Rebel officers of 1974 support Portuguese protests
From the New York Times 25 November 2011
In Portugal, military leaders of the 1974 revolution that helped the country return to democracy are back on the front line.
As protests mount against the government’s austerity measures and Portuguese trade unions coordinated a general strike Thursday, some of the rebel officers who led the overthrow of Portugal’s dictatorship are making their voices heard again, even warning that Europe’s debt crisis could trigger the kind of revolutionary turmoil that they spearheaded almost four decades ago.
“We must all come together to prevent this crisis from erasing democracy, with governments run either by technocrats or hopeless politicians,” said Vasco Lourenço, who was a captain in the Portuguese Army before spearheading the rebellion and ascending in its aftermath to the rank of general and military commander of the Lisbon region.
Unless governments put the interests of citizens ahead of those of investors, he added, “I think that a revolutionary reaction cannot be ruled out — whether in Greece, Italy, here or elsewhere — and with the sort of violence that we avoided in 1974.”
The message from this small contingent of former military officers is not uniform and sometimes extreme, with one of their most radical and outspoken members, Col. Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, even suggesting that, if needed, the military could step in again to restore order and help put Portugal back on track.
But what these retired officers share with many of the protesters who took over central Lisbon on Thursday afternoon is a growing feeling of frustration at how indebted Portugal, like other ailing euro economies, has allowed its fate to be dictated by financial markets.
On Thursday, Portugal’s precarious borrowing situation was underlined when Fitch, the credit rating agency, cut its sovereign debt to junk status, down one notch to BB+. Fitch said that its decision, which followed a similar one by Moody’s, reflected “large fiscal imbalances, high indebtedness across all sectors and adverse macroeconomic outlook” facing Portugal.
“We cannot let the one percent of the population that controls financial markets destroy the rest of society,” said Mário Tomé, a 71-year former colonel, as he marched down Avenida da Liberdade, one of Lisbon’s main thoroughfares, surrounded by posters calling for the protection of salaries, as well as education and other public services.
Echoing that view, Mr. Lourenço said that “the politicians have long been doing too much to serve the interests of financiers, but this crisis has now just turned them into their employees.”
Still, like most of his brothers in arms from the 1974 struggle, Mr. Lourenço has long been on the sidelines, after retiring from the army in 1987. Although he took part in some recent demonstrations, he said he had had to stay away from the protest march Thursday because of a bad knee.
In the aftermath of the revolution, officers like Mr. Lourenço were “the masters of the country but they are now ghosts from a distant past,” said Rui Ramos, a political analyst and history professor at Lisbon University.
“They still retain some aura as historical figures but have no influence among the military,” Mr. Ramos said, “and it’s unlikely that their names mean much to people under 50.”
Mr. Tomé, however, said that his aim was not to be back in the limelight but to remind a new generation of Portuguese about how a peaceful overhaul could be achieved through concerted action, as was the case when a group of officers led the rebellion on April 25, 1974.
“This is not about reproducing April 25, and of course young people should be looking forward rather than back, but I still think that the experience of our revolution is important as an example of how people can and should be mobilized,” he said.
Indeed, there were conflicting reports Thursday about whether Portugal’s powerful labor unions had achieved their goal of paralyzing the country for 24 hours to protest recent austerity cuts. While air traffic and other parts of the public transport network were largely halted by the general strike, the unions, which represent more than a million workers, engaged in a war of words with the government over the overall level of participation in the strike — after the government initially said that only 3.6 percent of public administration employees had failed to show up for work.
Portugal held a snap election in June that resulted in a heavy defeat for a Socialist administration that had already had to request a €78 billion, or more than $100 billion, international bailout. Since then, a center-right coalition government, led by Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho, has pushed through further austerity measures to meet the terms of the bailout. While a blend of tax increases and spending cuts is set to cause more pain for citizens, Mr. Passos Coelho’s government has a parliamentary majority, thereby guaranteeing approval of the 2012 budget and avoiding the kind of dispute that forced the resignation of the previous Socialist government.
Furthermore, Cristina Casalinho, chief economist at Banco BPI, one of Portugal’s leading banks, said it would be wrong to infer from a general strike that was called and led by trade unions that there was a clear drop in public support for the government and serious harm done to its credibility. Most people, she suggested, viewed such a strike as “useless and helpless, because they acknowledge that the government does not have many options available to deliver what has been agreed” with international creditors.
And while Mr. Passos Coelho has seen his approval ratings fall recently, “it is not the opposition that is gaining ground in the polls, but the junior coalition partner,” she added.
Meanwhile, one of the former colonels, Mr. Carvalho, argued that there was a parallel between Portugal’s current dependence on the International Monetary Fund and other international creditors and the aftermath of the 1974 revolution, when he claimed that the U.S. administration of President Gerald R. Ford had successfully pressured Portugal into avoiding a radical swing from dictatorship to an extreme form of Socialism. “The situation is different today, but outsiders are again blackmailing Portugal,” he said.
Over the past month, Greece and Italy turned to respected technocrats, respectively Lucas Papademos and Mario Monti, to take charge of emergency governments. Spain, meanwhile, held a general election last Sunday that, as in Portugal, returned the center-right to power as voters punished the governing Socialists.
In Portugal, unemployment has climbed to 12 percent in an economy that is expected to contract this year and next.
“Portugal is still a lot better off than before the revolution,” Mr. Lourenço said. “But I never expected to see again as much social inequality as what we’re facing today.”