I arrived in Lisbon from Paris late, just found my hotel, got some crisps for dinner, and went to bed fairly quickly after that.
In the morning I met up with J for breakfast, and there was time for a few hours of sightseeing before he had to head over the bay. We went first to the National Guard Museum, which I wanted to see as it had been the site of the final standoff between the Armed Forces Movement and the remaining members of the Estado Novo regime.
The museum had a timeline of events on 25th April 1974, stepping through each stage of the coup. It reads like a tense standoff, and it’s surprising how they avoided (almost) all casualties by accident. There’s a series of events where machine guns jammed, soldiers mis-understood orders, or simply refused to shoot.
I’ve seen the Carnation Revolution described as a non-violent transition, which I now realise is more down to chance than any intentional practice of non-violence. The MFA were fully prepared to bombard the National Guard building with artillery, which would have definitely resulted in (more) casualties. The revolution might be more accurately described here as peaceful, but armed.
Aside from that there were general exhibits on the history of the National Guard. You could still glean some telling details from these, such as how the Portuguese army used (and still use) German weapons. J noted diplomatically that you can learn a lot from everything which is not being said.
Next we went to the Aljube memorial museum, in place of an former prison used by the PIDE/DGS police under the dictatorship.
There’s a certain bitterness about panels in the museum pointing out that during the dictatorship, Portugal became a founding member of NATO, it received Marshall Plan funds, and later became a member of EFTA. Despite the torture and represession documented extensively in the museum, Portugal was a good friend of the west.
Another panel explained the foreign connections of the dictatorship. The PIDE secret police took active inspiration from the Gestapo and Mussolini’s police for the design of their camps. Later on they received training in ‘interrogation techniques’ from the CIA. These experiences point to an unbroken continuity in which the USA picked up the fight against ‘international bolshevism’, right where the Nazis left off in 1945.
The museum also shows examples of resistance to the regime, internally and in the colonised countries. In terms of internal resistance, several exhibits outwardly recognise the contribution of the Portuguese Communist Party. Throughout the period of dictatorship, the party held clandestine meetings, and it continued private distribution of its newspaper. It remained an active force of opposition through almost five decades of extremely difficult circumstances.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this. There are still some organisations in Britain which operate in a semi-secret way, for sensible reasons. Are we too open about political activity?
There were other small details, such as the setup of opposition radio stations. Radio Free Portugal was broadcast from Bucharest, while Radio Voice of Liberty operated out of Algiers. Again here you listen to what is not being said: the democratic resistance in Portugal found friends in Algeria and Romania, but… not in Britain.
Everyone is familiar with the western narrative in which Britain and the USA played a benign role, enforcing freedom and democracy against ‘authoritarian’ governments around the world. Liberals are always happy to loudly denounce gulags and free speech, but there’s never a word about those disappeared in Chile, or Indonesia, or Turkey. Nobody asks too many questions about the long career of Klaus Barbie.
It’s an uncomfortable fact of history that the dictatorships in Spain, Portugal, and Greece, were all supported directly or indirectly by the ‘advanced democracies’ of the European Community. And in practice the leading proponents of democracy in those countries were the communist parties.
We didn’t visit the Jerónimos Monastery or the Belém Tower or any other fancy monuments. Thankfully J didn’t seem to mind too much.
I did see the funicular tramway though, and it reminded me a lot of the trams in San Francisco. Old carriages of wood and metal, which make lovely jangling noises.
There are dual purposes of the tramway here, it acts both as a cute tourist attraction, and as a functional piece of transport infrastructure. The elevators in the city also reconcile tourists and locals, in what I see as a happy coincidence between robust public transport and a ‘tourist-friendly city’.
In the evening, I went to Amora for the first night of Avante.
I hadn’t been there long when a woman from the Galician nationalists came to say hello. We chatted a bit, and after a while then she went away, and came back again, and again, and then she gave me her number… and I was slightly stupefied. This kind of situation is very rare (at least for me), and I’m pretty cautious on the fraught line between ‘hey this person seems friendly’ to ‘oh this is flirting’. I must’ve been doing something right because this actually very attractive Galician woman seemed really into me. Well, huh, that’s new.
In the evening I was concerned that there were no more buses to the station and as time wore on I was increasingly at risk of getting stranded on the south side of the Tagus. My new friend suggested I stay with her… which I (very politely) declined, and then of course spent the rest of the evening wondering about what I’d just turned down.
The transport situation was definitely a problem. I opted to walk back to the train station before it got too dark. There was music and dancing going on into the night, and I missed all that. In the morning it was difficult for me to get to Amora before around 11am. If I come back next year, I’ll bring a tent, or find somewhere much closer to stay nearby.
The festival appeared very empty, it was limited to 16,000 attendees, for an event which typically attracts 100,000+ people. As you’d expect there was a lot of concern about the virus. The whole thing was accompanied by a (politically-motivated) campaign trying to make out that the festival was dangerous.
I don’t want to overplay the risk - all sensible precautions were taken. There was a full programme of events, only with the added benefit of clean toilets and no long queues. I imagine that in other years these vast avenues would be full of dense crowds. As it happens I was probably more at risk of contamination travelling to and from Amora than I was just standing around in a large open space.
I’m also aware that some of what is described here counts as travel writing. And, to be clear, I don’t want to glorify travel at the moment, or otherwise encourage people to go and take unecessary risks. If this blog was any more popular this disclaimer would be right up top in the header of the post.
We clapped along with the Carvalhesa, but there was no dancing (due to social distancing).
I particularly appreciate how the PCP built around a folk music revival. The anthem of the festival is a song of rural workers, reclaimed and played back as a way of grounding the party in the culture and popular traditions of the country.
At one point I got the chance to have lunch with some party members, and I asked them loads of questions about the situation in Portugal. It’s not all good news, although there is a lot to learn in their alternative strategy to recover from crisis. They fought for, and successfully won, a solution which did not rely on smashing the unions, suppression of wages, austerity or privatisation. It’s also a scarce example of a European social democratic party with growing popular support after five years in government.
The festival site was bought by the party in 2015, they have a permanent staff there to look after the grounds all year round, as well as a flock of sheep to tend to the grass. There are a few buildings which they use for party schools.
You can see the grounds in construction on Google Earth.
On the last night, at the close of the event there was a (socially distanced) mass rally.
I brought along the Welsh flag. 🏴
After the rally, I saw my new Galician friend. She came up and hugged me, and suggested to meet her again before I left, I didn’t think about it too much and ended up going off without saying goodbye. I felt a bit sad about that afterwards, but I guess it’s silly to be heartbroken for a relationship which never even really started.
Overall, I feel I got physically fitter while I was abroad. Walking around most of the time with a bag on my back, being on my feet all day. It wasn’t huge bursts of exercise, just slow and constant exertion, working all the muscles I stopped using while sitting around indoors.
I’ve only been gone a week plus a few days either side, although it feels like much longer. I lose track of time under confinement, when there are no memorable events one week to the next. This short break acted as a sort of mental milestone, separating the summer from the beginning of the new academic year.