Tiny nation's quiet revolt leaves legacy of blossoms

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

July 07, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Staff Writer

LISBON, Portugal -- Where have all the flowers gone?

It is not an idle question. It recalls the truly crazy events that occurred here about 18 years ago, the revolution without tears that ended a somnolent and obscurant dictatorship and put paid to Portugal's empire in southern Africa.

It was hard to believe, hard to grasp, the extent of the territories this tiny country held sway over back then. Angola was over 1.2 million square kilometers (480,000 square miles). Mozambique was over 300,000 square kilometers.

And Portugal? Just over 35,000 square kilometers -- and poor, so poor and unvital that many of its workers were employed in other countries. Portugal lived on the money those people sent home.

The revolution of April 25, 1974, was a military one, but of the

leftist sort. It stirred Cold Warriors everywhere they dozed. Suddenly, everyone awoke to find there were Communists in Lisbon, seizing the houses of the rich; they were down in the Algarve taking over farms.

There were anarchists here, too, waving their archaic black flags. And militant socialists, who eventually won the government.

They had all survived, these people, under the dictatorship of Marcello Caetano and, before him, Dr. Antonio de Oliveira

Salazar.

It was a time to exaggerate and -- in hindsight -- to cultivate foolish apprehensions.

An important U.S. columnist visited Lisbon in the summer of 1975 and wrote about the valiant little newspaper A Republica. It had been seized by the Communists and even as he wrote was surrounded by guards with machine guns.

Actually, A Republica was the Socialist Party's paper, and the Communists were its printers, who complained they were being stiffed for their wages.

And the guards? One very friendly policeman, kind of a Barney Fife type who was probably sent out without his bullets.

"The Communists? In the back having lunch. Go right in."

Make no mistake, it was a real revolution. Everybody had a flag. Everybody had a party. Every party had its literature. Everybody felt the need to march in the streets and wave their flags.

Waiters would throw off their aprons and join the columns on the Avenida Liberdade, leaving customers waiting under the trees for wine that never came.

In one restaurant near the older part of the city, the waiters took over and put out a sign: Eat Here No Bosses.

People stayed up all night. Maybe they felt they had slept too long. They wanted to enjoy all the things they hadn't been allowed to: dirty movies, short skirts, Karl Marx.

There were some malcontents. When the settlers began coming home from the African territories abandoned by the new government, they were angry at having lost such a soft life. There was some violence, but not much.

Why? Who knows? Maybe it's enough to remember that this is the country that has bullfights but never kills the bull.

Lisbon is a much quieter place these days.

Portugal is still poor but not so poor as it used to be. Last month it served as host to the European Community summit and completed its six-month term in the rotating EC presidency. It is participating in the great European move toward union. It is a partner, no longer a squalid backwater.

And the flowers? What about the flowers?

The carnation has always been popular here. They sell artificial ones down at the Praca Rossio, fraudulent little blossoms with printed verses or other tender sentiments attached.

The carnation was the symbol of the revolution of 1974. It's not a very bellicose symbol for a revolution. But very Portuguese.

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