How Carnations Framed a Revolution

Carnation Revolution

Today is Dia da Liberdade in Portugal, which commemorates the day the authoritarian regime, Estado Novo, was overturned in a peaceful military coup. On April 25, 1974, the Carnation Revolution marked the end of almost 50 years of dictatorial rule. It also ended the 13-year Portuguese Colonial War and Portuguese colonialism, and it began a revolutionary process for implementing a democratic government.

To understand the revolution, you have to understand the regime that was being overthrown. The Estado Novo government was in power from 1926-1974. It came into being following: 1) the assassination of King Carlos I in 1908; 2) the overthrow of the Portuguese monarchy in 1910; and 3) a long struggle to implement an ultimately unstable parliamentary system.

Led by António de Oliveira Salazar and then by Marcelo Caetano, the dictatorship implemented a conservative corporatist system based in Catholicism and ripe with fascism. Order was preferred over freedom, and so the government used “censorship, propaganda, and political imprisonment” to “neutralize society” with its secret police force, PIDE (Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado) (Encyclopedia Britannica - Portugal). NATO countries tolerated the regime since it was anti-communist and the Cold War was in full swing. In fact, according to archives in the Ford Library Museum, President Gerald Ford had a contingency plan for the United States to seize the Azores Islands--of strategic, political, and military importance--if the communists ever came to power in Portugal. 

While Portugal experienced some economic growth under the Estado Novo regime from 1960-1973, it remained western Europe’s poorest country (Encyclopedia Britannica - Portugal The First Republic). Many living under the regime continued to experience poverty, hardship, and illiteracy. With illiteracy levels much higher than other western European countries, it’s estimated that as many as 50-75% of the Portuguese population in rural farming communities was illiterate (Jack Spillane, SouthCoast Today, 2008, “Over History, Immigration…”).


When my parents were growing up on the Azores (1951-1973) public education was only available through the 4th grade. 

4th Grade Diploma

Picture of my dad's 4th grade diploma from 1964.

Many houses, including my mom’s family home, didn’t have electricity or running water.  

Family home

Home where my mom grew up in Terceira. Picture taken in 2016.

When my mom’s family immigrated to the United States on December 21, 1973--4 months before the Carnation Revolution--she was delighted by twinkling Christmas lights, something she had never seen growing up on Terceira.


Tensions from the Portuguese Colonial War ultimately led to the 1974 revolution. Salazar was opposed to decolonization and ordered Portuguese troops to its African colonies. From 1961-1974, more than 1 million people, mostly young men, were sent to fight in Angola, Mozambique, and what is now Guinea-Bissau to squash independence movements (RTP Notícias). Since the 19th century, colonial treaties had been unpopular in Portugal, where they were seen as disadvantageous to the country. The Portuguese Colonial War in the 1960s and 1970s was especially unpopular, expensive, and heavily criticized abroad, and its purpose was increasingly unclear to the greater population and some military officers. 


My dad was one of the young Portuguese soldiers sent to fight. Despite opposing the war, he was conscripted into the Portuguese military from 1972 to 1975 and was stationed in Mozambique. 

Pai reading

Picture of my dad as a young man reading a letter when stationed in Mozambique. One of my favorite pictures of my dad from this time period.

He was in Mozambique during the 1974 revolution. When he returned to Portugal in 1975, the country was still in transition and working to develop a democratic parliamentary system that would eventually result in the 1976 Constitution. Different political parties were competing for support and party membership.


Picture of pamphlets from the Portuguese Communist Party in 1975. 

My dad would eventually immigrate to the United States in 1975 to meet up with his parents and siblings who had already immigrated to California. 


General António de Spínola argued the wars in Africa “could not be settled by force of arms and advocated negotiated autonomy for the colonies and an alternative to Caetano’s leadership.” (Encyclopedia Britannica - The New State). The Armed Forces Movement (Movimento das Forças Armadas; MFA) planned and initiated the coup of April 25, 1974, which was met with broad, though unplanned, civilian support. It became known as the Carnation Revolution.

So, why is it called the Carnation Revolution? 

“[I]t was a simple gesture by a lady -- Celeste Caeiro -- who was carrying red carnations for the anniversary of the Franjinhas Restaurant where she worked as a waitress, but which had closed due to the revolution in the street...A soldier at Rossio Square in downtown Lisbon asked her for a cigarette, but as Celeste did not smoke, she gave him a carnation instead which he placed in the barrel of his firearm. One by one, the soldiers began to imitate him! (Miguel V. Ávila, Tribuna Portuguesa, 15 de Abril de 2021)

After decades of authoritarianism, the fact that a peaceful military coup ultimately transformed Portugal from a dictatorship to a democratic republic is, in and of itself, revolutionary. There is something extraordinary about this revolution studded with carnations. While the country has gone through periods of economic hardship and remains the “poorest” country in western Europe (NPR, 2015, Portugal Beckons…), the Carnation Revolution brought about significant social and political freedoms that continue to this day. Hence, Freedom Day.

Wishing you all lots of peace and lots of carnations. Feliz Dia da Liberdade!

Revolucao dos Cravos

 Stencil in red ink of well-known photo of a Portuguese soldier from the 1974 revolution holding a rifle with a carnation in its muzzle. Photo by JotaCartas on Wikimedia Commons.

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