The radio played Grândola, Vila Morena , giving the signal. At four in the morning the tanks rolled out of the barracks, intent on overthrowing the government. But this was no ordinary coup. This time the army was fighting for peace, freedom and democracy. It happened 40 years ago in Portugal.
The Carnation Revolution of April 25th, 1974, ushered an era of democracy into Europe and Latin America. By the 1980s civilian, democratic regimes had replaced military juntas and dictatorships in Portugal, Spain and Greece, and throughout Latin America in countries like Argentina, Brazil and Chile. Central and eastern Europe followed in the next decade. The ride was by no means easy. Replacing the longest serving dictatorship in Europe, ending colonial wars in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau, assimilating almost one million refugees from Africa, creating democratic institutions and finding new sources of prosperity were urgent priorities for the new Portuguese regime.
At the beginning the country veered strongly to the left. Bearded men with clenched fists shouted revolutionary slogans in the streets. There were fears of a communist takeover and talk of civil war. But elections were held, a constitution was voted on, the army gradually returned to barracks, civilian government was consolidated, and peace and moderation prevailed.
Western Europe, as it was then called, was a beacon helping to reorient the country from its colonial past to a new democratic future. By the mid-1980s, Portugal and Spain had joined the European Community. A new era of hope and prosperity opened.
Our friendship grew
We became partners with Ireland, which had preceded us by 13 years. We learned much about each other. Trade, tourism and mutual investment blossomed. Our friendship grew. Now we are bound together by a common currency and intense co-operation.
Over the past 40 years tremendous change took place in Portugal. Education for all became an urgent and consistent priority. A national health system, with universal coverage, was created. The social safety net was vastly improved.
Power was decentralised to municipalities. Women were empowered. With European funds, vast investments were made in infrastructure – new roads, new hospitals, new schools and new museums.
Portugal became an advanced industrial economy.
Together with economic progress, came cultural openness. Portugal became a much more cosmopolitan and diverse society.
The range of our international relations expanded enormously. Spain became our closest economic partner. Relations with the Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) world were rebuilt anew, while integration with Europe proceeded apace.
More and more we sought to embrace our five million strong diaspora in countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Angola, South Africa, Venezuela, France, Great Britain, Germany and Switzerland.
Much remains to be done to fulfil the April promises. Vast income and social inequalities remain. Convergence with the most advanced European economies has flagged.
The financial crisis exposed structural weaknesses which can only be overcome with much discernment and hard work. Unemployment is unacceptably high. The squalor of poverty is not far away for millions.
But there is no turning back. Democracy, with all its imperfections, is here to stay. After four years of tough austerity, the political system has held steady. No extremist movements appeared, nor has the political consensus in favour of European integration failed.
And, to the surprise of many, the Portuguese economy is now recovering, powered by a strong export performance and boasting one of the fastest growth rates in the EU.
As Portugal prepares to successfully exit a troika adjustment programme next May 17th, the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the revolution is a time for taking stock; a time to look back at the last 40 years but also to look forward to the next 40; a time to forge a new consensus to take the country into the 21st century; a time to remain faithful to the ideals of April 25th, but also to reinterpret them for the challenges of the present and the future.
Bernardo Futscher Pereira is ambassador of Portugal to Ireland since April 2012