Jan Pronk

50 years ago. The Carnation Revolution in Portugal

Speech on the occasion of 50th anniversary celebrations of the Carnation Revolution in Portugal. Amare studio, The Hague, 27 April 2024

Half a century of democracy. Portuguese can be proud that they achieved it themselves, without outside intervention. And Europe can rejoice that that democracy has proved sustainable. Portugal belongs to Europe, is a full member of the European Union, contributes to peace and justice beyond its own borders and, despite all the economic problems in the world, manages to gradually increase the prosperity of its own people.

From abroad, the process was watched with excitement. This was true for the Netherlands and other countries in Europe, which hoped that lasting peace would be established across the continent by enabling peace, justice and prosperity in a Union that would include all of western Europe.

It also applied to countries in Africa, which had an interest in democracy in Portugal because they expected that democracy, once also established in Portugal, would initiate the final phase of colonial domination from Europe.

Many countries in Africa had already gained independence, but Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and Sao Tomé had not yet, as had not, for that matter, some other countries in Southern Africa: Zimbabwe and Namibia. But the founding of the United Nations had ushered in a new phase in world history. The UN Charter had recognised the right of all countries to self-determination. And a UN declaration on granting independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples had been elaborated on the principles of independence and self-determination. In that interim period, many countries in Africa and Asia had joined the United Nations as independent states, but it was now a matter of completing that process.


People who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

Dutch governments in the 1950s and 1960s kept fairly quiet. For Dutch politicians, the Cold War between East and West outweighed the conflict between North and South in the world. The Netherlands had resigned itself with great difficulty to undoing its own colonial empire and even sent an army to Indonesia twice in the 1940s to put an end to the aspirations of the liberation movement that had declared Indonesia's independence in 1945.

This had been done under the responsibility of both Christian and social democratic politicians. But 15 years later, many Dutch politicians had still not accepted it. Foreign minister Joseph Luns, in particular, took a rigid stance on Indonesia in the final phase of decolonisation. Luns would later be appointed secretary-general of NATO. Until then, he had fiercely defended US policy towards Vietnam. He was also the one who declared that Salazar had ruled Portugal with wisdom.

So, Dutch politicians who criticised Portugal as a colonial power were seen as people living in a glass house, who shouldn't be throwing stones.  The main reason for silence, however, was that Portugal was considered an ally within NATO and therefore should not be criticised.

Action groups and the left-wing opposition thought otherwise. The Angola Committee led by Sietse Bosgra was particularly active. They invited Eduardo Mondlane and Samora Machel to come and deliver speeches in the Netherlands. Campaigners occupied the Portuguese consulate in Amsterdam. And demonstrations took place against Portugal's presence at a NATO parade. Motions were tabled at Labour Party congresses calling for a halt to supplies of arms and Fokker planes to Portugal and to leave NATO because of the Americans' war in Vietnam and the Portuguese in Southern Africa.

Demonstrations were held against the Netherlands sending back Portuguese refugees who had left their country to avoid serving in the army. In the Netherlands, there were actions against coffee imports from Angola, against the construction of the Cabora Bassa Dam in Mozambique, and against the massacres committed by the Portuguese army in Wiriyamu and Inhaminga in Mozambique in 1972 and 1973, reported by the White Fathers.

But there were also positive actions, for example fundraising for the Mozambique Institute in Tanzania, the Eduardo Mondlane Foundation and for medical aid to liberation movements in Angola through the specially created Medical Committee Angola.



A new start

With the Carnation Revolution of 25 April 1974, everything changed. Already two weeks later, Mario Soares visited the Netherlands for talks with the government. It was a new government, formed by progressive and leftist parties under the leadership of Prime Minister Joop den Uyl. I was part of it as Minister for Development Cooperation and responsible, among other things, for supporting liberation movements in Southern Africa. Previous governments had always been opposed to this, but we had started it immediately after taking office, even before the Carnation Revolution.

We spoke to Soares who asked us for help. He said he feared that if the West did not support the new democratic Portugal, the same might happen as in Chile, where the armed forces had put an end to Allende's democratic-socialist regime. We promised him that support.

The cabinet was concerned about the further course of events. A new military coup could not be ruled out. Caetano's regime could return to power. The social-democrats in Portugal could be sidelined by the communists, which we feared to be in favour of the Russians. There could also always break out a civil war, which would cause casualties.  But it all ended well, thanks to Soares' statesmanship. Den Uyl had the highest esteem for him. They were like-minded: both thought that, if a situation would arise in which social-democratic politicians  would have to make a choice, democracy was more important than socialism.

My Foreign Affairs colleague Max van der Stoel, together with PvdA Foreign Secretary Relus ter Beek, had intensive contacts with Soares and his people in the Socialist International. And shortly afterwards, our cabinet decided to recognise the new regime in Portugal unreservedly. I had taken a somewhat different position in the cabinet discussion: recognise the new regime only as far as Portuguese territory in Europe is concerned, and not the overseas territories occupied by Portugal. I received no support for that: the recognition was unconditional. But most colleagues were confident that Soares would keep his word. So he did.  Again he proved to be a sincere politician and true statesman. He became Foreign Minister and made haste. Within a year, Guinea-Bissau, Angola, Cape Verde, Mozambique and Sao Tomé obtained their independence.   


Making democracy more sustainable

I kept in touch with those countries as a Minister and later as a UN Official. I met Agostinho Neto of the MPLA, Pereira of the PAIGC, Chissano, who became Prime Minister of Mozambique, Marcelino dos Santos, the Mozambican Foreign Minister, Minister of Culture Honwana, Janet Mondlane and Graça Machel who continued to work tirelessly for their countries after the violent deaths of their husbands.  With them and other politicians in the newly independent countries I had long discussions, together with the support we gave them to develop economically and to become democratic nation states. Many enthusiastic young Dutch development workers went to the South in order to help the people in the new countries. Many stayed for decades, in particular in Mozambique

However, things did not always go well. Long civil wars brought Angola and Mozambique close to the abyss. International efforts had helped establish peace, but new leaders in these countries proved to be increasingly disinterested in democracy, socialism, human rights and welfare for the entire population. That is the tragedy of new states that fought their way free, almost unavoidably and for a long time. But Portugal was spared that fate. Or, rather, the Portuguese people themselves cherished democracy, for half a century.


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Let me end by quoting Jorge Sampaio, Mário Soares' immediate successor as President of Portugal and guardian of his ideas on peace, freedom and democracy. I had the honour of working with him as part of the Alliance for Civilisation he chaired. “Strive for respect and understanding”, Sampaio said, because "a conflict anywhere can easily become a conflict everywhere, in particular in these times of globalisation and world-wide communication". And, he added: "Nowadays democracy requires, first and foremost, good governance of cultural diversity". It is a message from Portugal that we in Europe and beyond should take to heart.



Jan Pronk

Speech on the occasion of 50th anniversary celebrations of the Carnation Revolution in Portugal.

Amare studio, The Hague, 27 April 2024