Back to Portugal, where once there was revolution in the air

Who knew when the Soviet menace would blow across the English Channel?

Robert Fisk

13 Dec 2008


Western countries can be divided into those who fear an Islamic take-over (France, Britain, Germany, the United States) and those who like boasting that they threw the Muslims out of their lands (Serbia, Spain and Portugal).

Lisbon still flaunts a statue of one of its greatest Muslim-bashers -- Good winning against Evil, of course -- and Alfonso I declared himself king after biffing the Moors in 1139. The last army of the Muslims who had created the paradise of Spanish Andalusia was finally chucked out of the Alentejo 110 years later. The Moorish citadel -- now the Castle of St George -- survived the 1755 earthquake and it's good to remember that Lisbon itself was once a Phoenician city. Long live Lebanon.

My Portuguese publisher, Pedro Bernardo, takes a more short-term view. If Portugal had not been in Euroland, it would have suffered the fate of Iceland, he insisted: bankrupt, ignored, chastised, subject even to Britain's anti-terrorist laws as UK citizens tried to get their money back.

Oh, how many years have passed since the revolution! The Carnation Revolution, I mean -- the real Portuguese one -- whose aftermath I covered more than three decades ago in a Lisbon sprouting red flags and a thousand newspapers, its walls thick with every leftist and Marxist exhortation to overthrow fascism. The very last right-wing dictator in Europe, Mr Caetano, had gone, and bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.

Well, maybe. There was the infamous Red Major, Otelo Carvalho, who was going to turn Portugal communist -- or so Ambassador Carlucci and his lads at the US embassy would have us believe. His first name lent him credibility -- the "green-eyed monster" was capitalism -- but there was also the laid-back socialist academic Mario Soares, who would become prime minister, and then there was the mysterious Ramalho Eanes.

The Times, for whom I then worked, asked me to interview all the presidential candidates but I refused after meeting Eanes. He would become president, the young and arrogant Fisk told his long-suffering foreign editor, because he had been a senior intelligence officer in the Portuguese army in Angola. The Americans liked him. Ergo, he would become president. The reputation of a young and pig-headed reporter was saved when Eanes duly took over Portugal.

Covering this odd country -- a soft touch, if ever there was one, before I headed off to infamy in the Middle East -- was helped by the fact that The Times, and its editor William Rees-Mogg, had earlier run a massive story on page one (happily coinciding with a state visit to Britain by the awful Caetano), denouncing a village massacre by Portuguese colonial troops in Angola.

The story was based on the word of a Catholic priest -- no one at the time missed the earnest Catholicism of Rees-Mogg -- but it had one flaw. No one -- neither the staff of The Times, nor Rees-Mogg nor, indeed, the Portuguese army -- could locate the name of the village on a map. Whoops! But it didn't matter. Come the revolution, and every demobbed colonial sergeant from Angola -- and they were in the streets of Lisbon in their jungle kit and floppy hats -- was telling me of far worse atrocities in the colonial war from which they had just returned. "Bolshies", every one of them, my Dad insisted down the phone one night.

It's difficult to remember just how powerfully the Cold War governed our lives in those days. If Portugal went communist, then so would Spain and then Italy, and France and... Who knew when the Soviet virus would blow across the English Channel? Indeed, when the Portuguese air force staged a military bombing display to remind us of the country's Nato membership, we gentlemen (and one lady) of the press moved a quarter of a mile from the US diplomatic guests lest a commie pilot blasted the entire CIA network to bits in one fell swoop.

But I never really believed in the Red Menace. The Portuguese, though less educated than they are today, had a folk memory of the anarchy of the Peninsula War and infinitely more real experience of the Spanish Civil War, when the left sometimes turned out to be as barbarous as the Francoists. One of Pedro's employees was almost in tears this week when she told me how the Spanish side of her family was liquidated in the war. Her grandfather is in one of three mass graves; no one knows which one to dig up.

The other reason why I refused to believe the world's fears -- and the fears of William Rees-Mogg -- was embodied in the experience of one Ted Smyth, the first secretary at the Irish embassy in Lisbon. With a young translator, Ted and I would tour revolutionary Portugal, talking our way through fascist road blocks and commie checkpoints with the Irish tricolour -- symbol of a more divisive revolution -- flapping away on the bonnet of our limousine.

To Beja in the Alentejo -- last outpost of the 13th-century Moors and still providing the central support for Portugal's modern-day but hideously unreformed Communist Party -- we would journey. The Reds were taking over the latifundia from the feudal landowners, but what upset my favourite diplomat was just one single incident.

Ted Smyth (happily, still with us) came from a County Meath Protestant farming family -- there weren't many Prods in the Irish foreign service in those days -- and discovered a young woman on a tractor driving over a field of stones with a plough attached to her vehicle. "You can't plough like that!" he admonished the revolutionary lady. "You've got to take the stones out of the field first!" She refused to listen and he watched the plough fall to pieces behind the tractor. This convinced Ted Smyth there would be no communist revolution in Portugal.

I was lounging on a beach at Porto Covo (still, mercifully, as antiquated as it ever was) when I received a letter from The Times's foreign editor, Louis Heren, offering me the Middle East. I felt like King Faisal being offered Iraq by Winston Churchill. "Good stories, lots of travel and sunshine," he promised me. So I took the next plane out of Lisbon and came back 33 years later to find a modern, liberal, happy country. I told Pedro that I would meet him again at his favourite restaurant, The Policeman. In 33 years' time.




   Back to Index