Os Retornados – The strange Carnation (Communist) revolution that broke Portuguese power in Africa
Posted on March 20, 2011 by morvansminstrel
Two indirect consequences of the Carnation Revolution were a collapse of the economy and dislocation of hundreds of thousands of people who returned from the colonies to Portugal as refugees.
From May 1974 to the end of the 1970s, several hundred thousands Portuguese citizens from Portugal’s African territories (mostly from Portuguese Angola and Mozambique) left those territories as destitute refugees — ‘os retornados’. (This term is also applied to Portuguese settlers who fled former Portuguese Timor in 1975 after its independence.) They began arriving in especially serious numbers in the fall of 1975 with the impending independence of Angola on Nov. 11. The total number of those among these refugees that arrived in Portugal is not clear: they range from 500,000 to 1 million.
Before the coup in Lisbon, there were 220,000 whites in Mozambique, including 30,000 troops; to the moment of proclaiming Mozambique’s independence (summer 1975) the total white population was 85,000 at most, and the troops were gone. Of the approximately 110,000 white civilians who have fled, many were allowed to take with them only a single suitcase and $150 in escudos, leaving behind household goods.
As the Portuguese departed, both manufacturing and agriculture sagged. Crop levels that year for tea, tobacco, cotton and cashew nuts dropped sharply. At the port cities of Nacala, Beira and Lourenco Marques, efficiency was down 80% and pilferage has doubled in the past year.
Independence proved to be even more traumatic in Mozambique’s sister colony of Angola, which became independent in November 1975. Whites were crowding aboard planes at Luanda’s Craveiro Lopes Airport at the rate of 500 per day, but there were not enough flights to satisfy the demand. In all, about 100,000 Portuguese left Angola during the year after the coup in Lisbon, reducing the territory’s relatively large white population to about 400,000, but many more were anxious to leave. It was the greatest exodus in the history of Africa. Not even the Congo, where in 1960 the white population fell from 110,000 to 20,000 between January and July, was like what is happening in Angola now. Angola’s 500,000 or so white people, nearly all of them Portuguese, had had enough. But the half-million whites had nowhere in Angola to go and a haven outside was hard to find. South Africa does not exactly offer a welcoming face to thousands of non-Protestant, non-Afrikaans-or-English-speaking immigrants who, despite their years in Africa, “do not understand the South African way of life”. Brazil was in theory a better prospect but only the middle class could afford to go so far; and in July the Brazilian airline, Varig, ceased its flights through Luanda to Rio, which were already fully booked to mid-October.
So Portugal, if anywhere, it has to be for most of them. But this is not a happy prospect for the riot-beset and unemployment-haunted Portuguese junta. The whites of Angola had no love for the military which, they say, has sold them out. The majority of them are conservative by instinct and a large proportion come from the north of Portugal, the present stronghold of the anti-Communist opposition. When a returning white was asked recently what he would do when he got back to Portugal he replied matter of factly that if he couldn’t get a job he’d join up with the ELP*.
For a long time the Portuguese government delayed any substantial help for the refugees. It had finally recognised its responsibility to its citizens in Angola in the beginning of August, the launching “Operation Air Bridge”. Portuguese officials said they had plan to bring home between 250,000 and 300,000 people by the end of October. Up to 200,000 had left Angola before August; in June and early July more than 6,000 a week were taking scheduled commercial flights on the Portuguese airline, TAP, and another 3,500 were flown home on military aircraft. Since then the Portuguese airline had been chartering whatever jets it can obtain.
The Portuguese government had also chartered two ships, one to carry passengers and the other to carry the refugees’ luggage and cars. But some whites, fed up with the huge queues at shipping and airline offices and the up-to-four-month delay in getting a reservation, took matters into their own hands. At one time there was talk that a Portuguese truck driver named Guilherme dos Santos was organizing a full-scale cross-Africa expedition of 2,000 trucks and 300 cars that will make 6,000-mile journey overland to Morocco in a month’s time; this arduous journey proved too much even for the most desperate. But several hundred refugees had reached South West Africa, and a convoy of 300 vehicles was allowed across the border there by the South African authorities.
The exodus has a devastating effect on Angola’s economy and administration. The whites had the prerogative of all the skilled and many of the semi-skilled jobs in the country. Local government has collapsed, and those essential services which continue do so more or less by inertia. Much of the coffee crop, which made Angola the world’s fourth biggest coffee exporter, was going unpicked and was hit by disease. Diamond mining stopped completely; sisal and cotton stood uncut and unpicked. The coffee towns of Carmona and Malange have been abandoned and even in Luanda only a few white women can still be seen. Teachers, taxi drivers, civil servants, bank clerks, secretaries and doctors had gone or were going.
The vast majority of ‘retornados’ forced onto the heavily burdened government dole, occupying in cramped conditions every available hotel room in Lisbon and producing a severe housing shortage in a country where such accommodations were already in short supply. The ‘retornados’ whiled away their time on the vast Rossio plaza in the heart of downtown Lisbon, a volatile social force deeply antipathetic to the “forces of revolution” (in which most of them included the PSP of Mario Soares) which they felt had betrayed the ex-colonies. Some, especially from the military, came into conflict with the communist wing of the new government, and their involvement fed into both right-wing and pro-democracy political forces, which overthrew an attempted coup by radical leftist military units on 25 November 1975. Among these forces were the Salazarist ELP (Army for Portuguese Liberation), which was being supplied and directed in liaison with former PIDE elements and other right-wing groups operating across the border in Spain, and the Spinola-led and Francoist funded MDLP (Democratic Movement for the Liberation of Portugal). These groups, as it is considered, carried out a number of attacks and bombings during the “Hot Summer” of 1975, mostly in the north of Portugal, while the MDLP was involved in the attempted coup of 11 March. When ultra-leftist coup failed in November, the MDLP disbanded, the ELP continued its campaign.