Seeing this mural on a wall in the Bairro Alto today made me remember that some of my only conceptions of Portugal came about in 1974, when I was in Germany on my Fulbright. 1974 was a BIG year for Portugal, when the Portuguese people finally overthrew the government of their dictator of 40 years, António de Oliveira Salazar. Salazar had died in 1970, after having been in power since 1926 (!), but his minions had attempted to continue the Estado Novo–his regime–after his death. And as is so often the case with dying regimes, the antiquated machinery that kept the dictatorship going became even more oppressive and paranoid as their power was diminished. But finally, and surprisingly under the initial aegis of the military, democracy arrived, in what has been called ”The Carnation Revolution” (because the students who spearheaded the popular revolt placed carnations in the guns of the policemen). The first free election was held on 25 April 1974, a day still celebrated as a national holiday.
It was a heady time to be a student in Portugal, and we Fulbrighters experienced some of that excitement second hand. In early April 1974, all the Fulbright scholars in Europe convened in Berlin (I remember the date because I celebrated my 25th birthday there on April 1) for some kind of ”American community of scholars” celebration at the American Consulate there. You cannot imagine a more motley group of young intellectual radicals and scholarly firebrands descending on the Consulate than this batch of long-haired idealists, and more conservative American diplomats would have been hard to find. The rooms of the Consul General’s house, where we were all invited to a dinner, were filled with the latest American art–Rauschenberg’s famous tire and goat was there!!–but I remember the Consul’s wife taking me upstairs to show me her own collection, which were mostly tepid washed-out watercolors. I still have this image of this group–all of us living on about $200 a month–simply devouring this mound of shrimp and ham sandwiches, more meat than we had seen in months. (Several of us, myself included, got very ill that night–we figured that was the Nixon government’s revenge….)
But I digress. Among the Fulbrighters were the two who were in Portugal–and what tales they could tell! They were in the thick of the demonstrations at the universities. We stayed up late to listen to their stories. And now I realize that they were back in the country, just in time for April 25, and the days of euphoric celebration.
Lisbon still has reminders of those times, as I realized when I saw this plaque while walking down Calcada Ribeiro Santos, a street once named for a Salazar cronie, and now memorializing Jose Ribeiro Santos, a student leader killed by the police in 1972 during the last of the demonstrations attacked by the Estado Novo forces. His death was an important catalyst for the civil uprisings against the entrenched government. Those were interesting times, and we were all so young, and so hopeful, and so certain that things could only get better and better.
The socialist government that came to power then lasted a little while, but NATO and other American interests–ever vigilant about the possible spread of Communism–made sure that utopian ideals of a classless society would never have a chance. And of course, economic realities set in as well. Portugal has since swung between conservative and socialist governments, and is now just trying to keep its head above water after the 2008 crisis and the EU financial dilemmas for all the smaller countries. But there are signs that some left-wing forces are still relevant and may be making a bit of a comeback. In any event, seeing that plaque took me back to my most radical days, when we really did think we could make the world a more humane place.