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1966. A sliver of land almost forgotten at the very edge of the continent, squeezed between the vast plateau of Spain and the Atlantic Ocean. Here, for the last four decades, a Dictator has held absolute power.

He’s controlled the public debt, harvested the riches of a vast colonial empire, and steered a profitably neutral course through the last great European war.

The cost has been high. The country is in a political, social and educational deep freeze. More than half the adult population is illiterate, child mortality is over 70%. Outside the city, donkey carts are more common than cars.

The bank vaults are stacked with gold but much of the population is half-starving. And any sign of opposition is controlled with a network of informers and a secret police well versed in the dark arts of torture and then…

Then there was a miracle. Right here where I’m standing. I wonder if any of you noticed it? It was, relatively speaking, right on your doorstep.  25th April1974.  Portugal. A generally sunny day as those who were there at the time recall it. Though as we know memories of great events – even the weather on the day of the great event – aren’t always reliable.  It depends which side you were on.

We’d had nearly two generations of that authoritarian, ultra conservative –  in fact let’s give it it’s rightful name fascist – regime of one of the two surviving European dictators. Dr Antonio Oliveira Salazar, dead by now and the present head of state is floundering…

And then… after 40 years, with our tiny country suspended seemingly indefinitely in a kind of social and economic deep freeze, everything changed.

It was the end of one of the last great European dictatorships. A revolution. In fact a miracle among revolutions, if you believe what they say about it. And like all great events, the story mostly gets told by the so-called victors and with time it improves and becomes more colourful..

Vila Morena – the song that was the signal to start..

Listen! That was the signal to move. That song from the radio station broadcast at midnight. Tanks faced each other in the squares of Lisbon, nobody fired a shot, and some people say that at the end of that April morning  the two sides took a break for lunch which is what we generally do. We Portuguese know where the priorities lie.

And that was that. By the end of the day the Prime Minister had been put on a plane to Madeira which was about as far from a hardship destination as you can imagine, the troops had gone back to watch football in the barracks, the radio station was playing popular songs and the country congratulating itself – which it was to do for decades to come – on such a unique change of regime. Pain free. As only we Portuguese could do. Carnations, free speech in the cafes for the first time in 40 years and best of all, no one to book you if you parked on the pavement.

A benign chaos reigned. And as the days passed, what actually happened became a piece of history or at least popular mythology. Only four dead. No lynchings, no hangings from lamp posts, Salazar’s political prisoners pouring out of Caxias prison blinking into their first sunlight for years. The walls of Lisbon covered with the painted dreams of the new utopia and the colourful insults against the old regime harboured for so long.

The educated liberals, some by now second generation persona non grata with the Salazar regime returned from their exile in Paris, Geneva and Rio de Janeiro. The writers, the architects the musicians, the journalists. All that talent-in-exile returning to the country. Young men grew beards, the Che Guevara look was “in”, short skirts and bikinis and solidarity with Allende’s Chile.

Even the music was better. Portugal was joining the modern world. Who cared if we had a new government every few months? A dream had come true.

What could possibly go wrong?

Catch VIVA PORTUGAL 2-14 JULY where two writers explore Portugal in 1960’s with a double bill of new plays


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