I first visited Portugal in October 1973. I was 10 years old at the time, and I was on a school trip on the SS Uganda. I remember seeing the soldiers in the Praça do Comércio while we, a group of pasty-faced school-children – most of whom had never been out of the UK before – were waiting for a tram to take us to Belém. I, like most of the rest of us, had never set foot outside of Scotland before, and here I was in Portugal. It was a Portugal that was at war, and which was ruled by a dictator – and it was the first time that I had seen a real gun with my own eyes.
On a visit to Lisbon more than 20 years ago, I was invited to the preview of Liberdade e Cidadania, an exhibition of 20th century Portuguese political and social history that was part of the official 25th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution celebrations. I took along a Spanish friend of mine who was born just before the fall of Francoism. I had been studying the history of Portugal for several years – so I knew the names of the political leaders, the opposition leaders; I had read about the coups, the plots, the bombings, the conspiracies, the strikes and the uprisings; I had read personal accounts of the Salazarist repression: the memoirs and the speeches. I had studied so much that I thought I knew almost all there was to know about Portugal in the 20th century. Yet, as my friend and I were walking through this exhibition, it suddenly struck me that no matter how much I had read in all of these books, I could not even begin to comprehend what life must have been like under a dictatorship.
My paternal grandfather, a Royal Navy sailor on a destroyer protecting convoys to Malta, died there in 1945 after five years fighting the Nazis. My paternal great-grandfather worked in the shipyards and survived the Clydebank Blitz. My father was serving in Berlin with the British Army when the Wall went up and was with the UN in Cyprus during the civil war there. Other than this, neither I nor my family has had any direct experience of dictatorships or repression. As children, the most we had to worry about during the early-1970s was the introduction of decimal currency and sugar rationing!
The thing that struck me most as we walked through this exhibition in the company of the people who lived through the New State, and who had finally brought it down, was the all-pervasiveness of the Salazarist State in everyday Portuguese life: the posters of uniformed schoolchildren being taught to glorify the State; the images of policemen, armed with rifles, chasing women down a street; Salazar’s voice juxtaposed with the everyday sounds of the streets. It was at that moment that I came to understand the real bravery of those men and women who had to produce their opposition pamphlets in soundproofed rooms, with their radios blasting out at full volume lest the potential informer next-door heard them and reported them to the political police, and who then rode around the cities, towns and villages on their bicycles, distributing their newspapers and their leaflets, all the time risking being caught or waiting for the knock on the door at the dead of night.
My Spanish friend understood all of this straight away because her parents had lived through it with their own dictator, Franco. To her it was more real, it had touched her and her family.
It is difficult for those of us who come from the liberal democracies that have been spared the nightmare of political dictatorships to fully perceive what it must have been like to live in a society where you have to watch every word you say, and in which the children are being indoctrinated and people are being imprisoned simply for expressing an opinion. Once we begin to make the connections, however, then the words and the deeds of the men and women who rose up on 25 April 1974 will start to take on a new significance. Then, and only then, can we begin to share in their joy at gaining those freedoms that we have for so long taken for granted.