This article is part of the series “50 Years After: Long Live the Carnation Revolution”, published by Pressenza since mid-March 2024.

The “Carnation Revolution” of 1974-75 brought freedom to the Portuguese after 48 years of fascism and independence to the Portuguese colonies in Africa after 500 years of imperial rule.

Foto do blog ttps://

Carlos Matos Gomes is one of the most respected military officers and historians of the colonial war. He was born in Ribatejo, Portugal, in 1946. He began his military career in 1963. He served during the colonial war in Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea, in the Special Forces of the Comandos. In Guinea, he was one of the founders of the Captains’ Movement and participated in the first coordinating commission of the Armed Forces Movement (MFA). An active military officer until 2003, he is currently a colonel in the reserves. Since 1982 he has also pursued a literary career under the pseudonym Carlos Vale Ferraz. Matos Gomes is a regular contributor to this blog.

In the interview he gave to Pressenza on 28/3/2024 via Zoom, I appreciated his profound knowledge of 25 April and the Carnation Revolution, but also the calm and diplomacy with which he tackles even the most difficult and controversial issues.

The text of the interview below has been slightly edited. You can watch the full interview on video at the bottom of this article.

The colonial question at the heart of the military coup of 25 April 1974

Pressenza: The colonial question was at the heart of the coup d’état of 25 April 1974 against the fascist regime in Portugal because the military knew better than anyone that it could not win the wars against the liberation movements in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau.
Many of our readers are humanists and non-violent. I fled Portugal at the end of the 1960s as a conscientious objector, refusing to join the Portuguese troops defending colonialism in Africa.
How could a military officer like you, a colonel who was fighting as a captain in Guinea at the time, “change sides” overnight, go from defending colonialism to opposing it, after helping to prepare and carry out the coup of 25 April and being part of the MFA (Movement of the Armed Forces), which staged the coup and ran the country for several years?
Matos Gomes: Thank you very much for the opportunity to talk about 25 April and the great political, strategic, and social changes that took place in Portugal, but also in the world, as a result of that coup d’état by the Portuguese captains. The colonial question has been a central issue in Portuguese politics since the 19th century when the colonization agreements of the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 [which divided Africa among the European powers] were signed. From then until the Second World War, colonialism was at the center of European politics. Decolonization took place only after Europe’s defeat in that war. Portugal was the only colonial power that was not also an industrial power, so it used the colonies only for their sovereignty and exchange value, as ‘raw material’ in its international relations, especially in difficult times. Our regime felt the need to preserve the colonies, but on the other hand, there was the general right of peoples – recognized after the Second World War – to choose their destiny. The consciousness-raising of my generation and the April captains was a continuous learning process, closely linked to the consciousness-raising of society as a whole. More than a million young Portuguese fled the colonial war, and this made us realize its futility.

This shows that people are not only good or bad, they also learn. But was this change of attitude on the part of the military in April more rational, i.e. because they didn’t believe they could win the wars, or also emotional, because they decided to show solidarity with the cause of the liberation movements fighting for independence?
It was mainly a rational consciousness-raising. When the military goes to war, they make their decisions rationally the regime’s position was irrational – and the decision of the April captains to overthrow the regime and to prepare for that overthrow was also rational.

But did the captains intend from the beginning to give independence to the colonies, or did they only want to solve the problem of the war, i.e. to stop the war, to reach some kind of compromise?
The military movement that launched the coup was not united in its aims and actions. It was the result of the alliance of two different visions: on the one hand, that of what I would call the “Spinolistas” (around General António Spínola and his book “Portugal and the Future”), who had the vision of creating a community of Portuguese-speaking states on the colonial question. On the other hand, there was the line of the Captains’ Movement, which sought to integrate Portugal into the decolonization movement already being carried out by the other European colonial powers, which implied the recognition of independence (the case of Guinea, whose independence had already been declared in 1973) and the negotiation of independence with the armed guerrilla movements that had been at war in Angola (MPLA, FNLA, UNITA) and Mozambique (FRELIMO).

But even after Guinea-Bissau declared independence, you (still a captain stationed in Guinea) continued to fight for the Portuguese to keep this colony!
At that time, the Guinean troops were not fighting to win the war but to avoid losing it. In other words, to buy time for the political powers to find a solution to the war. That such a war could not be won was already part of Portuguese military doctrine. According to the manual on subversive wars, based on French and British experience, subversive wars were defined as imminently political. Therefore, measures to resolve them had to be political. The break between the military and the Portuguese political power occurred because the political power was unable to find solutions.

Could it therefore be said that Guinea’s “premature” independence in 1973 in some way precipitated the coup d’état of 25 April 1974 in Portugal?
The political decision of the PAIGC [Party for the Liberation of Guinea and Cape Verde] to declare independence strengthened the military position that the PAIGC had already imposed in Guinea in 1973, after attacking and occupying two garrisons, one in the north and the other in the south of the country. From that time (May 1973), Portugal counted around 70 deaths in Guinea alone, an unprecedented number. It was a very difficult situation to deal with in terms of public opinion. On the other hand, after this unilateral declaration of independence by the PAIGC, the new country was recognized by about 80 countries of the international community. For the Portuguese military on the ground, we were therefore in a “pre-defeat” situation and were seen as occupying forces in another territory. This put much more pressure on the young captains to force a solution that the regime was unable to find.

Matos Gomes in Guinea-Bissau on 10 June 1973 (left. Photo by the interviewee)

The Carnation Revolution, by the people, began on 25 April 1974.

On 25 April is celebrated only as the liberation of the Portuguese people from fascism, and its anti-colonial dimension is left out. 25 April was a double liberation! And the genuinely socialist dimension of the Carnation Revolution, which followed and lasted until 25 November 1975, is also omitted. There was even a triple dimension!
In short, what was the Carnation Revolution for you in Portugal, what you, Colonel, still a captain at the time, call “internal decolonization”, as opposed to the “external decolonization” of the colonies?
The 25th of April had this general theme of the three D’s: “Decolonize, Democratize, and Develop”.
Decolonization is fundamental and linked to the general concept of freedom. Freedom was essential for the people of the colonies to be able to choose their destiny, and it was also essential for the Portuguese to be able to choose a model of society in which to live better than before, which is linked to development.

The 25th of April came at a time in the history of Europe and the world when neo-liberalism was being introduced, and therefore it went completely “against the tide” of the “laissez-faire, laissez-passer” fashions, of individualism, of the reduction of the power of the State and also of the role of the State in society. And it is this model that is in force today, reproduced, projected, and sold by the great machines of thought production. Today, therefore, the only way of thinking is centered on the question of freedom. The 25th of April has a decisive role to play in the question of the dignity of both the Portuguese and the African peoples, but it also has the great role – often forgotten – of having brought Portugal into the modern age. Fascism, Salazarism, was a painful, backward, almost medieval regime. But after 25 April, young Portuguese began to relate to young Europeans, and Portuguese workers to workers in the rest of Europe. So 25 April broke a 500-year tradition in Portugal – the 500-year tradition outside Europe – and brought Portugal back into Europe.
It also had another important role, which was to ensure the liberation of two other dictatorships that still existed: the Spanish dictatorship and the Greek dictatorship. Later, it also played a very important role in the abolition of apartheid in South Africa. And it had a unique role, which is deliberately ignored, which was that the FORCE (one of the most powerful apparatuses of social repression in existence), at a certain moment in history, went from defending the oligarchic groups that had always dominated the states to defending the popular groups. Nobody wants to talk about it.

That was something unique in history, wasn’t it?

The intervention of foreign powers after 11 March 1975.

The Carnation Revolution was non-violent. I want to stress this because in Pressenza we have many pacifists… In revolutions, it often happens (almost always, in fact) that foreign powers intervene. What can you tell us about the intervention of the United States of America, Germany, and the then-Soviet Union in this revolutionary process in Portugal?

One of the factors in the success of the 25 April coup d’état was the fact that, unlike what was usual here in Portugal, it was an exclusively military coup d’état, i.e. there was no intervention by civilian groups, as had been the case in the coup attempts by Humberto Delgado or others in Portugal after the Second World War. The program of action was drawn up in secret by a limited group of military officers, and this made it possible to take military action without the knowledge of the political groups and therefore of the foreign powers with which they were linked. In the first moments, from 25 April to 11 March 1975, we had great freedom of action. On that day we decided: to nationalize the banks (which was a heresy in Europe and therefore unacceptable); and to try agrarian reform in a country whose agriculture had been completely ruined. And it was in these things that Europe felt the need to intervene, to cut off the possibilities of so-called popular power, of grass-roots organization, whether in the factories, the fields, or the schools.

This external pressure culminated in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in Helsinki in the summer of 1975. It was there that the great powers decided what would become of the Portuguese Revolution. It was there that a Portuguese Revolution Monitoring Group was set up, consisting of Willy Brandt (Germany), Giscard d’Estaing (France), and James Callaghan (UK), representing the three major European powers, and it was there that the role of the Soviet Union was negotiated with President Gerald Ford (USA). In the end, they all said more or less: “Well, Portugal must have a political model identical to that of the other European countries”. And it was this recompositing that took place with the coup d’état of 25 November 1975, a kind of forcing us to put on a “tailor-made” suit. On that day, the situation was readjusted as a result of international intervention.

So, there was a conspiracy between the European powers and the Soviet Union! But did the Soviet Union agree to the integration of Portugal into capitalist, neo-liberal Western Europe?
The Soviet Union, like any superpower, was governed by strategic reasons, not doctrines. It is not a question of faith, nor of good or evil; politics is incompatible with morality. The Soviet Union knew that Portugal was the western border of Europe and that it was a US base. What was being negotiated in 1975 was a treaty of cooperation and good relations between the two great blocs. Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union wanted to risk a world crisis over a small country like Portugal. That’s why, on 25 November, they found a compromise along the lines of “let’s keep a bourgeois, neoliberal democracy in Portugal”, “let’s not frighten Spain (which was already a medium-sized power in Europe), and let’s keep Portugal ‘under a bell’ to prevent the Portuguese ‘virus’ from spreading to Spain and perhaps to the rest of Europe”.

Colonel Matos Gomes during his interview with Pressenza. Screenshot.

The counter-coup (conspiracy) of 25 November 1975

So, the coup of 25 November, which was the “counter-revolution” that put an end to the Carnation Revolution, was the result of an international conspiracy or plot to determine the course of Portugal! So, it was not the Portuguese who decided their destiny, was it?

What happened was a combination of efforts between the new political forces that developed here in Portugal after 25 April and the international forces to which they were linked. This is clear about the Socialist Party of Mário Soares, the Communist Party and Freitas do Amaral and Sá Carneiro (linked to the Christian Democrats and the conservative parties of Europe, of lesser importance in Portugal).
The great effort made by all these forces from the summer of 1975 onwards was to “partisanise” all political representation, i.e. to destroy all structures or possibilities of direct popular representation and to officialize representation exclusively through political parties, which are easily controlled machines, whereas popular movements are more spontaneous and therefore more unpredictable. It is this combination that has been maintained until today: until European integration; until the representation of Portugal in major international conflicts; until the participation in major organizations such as the United Nations, NATO, and, later, the European Union.

And on 25 November, the coup d’état that was carried out to isolate the extreme left (to the left of the PCP, the Portuguese Communist Party), was it something that was prepared and not a coup d’état to stop – as was said at the time – another coup d’état that was being prepared by the same extreme left to take power completely?
We know that there is no chance of improvisation in politics. The process that led to 25 November and the justifications that were given are, strangely enough, the same justifications that were always given for the interventions of the West, in this case, the USA, during the Cold War, which consisted in branding anyone who did not agree with the official line as a “communist” or as serving the communists, even though this was completely false. This happened, for example, to the Dominican Republic, to the Greeks linked to Yugoslavia, to African leaders, such as in the Congo, who were only fighting for independence and were therefore replaced, etc. The “communist bogeyman” is a form of propaganda that has also been used here in Portugal, and there is nothing new about it, but once again it worked in the mass media, which is a means of manipulating and shaping public opinion.

So, there was no coup planned by the extreme left before 25 November?
There was no command or direction, no plan, let alone a deployment of troops to carry out such a coup. These were things that never existed.

So, it was something fabricated?
… fabricated when the Chief of Staff of the Air Force in Portugal gathered all the aircraft of the Air Force in a single NATO base, in Cortegaça (Ovar), between Aveiro and Porto, and also when troops were recruited for the commandos (former colonial warfighters who carried out the most visible part of 25 November).

This tactic was used systematically at the time: there were three similar situations during the revolutionary period in which the right – and partly the extreme right – invented an alleged “coup d’état” planned by the left to intervene militarily against the Carnation Revolution: on 28 September 1974 (by Spinola), on 11 March 1975 (again by Spinola) and on 25 November 1975 (by the more moderate wing of the MFA and the politicians of the time with the most international connections). Is this true?
I think this is the correct view of the Portuguese political process from 25.4.74 to 25.11.75. From 25 November onwards, we were integrated into the most conservative wing of European economic, financial, and social policy.

And who organized the arson attacks on Communist Party headquarters throughout the country in the hot summer of 1975?
The actions of these terrorist movements – such as the MDLP (Democratic Movement for the Liberation of Portugal) – served to destabilize a process. Internally, they were supported by the Catholic Church and ex-colonialist members of the National Union (a single party during the fascist era), and were also defeated on 25 November. These movements began to emerge at the end of September 1974, after Spinola’s resignation and were strangely supported by the Spanish and Brazilian dictatorships. Within the country, ideological, logistical, and organizational support came from the Catholic Church in the north of the country and financial support from the major Portuguese bankers, notably António Champalimaud. The MDLP aimed to restore Portuguese colonialism and support apartheid in South Africa.

Wasted alternatives

It is a pity that Portugal was limited to this European alternative. Because until 25 April 1974, Portugal was mainly a maritime country, focused on its overseas territories. It still had its colonies, but also Brazil, which had been independent for a long time. On 25 April Portugal imploded, and then, instead of maintaining or re-establishing relations with the former colonies to build a lusophone economic and cultural space around the world, it simply ended up entering this “old people’s home” where all the former colonial powers of Europe go to seek refuge!
The fear that the Portuguese elites had of the world, which was the fear that these elites had of the Portuguese, made them want to be the servants of the big spaces, first the North American space and then the European space. This led the rest of the world, which was not subordinate to this order, to conclude that Portugal no longer represented anything specific, and so they stopped relying on Portugal for their policies. Why should Angola or Brazil have a privileged relationship with Portugal when our foreign policy is that of the United States, especially about major conflicts? It was the same in Serbia, Iraq, and Libya, it is the same in Ukraine and Gaza, and it is the same in Mali, where Portugal only represents the interests of France and the European Union. All these countries have direct lines to the centers of the world, be it Washington or Brussels, and Portugal is a small pawn with no special value in international relations. I often say that in Portugal there are two completely dispensable ministries: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense. Any secretary could sort things out on the phone: for foreign affairs, go to the United States or Brussels, and for defense, go straight to NATO headquarters!

The MFA decided – deliberately! – not to pursue, arrest, or prosecute the leaders of the former fascist Estado Novo, preferring to send them into exile and keep silent about their crimes. Nor have we ever set up a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” in Portugal, as South Africa later did after the abolition of apartheid… This lack of public debate about the past, and this failure to deal with the traumas caused by fascism, has not made it easier for the Portuguese extreme right to rise again without too much difficulty, as we have already seen in last month’s elections.
I argued that this is what we should have done. Because I don’t believe in the judgment of history: the judgment of history is always the judgment of the victor over the vanquished, and it changes nothing, in other words, it always discredits justice. The Nuremberg trials had no relevance in the post-war period; not even the trial of the Nazis for the Jews changed the structure of the thinking of the State of Israel in any way, nor did it reduce violence, as we have seen. There is something in human nature that makes social groups act according to their circumstantial interests. Justice is always circumstantial. What we need to do is to look at situations in a properly framed and contextualized way. And that is done through education and concrete policy changes. Putting former leaders on trial would be very exciting and profitable for social communication, but it would have no effect, except that years later these people would still present themselves as victims. This is what is happening now with these populist movements. Populist movements do not arise because we do not understand what happened in Nazism: what is happening is a repetition of the conditions for certain social groups to enter phases of despair and irrationality. It is difficult to confront these new movements, and democratic society must confront them, but not with the idea that they are emerging because their grandparents were not condemned (…) Fortunately, many works are being published on the crimes of the past, but unfortunately, they have very few readers and very little reception: there are social groups after our generation that have cut themselves off from history and live their present as if there had been no past and no future. This is the question that concerns me most: the suddenness and immediacy of people.

Last question: In 1975, just before the last Portuguese colonies declared their independence, there were about half a million “returnees” (people mainly of Portuguese origin) who returned to Portugal from Africa, having chosen at the time to keep their Portuguese nationality rather than acquire a new African nationality. How did these returnees later influence Portuguese society, both positively and negatively?
Some were not even returnees; they had never been to Portugal before… When the war started in Angola, there were only about 80,000 settlers of Portuguese origin there and about 35,000 in Mozambique. It was only during the war that the number of settlers increased significantly, so the latter were mostly of recent origin and had very shallow roots in those countries. So when they came back to Portugal, they brought with them a very important experience of restarting their lives: they came back to reproduce the experience they had acquired when they went to the colonies. And they introduced new factors of political and social dynamism, even of behavior, here in Portugal.
But there is another important aspect, that of resentment: they had hoped to resume a better life in the colonies, and this hope was dashed by decolonization, so they tended to blame the regime (which had allowed independence) for their ideal and material losses. That is why they reacted by supporting movements that were in some way pro-colonialist. However, I believe that the current phenomena of extreme right-wing radicalism in Portugal are not based on these groups, not least because one or two generations have passed. The generation of returnees has been relatively well integrated into Portuguese society.
The emergence and development of extreme right-wing movements today is due to the internal situation in Europe and also in the United States. It has to do with the fact that there is no hope, no utopia worth fighting for. People turn in on themselves and seek refuge in their communities and in what they know best, which is conservatism: fear of the other, fear of openness, fear of risk. Let’s call them movements of “cowardice”!

Thank you, Colonel, for this interesting interview!
It was my pleasure.