‘I was there’: 50 years later, Dartmouth man recalls his role in Portuguese revolution

‘I was there’: 50 years later, Dartmouth man recalls his role in Portuguese revolution

A lieutenant’s forceful shouts startled Paulino Francisco Dias Vieira awake from his barracks dormitory bed around 1 a.m. on April 25, 1974.

“‘On your feet! It’s a coup! It’s a coup!’” Vieira, 74, of Dartmouth, recalled in Portuguese, 50 years later. “So, we stepped to it.”

The then 23-year-old Vieira was in month 34 of a 36-month conscription term for the Portuguese Army. A driver for the 5th Caçadores (Portuguese elite light infantry) Battalion, he lined up swiftly alongside his platoon to receive orders.

That’s when Capt. Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, the strategic mastermind behind the operation, appeared.

“[He] pointed to me and the man next to me,” he said. “‘You, go guard [Gen. António de] Spínola.’”

Spínola, a monocled aristocrat, who recently fell out of favor with the 48-year-old right-wing dictatorship after criticizing its wars against insurgents in the African colonies of Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique, would become president of Portugal by the end of the day.

By 11 a.m., as the ancien regime melted away, jubilant crowds sallied forth onto the streets of Lisbon to shower the soldiers with cheers, leftist political slogans, and red carnations that the troops proceeded to put in their gun barrels.

A Revolução dos Cravos, the Carnation Revolution, had begun.

A soldier receives a carnation on April 25, 1974, during the revolution in Portugal. Credit: Image by Ana Margarida Palmeira


“The 25th of April is a seminal moment in Portuguese history,” said Paula Noversa, director of the Center for Portuguese Studies at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. “Even though Portugal might seem like a small country, this change dramatically impacts millions of people.”

Then Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar established O Estado Novo (The New State) in 1933. After decades of political instability, economic chaos, and international humiliation under the First Republic, the nationalist former finance professor sought one thing for Portugal: order.

Salazar stabilized the Portuguese economy and undid many of the democratic reforms of the anti-clerical First Republic. He aligned himself with Portugal’s upper classes and created policies that disenfranchised women, limited free public education to the 5th grade, and formed an alliance with the Catholic Church that made social advancement near impossible.

A 1976 campaign poster for Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, a leader of the Carnation Revolution. Credit: Wikipedia

Civil liberties, such as freedom of speech, were nonexistent, and dissent was punished by the secret police known as PIDE (Polícia Internacional para a Defesa do Estado — International Police for the Defense of the State).

By the 1950s and 1960s, the regime’s policies led to international isolation and economic stagnation. Hundreds of thousands — often encouraged by the state — emigrated abroad, mainly to Brazil, Canada, France, and the United States.

“Salazar did not see Portugal as becoming an industrial nation,” Noversa said. “That started to limit the opportunities people had. And when you don’t have economic opportunity, you start looking for it elsewhere.”

A wave of Portuguese immigrants — 105,000 by the 1970s — flowed to the New Bedford and Fall River areas. It was a logical choice, said Noversa, as an earlier wave fueled by the area’s whaling and textile industries had already paved the way for them.

“The reason [the Portuguese] came to this area was that they already were in this area,” Noversa said. “It makes sense to start looking to this region because you know there are established churches, neighborhoods, and cultural infrastructure to ease the transition.”

Colonial wars

In February 1961, a nationalist uprising broke out in northern Angola, sparking what is known in Portuguese as A Guerra Ultramar — The Overseas War; a reference to the official line that the colonies were overseas provinces and integral parts of Portugal.

By 1963, fighting had broken out in Goa (lost to India in December 1961), Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique. Agitation for independence in other colonies, such as Cape Verde, Macau, and Timor-Leste, also grew.

Salazar doubled down and increased military spending, ruthlessly punishing indigenous populations, claiming that the colonies were integral to Portugal. The response also isolated the nation diplomatically in a world already past classic colonialism.

“This is a long war, over 10 years, and you’re sending your sons away and not seeing an end to the fighting,” Noversa said. “The war was a tremendous drain, economically, on the metropole.”

Between 1961 and 1974, Portuguese military spending grew exponentially, taking up 42% of state budget expenditures by 1968. This coincided with increasing troop numbers, from 80,000 men in uniform in 1961 to 140,000 by April 25, 1974. 

Salazar suffered a stroke in 1968 and was replaced as prime minister by Marcelo Caetano. But that changed little about the war.

“That’s going to be felt across the board, from villages to city dwellers,” Noversa said. She added that money was not spent on schools, hospitals, and other services because of the war.

The investment seemed to cost more than the benefits when it came to the colonies, and arguments about defending Portuguese honor fell on deaf ears.

“What the Portuguese people were not seeing was an explanation as to why they were sending their children abroad,” she said. 

Yet decades of propaganda, restricted education, and information seemed to cultivate the apathy many officials wanted among the populace, at least initially.

“Back then, people didn’t think about politics,” said Vieira, harkening to his life in the rural municipality of Montalegre. “It was a small town, and we were happy. We were so far out of the way that the government never bothered to make its presence felt.”

That changed for Vieira in June 1971, when the then-20-year-old received his conscription notice for a mandatory 36-month term of military service. He said the military never deployed him to the colonies, but he regularly saw the war’s effects when he drove to and from a nearby military hospital.

“There was an annex to the hospital where they’d send those wounded in the ultramar (overseas),” he said. “I’d pass by it while on other errands and see all these soldiers missing their arms and legs.”

The fighting fueled emigration as families sought to save their sons from deployment to a war zone that, by some estimates, killed 10,000 Portuguese soldiers — and hundreds of thousands of Angolans, Mozambicans, and Bissau Guineans, both civilian and military — by its end.

New Bedford native Sala Mateus, now 91, was inspired to support the rebels in the Carnation Revolution. Credit: Kevin Andrade / The New Bedford Light

The fighting inspired others, such as New Bedford native Sala Mateus, to support the rebels. The Cape Verdean-American, then in his late 30s, visited Guinea-Bissau in 1970 to contact rebel leaders.

“I went to the jungle, where the battle was,” said Mateus, now 91, from his Fairhaven home. “I wanted to fight with them, but they sent me back here because they said I could be more useful.”

Mateus founded the PAIGC Support Committee (PAIGC is the Portuguese acronym for African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde), based out of Duxbury, in 1972. The group sought to educate Americans — especially Cape Verdeans — about the independence struggle.

Initially, the message fell on deaf ears, especially among area Portuguese and Cape Verdeans.

“They were scared because the PIDE sent people out here,” Mateus said. “I’d tell people that I knew Amilcar Cabral (leader of the PAIGC) in Kriolu, and they’d run away.”

But, over time, they fostered greater consciousness about the war locally.

“I was able to send several Cabo Verdean Americans back there to see what was going on,” Mateus said. “They returned and said that all the hardship I told them about was true.”

Noversa said the wars were essential to fomenting the Carnation Revolution because they disenchanted military officers and exposed them to leftist political ideologies.

“They did not see the war as upholding the honor of the Portuguese state,” Noversa said.

A crowd celebrates on a Panhard EBR armored car in Lisbon on April 25,1974. during the Carnation Revolution. Credit: Wikipedia

Liberdade (Freedom)

Vieira and another soldier arrived at Spínola’s home around 4 a.m. and they both posted outside the general’s front door.

“When the sun rose, people started to come out of their homes, and we ordered them back in,” he said. “We kept a vigil at his house and kept our eyes open because we had orders to stop any police that might interfere in the coup.”

Vieira said he was far from the standoffs, the crowds, and the negotiations associated with that day in the popular imagination. But by 11 a.m., word of the coup’s success had spread.

“We stood out in the street all morning,” he recalled, before they moved to a terrace overlooking the home across the street. “We lay down a little bit and then a woman came out and gave us codfish and potatoes. They were happy that the army was there.”

There they stood, conversing with the neighbors until around 5 p.m., when there was activity at Spínola’s home. Vieira said he briefly glimpsed the monocled general as he left and stepped into a black Volkswagen waiting to bring him to the Carmo Barracks — where Caetano awaited him to surrender the instruments of state.

Paulino Vieira plays with his grandchild, Asher Vieira, outside his house in North Dartmouth. Credit: Eleonora Bianchi / The New Bedford Light

50 years on

Soon after, he returned to the Caçadores barracks. He said that, in retrospect, his role that day was barely worth a mention.

“I participated, I suppose,” he said. “That’s the most I can say about it. It wasn’t a significant role, but I was there.”

Mateus said the Portuguese were not the only people happy about the day’s events.

“I was happy to see that day happen,” said Mateus. “I can’t judge whether that was as happy a day for people in Africa as it was in Portugal; you have to ask them that. But I know that Amilcar would’ve been happy that the Portuguese were free, too.”

Two years later, in 1976, officials in Guinea-Bissau asked Mateus to suspend operations at the PAIGC Support Committee, saying that his work was done.

“What [April 25] changes most dramatically in Portugal is the longest running dictatorship of the 20th century comes to an end,” Noversa said. “The end of the dictatorship will result in the end of the colonial wars, and most significantly, the end of the colonies.”

The revolution also slowed immigration to the U.S. as the new government integrated Portugal into the world economy and instituted democratic reforms. Indeed, in 2013, only 850 Portuguese immigrated to the U.S. 

“People now thought: ‘I don’t have to leave,’” said Noversa. “I have economic liberties and civil liberties protected by my government. I don’t have to go somewhere else.”

According to the 2021 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimate, over 31,000 people in New Bedford, slightly more than 31% of its population, identified as Portuguese. Noversa said that Portuguese people have reason to celebrate, too, even if they were born in the U.S.

“If you’re of Portuguese descent, you should understand that the country of your parents and grandparents has just been transformed,” she said. “Although that may not impact you directly, you should rejoice for your family there because you should rejoice when any people get civil liberties we should all expect.”

Two months after the coup, Vieira was discharged, shortly before a pre-planned move to join his father and two siblings already in New Bedford. For him, the revolution was a moment in time where the will of the people manifested itself in change.

“There was a revolution because nobody was happy with how things were,” he said. “They said we weren’t ready for so much freedom, but now, we have rights.”

“The Revolution happened,” he continued. “And now Portugal is different from what it was.”

Kevin G. Andrade is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @KevinGAndrade.

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