Facing up to Portugal’s past

Associated Press

In a quiet corner of a big cemetery, 87-year-old Edmundo Pedro runs a finger down the 32 names on a memorial and recalls stories about each of his dead friends.

He was with them when they died at the notorious Tarrafal prison camp on the Cape Verde islands off West Africa, then a Portuguese colony. It was the destination for the most troublesome dissidents under the rightist dictatorship that ruled Portugal for almost half of the 20th century.

“We were close. You had to stick together at Tarrafal,” Pedro said as he pawed at the monument, a 6-foot-square black marble cube with names on two sides listing the men who died more than six decades ago.


The dictatorship ended only a generation ago, in 1974, but public remembrances of the time are muted, and the little-known Tarrafal memorial is the only significant monument.

Now a group of citizens, including Pedro, is determined to make Portugal face up to its totalitarian past. The movement, Don’t Erase the Memory, wants greater recognition for those who stood up to Antonio Salazar’s regime. It also wants monuments and museums built as reminders of how things were and as a warning against a repeat.

The group presented a petition of more than 6,000 signatures to Parliament in August. The government says it supports the proposals and is now discussing them with other parties.

Memories of the dictatorship faded quickly.

National broadcaster Radiotelevisao Portuguesa early in October invited the public to pick from a list on its website the country’s 10 most important historical figures for an upcoming TV series. Salazar, who determined Portugal’s path for much of the 20th century, wasn’t on it.

Though school texts portray the dictatorship in cool, academic terms, the Portuguese remain uneasy with a period that makes them look bad.

“It’s interesting to see how, more than 30 years after the dictatorial regime ended, our democracy is still uncomfortable with the figure of Salazar, who is a kind of unresolved issue,” historian Jose Pacheco Pereira wrote recently.


Salazar outlawed opposition parties when he rose to power in 1932 and created his Estado Novo -- New State. His shadowy secret police had a free hand to snuff out dissent. The regime used detentions without trial, torture and kangaroo courts to keep opponents off the streets. Although Salazar died in 1970, his regime remained in place.

But its protracted and unpopular wars against independence movements in Portugal’s African colonies led to a 1974 army revolt that broke the chokehold overnight, with just four deaths. The uprising had widespread popular support.

The military immediately restored political freedoms and, fueled by a general desire to start over, triumphantly stripped away all traces of the four-decade dictatorship. Even street names were changed.

By contrast, neighboring Spain has kept hundreds of public symbols of former dictator Francisco Franco since he died in 1975 and was buried in a huge hillside mausoleum near Madrid.

Salazar lies in a simple grave in the white-walled municipal cemetery of Santa Comba Dao, his hometown, 120 miles north of Lisbon. The nearby farmhouse he was born in stands abandoned, with a partly collapsed roof, crumbling granite walls and an overgrown garden.

Portuguese historian Irene Pimentel said Spain’s peaceful switch to democracy allowed it time to digest its recent history. In Portugal, the sudden revolt offered a chance for swift revenge through obliteration.


“Vestiges of the regime were expunged by those who had suffered under it, fought it and hated it,” she said.

Then came Portugal’s shift to an untested democratic system that saw 16 governments in 13 years. European Union membership in 1986 catapulted the country of 10.6 million people on a fast track to modernization. A sense of Salazar’s historical significance got lost in the clamor. “People have had other things on their mind,” Pimentel said.

But the current conversion of the secret police’s former Lisbon headquarters into luxury apartments was a wake-up call, said Lucia Esaguy, one of the coordinators of Don’t Erase the Memory. Her parents were dissidents. She has clear childhood memories of shaking with fear at home when they got a tip that the secret police were coming.

She compares Portugal unfavorably with France, where numerous street plaques and monuments recall those who died or otherwise suffered for resisting the Nazi occupation.

Thousands of Portuguese victims, meanwhile, go unremembered.

“How is it possible for there to be almost no signs of what was happening here just 32 years ago?” Esaguy asked. “We have to tell people about it so it doesn’t happen again.”

The group wants educational museums, or at least plaques, to be put in some of the former dictatorship’s key buildings, such as Lisbon’s Aljube jail, which now houses a government welfare department.


Pedro, who spent 16 years in the dictatorship’s jails, is indignant about how his fight for political freedoms is disregarded.

“You could think it never happened,” he said. “It’s an outrage that there aren’t more tributes to those who made such great sacrifices.”