare up in the European capitals. It does not matter what the protests or marches are about, America is always to blame. But there were occasions when America ‘put up’ with anti-democratic regimes such as right-wing dictatorships and in some cases, even propped them up. In recent history, and still within Europe, Spain and Portugal were two typical examples. Most historians, especially in America know all about the former, but very few about the latter. In fact, how much is really known, internationally speaking about this small European paradise that had, at one time, a huge world empire.

Portugal is ‘hitched’ alongside the Western boarder of her well-known neighbour, Spain and is considered by many as a poor Iberian relative. The only similarity between these two European Union member states is that both were colonial empires and at one stage of history during the last century, suffered from long and distasteful fascist dictatorships. Unless you are a wine drinker or like cured ham, this is where the similarity ends. This delightful country with approximately 12 million inhabitants doesn’t speak Spanish but Portuguese, sings and cries to popular melancholic folk music known as Fados, not Flamenco and produces the world’s most delicious after dinner drink, Port wine. Spaniards won’t touch the stuff. They dress differently, dance differently and in general have very few of the traits of Big Brother to the East. Up until recently they didn’t even get on well together. They also have been, over centuries, and still are staunch anglophiles and supporters of Great Britain. Not quite so in Spain.

During the colonial days, Portugal had possessions as far East as Goa in India and Macao in China, just a stone’s throw away from Hong Kong. They had conquered part of Africa in Angola, Mozambique and Portuguese Guinea yet the cherry on the cake was theirs, up until the 19th century, on the American Continent. Today’s Brazil was once part of Portugal and was actually considered a Kingdom. Had it not been for a common enemy from France known as Napoleon Bonaparte who kicked the royal family out, Brazil might have become a very different type of country. As colonialism throughout the world was dismantled, and unlike Spain, who went to war with the USA over its remaining possessions, Portugal succumbed with a more peaceful approach. It followed Britain’s method with a sort of peaceful handover of sovereignty to the local people. That was up until the mid-twenties.

Whilst the USA and Britain were revelling in the joys of peace between the two World Wars, part of the political scenario in Europe began to take on a different look. Fascist movements and right wing political parties sprouted up all over. Germany’s Hitler, Italy’s Mussolini and eventually Spain’s Franco began to alter the course of history of the ‘Old’ continent. Portugal joined the club with the advent of the Salazar regime.
A military government took over Portugal in 1926 and as their minister of finance they called upon Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, a prominent professor of economics at the University of Coimbra. As the holder of the country’s purse strings, his economic policies soon won the favour of most factions of the country such as business leaders, clerics and the armed forces. He also proclaimed himself minister of colonies introducing the infamous Colonial Act that placed all possessions under direct rule from Lisbon. In 1932, Salazar became prime minister. A post he was to hold for the next 35 years. Then, in 1936, the Spanish Civil broke out. During the following 3 years of toil and bloodshed in the neighbouring country, Salazar backed Franco’s Nationalists. It was to be his first stroke of luck in the turmoil that followed. Franco won.

In the following years, and as Hitler’s tanks rumbled across the plains of Europe, Franco played cat and mouse with the Fuehrer making him believe that Spain was a German ally. He nevertheless maintained neutrality throughout the conflict. Salazar, hiding behind Spain’s broad shoulders, shrewdly went one step further in his own method of non-involvement. He secretly sided with Britain. Once the WWII ended and Europe was liberated, the Iberian Peninsula continued to be governed by two staunch fascists, Franco and Salazar. All during the fifties and sixties many cooperative and economic treaties were signed with their newly acquired democratic friends. Yet the emerging European Economic Community, later to become the European Union was way out of reach. Both countries were still under the rule of a dictatorship and this was just not ‘kosher’. Another cloud loomed above the horizon. It was called decolonisation.

Despite all the hoopla and joy at having regained democracy in most of Europe, the remaining empirical nations such as Britain and France were penniless. Their colonies knew it. Soon independence messages were being received from such far away places as India, Nigeria and Angola to name but a few. Over the next three decades most were granted their freedom, some under heavy bloodshed or civil wars. This is where our Iberian nations differed yet again. Spain had long lost its possession, yet Portugal continued to battle with the freedom fighters in Western Africa. The armed forces were tired of fighting a losing battle against African independantists. Their families back home were sick of both losing their loved ones and not having bread on the table. They had all had enough. Then came the 25th of April, 1974. A date that would change the destiny of its people and allow Portugal to rid itself of its colonies and finally join the ranks of democracy driven countries.

A few days ago, Portugal celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of its famous revolution. ‘I heard about it very early in the morning, when my father called me and told me not to go out in the street because the military were out,’ recalls Ms. Flor de Almeida, Portuguese Consul in Vigo Spain. ‘But everything was quiet. I was in Lisbon. Whilst the military were driving around in their tanks, the people came out into the street and began to distribute carnations.’ Some found their way into the muzzles of the guns. The media in the weeks ahead named the change with a simple slogan that is still in the hearts of most Portuguese thriving in today’s democratic system of government.
The headlines said: ‘The day Portugal ceased to be a dictatorship will be known as the ‘Revolution of the Carnations.’ No blood was shed during that day.’

© James Skinner. 2004.
jamesskinner@cemiga.es

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