When guns bloomed with flowers: In lockdown, Portugal remembers

Why We Wrote This

The anniversary of Portugal’s young democracy is usually a festive day of song and solidarity. Amid a pandemic and global political uncertainty, it’s taking shape as something different this year.

Henrique Casinhas/SOPA Images/Sipa USA/AP/File
Paradegoers sing April 25, 2019, on the 45th anniversary of Freedom Day, also known as the Carnation Revolution, on the Avenida da Liberdade in Lisbon, Portugal. Organizers are promoting ways to celebrate despite restrictions under the pandemic.

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It may be maligned in fancy bouquets, but the red carnation is an enduring symbol of the revolution for Portugal’s democracy 46 years ago. On April 25, 1974, soldiers put flowers in their gun barrels and civilians in the streets joined the nonviolent military coup, ending authoritarian rule and hastening Portugal’s decolonization of Africa.

This year’s Freedom Day won’t be marked by massive celebrations. But Col. Vasco Lourenço, a key military officer in the coup, refuses to surrender his national holiday to the coronavirus. At 3 p.m. from his window he’ll sing the song that secretly signaled the start of the revolution on the radio. 

A former political prisoner, Artur Pinto, will sing from his home, too. “Now with the lockdown, our freedom of movement is conditioned but our fundamental freedoms have been guaranteed,” he says.

Historian Irene Pimentel points out what’s been gained since the end of dictatorship: access to education, more rights for women, social welfare. “With this pandemic we’re dependent on the national health care system, something that was won with the revolution,” says Dr. Pimentel. “It’s terrible to think that someone could be denied medical care just because they are poor. For us now it’s something unimaginable.”

For the past four decades, Col. Vasco Lourenço has spent every April 25 on the streets of Lisbon celebrating Freedom Day. This year will be different. There will be no parades, no concerts, no crowds walking down Freedom Avenue carrying red carnations.

In 1974, Colonel Lourenço was one of the young Portuguese officers who led a nonviolent military coup that ended Europe’s longest lived far-right dictatorship. Today, at 77, he has canceled tomorrow’s parade, and will spend the time at home. But Colonel Lourenço refuses to surrender his national holiday to the coronavirus.

The revolution’s values “are fundamental to face the pandemic and deal with this moment of global crisis,” he says. As the head of the April 25 Association – which represents the revolution’s officers and organizes celebrations every year – he’s urging people to celebrate from home.

Colonel Lourenço has mastered video conferencing and plans to spend the day connecting with his “comrades,” family, and friends. He wants everyone to sing “Grândola Vila Morena” (Grândola, Swarthy Town) at 3 p.m.

“We asked the TV stations and radios to play the song, and asked people to sing it wherever they are, from their windows or their balconies,” he said via video.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Forty-six years ago, the song was played on the radio in the early hours of April 25 to secretly signal the start of the coup that overthrew the authoritarian regime, bringing an end to a three-front colonial war the Portuguese had been fighting in Africa since the 1960s. 

“Land of fraternity,” the song goes, “on each corner a friend.”

On the day of the coup, the military had asked civilians to remain in their homes, but people poured into the streets. The armed forces’ rebellion turned into a popular uprising, demanding democracy and social justice. Soldiers placed blooms in their gun barrels and uniforms, and the coup was dubbed the Carnation Revolution.

For historian Irene Pimentel, a young woman during the revolution, this year the lyrics to “Grândola Vila Morena” resonate more strongly. Her neighbors have offered to get groceries and to go to the pharmacy for her.

Solidarity and creativity seem to be spreading faster than the virus. Many are learning how to make face masks for family and neighbors. Portugal’s March 18 lockdown closed nonessential businesses – including flower shops – but Dr. Pimentel says some people are making red carnations from paper at home.

Freedom and democracy aren’t to be taken for granted, she says. “We see what’s happening around the world, how in countries like Hungary the pandemic is being used as an excuse to crack down on freedom and rights.”

For the first time under the democratic system, Portugal’s governors are empowered to suspend rights and freedoms during the state of emergency. Trust in the government led by the center-left Socialist Party, however, is relatively high. Prime Minister António Costa is enjoying growing popularity for the way he is handling the crisis. Portugal’s first case of COVID-19 was discovered late for Western Europe, and the country has so far registered a high rate of coronavirus testing, with under 23,000 positive cases, and 854 deaths – fewer than its closest neighbors.

A majority has supported the state of emergency. Many considered the restrictions on personal freedoms justified by the scale and severity of the pandemic.

“Now with the lockdown our freedom of movement is conditioned but our fundamental freedoms have been guaranteed,” says former political prisoner Artur Pinto.

Mr. Pinto was arrested in 1965 and spent nearly two months in a 3-by-6 1/2-foot cell in the Aljube prison. Thousands were imprisoned and tortured by PIDE, the secret police, which helped the authoritarian regime to stay in power for four decades. Some did not leave the prison alive.

After the Carnation Revolution, the Aljube prison was turned into a museum.

“Every year on April 25 we receive thousands of visitors, but this year because of the pandemic we were forced to close doors,” says Aljube Resistance and Freedom Museum spokesperson Francisco Ruivo. “But pandemics won’t make us forget the importance of fighting for freedom.”

Mr. Pinto says that despite his hoarse voice, he will be singing from the balcony with his wife, who was also jailed as a political dissident. Their daughter and grandchildren live nearby and will be singing too. Not being able to hug them is a different kind of prison. But he says the holiday needs to be celebrated.

“We have to keep remembering it and remind the younger generations. Remind them that we used to live in a country where there were no freedoms, where almost a third of the population was illiterate.”

Dr. Pimentel, a researcher at the Institute of Contemporary History in Lisbon, points out what’s been gained since the end of dictatorship: access to education, more rights for women, social welfare, universal health care.

“With this pandemic we’re dependent on the national health care system, something that was won with the revolution,” says Dr. Pimentel. “It’s terrible to think that someone could be denied medical care just because they are poor. For us now it’s something unimaginable.”

For many, this year’s Freedom Day is also a wish for better days. Colonel Lourenço will be singing from his window, hoping that next year he will be on the streets with a real carnation in hand. “Solidarity, social justice, freedom ... my hope is that these values will prevail,” he says.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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