20 DECEMBER 1975, Page 9


Back to barracks

Susanna Ross


"We've got a new commanding officer," e,3tPlained the military policeman to a man who MI:mired at the barracks what had happened to one of Lisbon's most radical regiments after the abortive leftist uprising last month. "He thinks orders should be obeyed, just like that, you kllow, military discipline and all that. We can't have that,he said. nut that's what they got. And there there was olore to come. In a constitutional law decreed last week the High Command announced that unit commanders were responsible for their regiments and that orders were to be obeyed, °°t disputed, discussed or Passed on to someone else. This law, coupled with the military leaders' offer of immediate revision of me. constitutional agreement, which bound the political parties to accept military rule for at least three years, marked a decisive step towards getting the soldiers out of politics, !here they have been since the coup of April 45, 1974, and back to the barracks. The turning point was November 25 when Pt°:government troops defeated a leftist rrilditarY uprising and put an end to the `-°rIlMunists and extreme left's hopes of aining control of Portugal through their ti:;11ence in the armed forces. As a result of the 'teat of November 25, one of the most ep°1°tIrful and flamboyant figures of the fori_11,gliese revolution left the stage having "Y lived up to his theatrical name, Otelo. General Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, now reduced to his pre-revolutionary rank of major, ,d White Mocambican, under the old regime was p°tructor to the fascist-type para-military rtuguese Legion and sold shares in property h.` an international development company in sPare time. Under the new he threatened to LrliLtIP all opponents of the revolution in the rl bull ring and declared regretfully that 17h a little'more political education he might ave been the Fidel Castro of Europe. ti When he and five other top militaryrevoluthcin.arles fell from power, the Communists and eir allies lost Otelo's military operational cITrnand COPCON to which the military POlice for example, belonged, the naval and ,711Y Chiefs of Staff, the head of military Le.unter intelligence and control of the one re hon or so personal files compiled by the old thgeittle's secret police all of which had given Power out of all proportion to their tPort in the country. 1.101 he struggle for power between moderate in ri-Ccorrimunist officers and those sympathis wi heg th the Communists and the extreme left, ragn Way back in the year, but events moved 41dly to a climax after November 20 when the ba,.71,..e Minister, Admiral Pinheiro de Azevedo, ed bY the two majority parties, the uouelahsts and Popular Democrats, and all the aimil-Collamunist officers, made the dramatic 011-,11cement that the government was going outstrike until the military sorted themselves the and Provided the necessary authority for ,lovernment to function. erne In sick of playing games," he said, as he pre rged from the presidential Palace after "rlting his government's demands to

President General Costa Gomes, and added with a sarcastic smile, "I've been besieged twice and I don't like it."

His two months in office up to then as head of a coalition of moderate non-Communist officers, independent politicians and represen tatives of the Communists, Socialists and Popular Democrats, for the first time represented in proportion to the votes they got in the elections in April for the Constituent Assembly had been a series of battles against determined opponents on the left reacting against what they saw as a shift to the right. One of his first cabinet meetings was interrupted by disabled ex-servicemen who besieged his residence demanding proper pensions and rehabilitation. Then came a whole series of strikes and protests by various groups focusing principally on two key ministries where the Communists had lost control when the Admiral's government was formed, the Ministries of Information and Labour. The second siege came when thousands of striking building workers surrounded the Prime Minister's residence and held hid' virtually a prisoner for thirty-six hours until he agreed to their pay demands. The sieges had two things in common. Behind the legitimate grievances of the demonstrators there were clear signs of Communist organisation and manipulation and in neither case did General Otelo, then military commander of the capital, lift a finger to rescue the prime minister.

The military Revolutionary Council, headed by President Costa Gomes, answered the government's ultimatum on November 21 with what looked like a characteristic compromise. In return for replacing General Otelo as Lisbon military commander, it told the government to make concessions to working-class demands and made a few other gestures to the left, such as allowing Otelo to retain his COPCON command and giving him the job of developing a project to set up soldiers and workers in councils to build into a system of 'popular power'. But the pro-Communist officers knew that without the Lisbon command Otelo was powerless and they quickly gathered commanders of radical units in the capital and announced that the new commander of Lisbon, the strongly anti-Communist Captain Vasco Lourenco, was unacceptable.

That weekend the country seemed to be on the brink of civil war. The radical units were in virtual rebellion, the Socialists, the main party in the government, holding mass rallies all round the country, attacked General Otelo and the President for failing to back the government to the hilt, and said they would fight for freedom against the Communists if necessary and the northern military commander and the colonel of the crack commando regiment in Lisbon ready to back the government.

Two forces then intervened to spark off the decisive conflict. On November 24 as the Revolutionary Council went into emergency session, thousands of angry farmers from all over Portugal gathered in the market town of Rio Maior, fifty miles north of Lisbon to protest against illegal occupations of farms. That night, to back up the delegation taking their demands to the Revolutionary Council, they barricaded all the roads into Lisbon from the north and east. The Socialists jubilantly described the movement, which threatened to isolate the capital from the rest of the country, as a spontaneous popular uprising. Reliable sources said President Costa Gomes trembled as he received the farmer's delegation. Just before dawn the Council confirmed the sacking of General Otelo.

While it was still dark, the second force, heavily armed groups of paratroopers, moved out of their base and took over two air force command headquarters and three air bases. The Paras' protest movement had been overshadowed by the continuing political crisis but it was to prove the vital factor in provoking the climax of November 25.

At any decisive moment, especially an attempt to force a change in government, control of the air force is essential. The traditionally conservative air force had been virtually paralysed since the abortive rightwing coup in March by a group of sergeants, again showing all the signs of Communist manipulation, who controlled supplies and maintenance of the planes. As the officer pilots gradually regained control, the sergeants set to work on the air force paratroopers, a disciplined elite force of over fifteen hundred men based at Tancos eighty miles from Lisbon.

Two weeks before November 25 most of the paratroop officers walked out of Tancos in disgust leaving the sergeants and soldiers in what amounted to self-management. The attempts by the Air Chief of Staff, first to disband the entire force and then to cut off their Supplies of electricity and food, merely strengthened the sergeants' arguments about the soldiers' just struggle against the reactionary officer ,class.

As the Paras occupied the air bases and command headquarters that morning, radical units loyal to General Otelo moved out to control the main road to the north, the military airport and the radio and television stations. The left had taken the fatal first steps to its own liquidation. Pro-government military commanders swung into action With counteroperation plans which had been maturing behind the scenes for months. The Commandos, recently reinforced with three hundred and fifty ex-Commando volunteers, carried out the first operations almost single-handed, joined later by two cavalry regiments and then backed up by loyal troops from the north.

One by one the leftist forces gave themselves up, overwhelmed by a military operation bigger even than the original coup against the old regime, and equally correct but, equally bloodless.

The military commanders, under the new Army Chief of Staff, General Ramalho Eanes, were cock-a-hoop. The leftists had given them just the opportunity they had been waiting for. The rebellion was sufficiently weak for them to be able to prove their efficiency and restore morale and discipline to the forces, but big enough to justify a purge of leftists from top to bottom. Under cover of martial law they also purged the editorial and administrative boards of some state-owned newspapers, accusing them of contributing to the climate of tension and expectation which preceded November 25 and raided extreme left-wing groups in an attempt to recover arms.

For a few days the people of Lisbon enjoyed a bewildering calm. The iron hand of authority had descended after nineteen months of revolutionary turbulence. The nightly curfew was scrupulously respected. Instead of revolu tionary songs and political propaganda the radio and television gave only dry official communiqués and light entertainment including traditional folk music and the mournful [ado songs. The news-stands were empty except for the pornography.

Then gradually things returned to normal. Normal, that is, except that most of the leftist propaganda, the strikes and demonstrations failed to reappear. Normal, for the more conservative officers who now call the tune, means no more long-haired soldiers' assemblies, no more people's power. It meant respect for the will of the majority, constitutional government, the rule of law and the army back in its place.

The regular police are back in business and there is a recruiting drive for the paramilitary National Guard. The military leaders have begun the process of trying all political prisoners jailed since the April 25 coup, including the twelve hundred or so agents of the old regime's secret police. Under pressure from these officers the military Revolutionary Council has begun to renegotiate the constitutional pact, by which the military, then led by the pro-Communist faction, bound the parties to write military power into the constitution, before the constituent assembly was even elected.

The majority parties, the Socialists and Popular Democrats, say they signed under pressure for fear that the military would call off the elections altogether if they didn't. While the Communists, who always supported the pact, and certain left-wing Socialists and certain members of the Revolutionary Council led by foreign Minister Major Melo Antunes, want to forge a new alliance to strengthen the left against the swing to the right, the other three main parties, the Socialists, Popular Democrats and Conservatives are demanding a complete_ withdrawal of the military from politics. The swing to the right at party level is quite obvious. The extreme left-wing revolutionary front is breaking up. The Communists acknowledging that November 25 was a crushing defeat for the revolutionary forces, have promised to adapt their tactics to the new balance of power. The left wing of the Popular Democratic Party has split with the leadership, accusing the Secretary-General Dr Francisco Carneiro of setting up a dictatorship within the party and of taking the popular democrats away from their social democratic programme.

The Conservatives, whose strength is in the north, and who have scarcely operated in the south at all, held a rally near Lisbon ten days ago at which General Carlos Galvao de Melo said the time had come to drive the Communists into the sea. The Christian Democratic Party, dormant since it was accused of complicity in the right-wing coup attempt in March and banned from the April elections, has reappeared to hold its second congress and present its programme.

The legislative elections, now scheduled for April 1976, are expected to reflect this swing, and this is only natural in a country with strong conservative traditions and a small urban working class, upset by nineteen months of revolutionary upheaval after fifty years of relative stability.

To the Communists and the extreme left this means the end of the revolution and the installation of a parliamentary democracy. But even people who want just that, like one officer I spoke to the other day, remark that the Portuguese will be lucky if they get that. With the full weight of the economic crisis about to descend on the country, he told' me, people will look again for a Salazar and then we might as well forget about constitutions, party programmes, strikes and the rest of it. It will happen I'm convinced, not because any of us wants it, but because it's inevitable._