General Vasco Goncalves Marxist Prime Minister of Portugal and the ideological brains behind the 1974 'Carnation Revolution'

Citation metadata

Date: June 23, 2005
Publisher: Telegraph Group Ltd.
Document Type: Article
Length: 741 words
Content Level: (Level 4)

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 

GENERAL VASCO GONCALVES, who died on June 11 aged 84, was the ideological brains behind the Portuguese "Carnation Revolution'' of April 1974 which ended 48 years of Right-wing dictatorship, and was prime minister in four of the provisional governments which led the country over the following year.

Led by a radical movement in the Portuguese armed forces, the bloodless coup, which overthrew the dictatorship of Marcello Caetano, was symbolised by the sprouting of red carnations in gun barrels as the coup leaders were mobbed by ecstatic Lisbon crowds. The coup, at the height of the Cold War, led to fears elsewhere that Portugal might become a bridgehead for Soviet power in western Europe.

Goncalves was an unlikely revolutionary hero. A gaunt soldier with a history of depressive illness and a taste for badly-fitting clothes and political rhetoric, he held, as one colleague put it, "the sort of Marxist views you would find in a rather immature university student''. Born into Portugal's prosperous middle classes, he also possessed a considerable fortune which remained miraculously immune from the expropriation he ordained for others.

Goncalves and his colleagues on the ruling Revolutionary Council presided over an orthodox Marxist programme of dismantling what remained of Portugal's empire, nationalising banks, insurance companies and key industries - with results that were only too predictable. Investment dried up; prices rocketed; there was a run on the escudo and growing social unrest.

In 1975 a backlash which began in the country's conservative northern provinces spread to the armed forces which a series of purges had failed to convert from an imperial army into a revolutionary force. In August Goncalves was ousted in a moderate coup.

Vasco dos Santos Goncalves was born on May 3 1921 at Sintra, outside Lisbon. His father was a professional footballer turned foreign exchange dealer. He graduated from the Portuguese military academy as an engineer in 1942.

In 1959 he led a group of military dissidents who backed, then abandoned, a flamboyant general called Humberto Delgado who plotted a coup after losing a presidential election. The coup collapsed after the withdrawal of the clandestine Communist Party, followed soon after by Goncalves, who is widely assumed to have been a party member. By the late 1960s, however, he seemed to have changed his political spots and saw action in Angola and Mozambique, where his devotion earned him several decorations.

When, in 1973, he was approached by one of the leading conspirators in the clandestine Armed Forces Movement (MFA), and asked to join in preparations for a coup, it was mainly for the benefit of his seniority (he was their only colonel) and his modest reputation as a radical. After the resignation of the first provisional government of Palma Carlos in July 1974, the MFA pushed Goncalves forward.

This sudden elevation to revolutionary stardom soon began taking its toll on a man who, until then, had had little political experience. Highly-strung, he soon began to show signs of exhaustion, delivering agonisingly long, meaningless, convoluted speeches, which became increasingly ideological and hectoring in tone as the year wore on.

He remained a partner in his father's money-changing firm, his shareholding worth an estimated pounds 200,000 in 1975. He also remained manager of a large construction firm with shareholdings valued at a further pounds 340,000. After his fall from power, the newspaper Expresso could not resist pointing out the curious coincidence that neither foreign exchange dealers nor construction firms had come within the net of nationalisation.

Goncalves's authority began to wane after elections for a constituent assembly in April 1975 gave victory to the moderate Socialists under Mario Soares, who, with his allies, left the government in July and launched a campaign of civil disobedience.

On August 18 1975 Goncalves delivered a diatribe against "those who wish to place the Portuguese working class in the position of stokers for the boilers of Capitalist Europe''. The tone of the speech raised doubts about his sanity and two weeks later, amid a growing threat of civil war, President Vasco Gomez dismissed Goncalves.

By now a general, Goncalves was offered the sop of an appointment as Army Chief of Staff. But the appointment was approved neither by Goncalves's former colleagues on the Revolutionary Council nor by the armed forces. He vanished into obscurity from which he occasionally emerged to condemn the "counter-revolutionary'' policies of his successors.

Goncalves married, in 1950, Aida Rocha Alfonso, with whom he had a son and a daughter.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A133478663