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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Portuguese Students Defied Salazar: A Coimbra Exhibit

Updated: Feb 9, 2023

Jorge Sampaio, (4th from left in center) during a student protest at the University of Lisbon, where he graduated from the School of Law. Later, he became President of the Portuguese Republic. (Photo from SIC Archive)


Students risked their university and professional careers, their physical freedom and their lives in their opposition to dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar’s stranglehold on Portugal.

As a visitor climbed the stairs to an exposition in Coimbra that showed the central role of student uprisings in the toppling of the repressive Estado Novo government (1933-1974), her gaze met a banner quote on the wall:

“The 25th of April (1974 Carnation Revolution) began on the 24th of March 1962 (Academic Crisis).” – Jorge Sampaio, a leader in the 1960s student uprisings in Lisbon and President of the Portuguese Republic (1996-2006) Publico (March 23, 2007).

On display were archived films, radio recordings, photographs censored by the Estado Novo, secret texts, newspaper clippings, handmade stickers and other objects. The traveling exhibition, Student Springs: From the 1962 Crisis to the 25th of April, is open free to the public at Convento Sao Francisco in Coimbra until April 25, Wednesday to Monday, from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. with the last entry at 7:30 p.m.

The exhibit is part of the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the 25th of April, when the Armed Forces Movement, an organization of officers in the Portuguese Armed Forces, overthrew the Estado Novo.

The 25th of April also is called the Carnation Revolution because a restaurant worker offered carnations to the soldiers. Other people, who were in the streets celebrating, followed suit and placed carnations in the muzzles of guns and on the soldiers’ uniforms.

The exposition in Coimbra is so thorough and so emotive that it merits more than one visit.

In an alcove, there were 24 crammed vertical panels inscribed with the names of about 1,000 students imprisoned some time between 1962 to 1974. A couple in their 40s with a boy of about 10 all traced their fingers over the lists, searching for a name.


Students on the Monumental Stairs of Coimbra after the controversial inauguration of the Mathematics Building (April 17, 1969), triggering another Academic Crisis. Salazar had planned a new university city. The Monumental Stairs, themselves were a part of the plan. The project construction began in 1943 with the demolition of a large part of residential, Alta de Coimbra, and the last arch of a Roman aqueduct. The architecture, inspired by Italian and German fascist styles, collided with the values of the students in Coimbra, then Lisbon and Porto.


1962 and 1969 Uprisings “Opened Significant Cracks”

The Academic Crisis of 1962 began when the regime banned Student Day at universities (mainly Coimbra and Lisbon as most universities were created around the time of the Carnation Revolution), and students responded with a strike.

What began as a fight for student autonomy and representation eventually broadened into a fight against colonialism. While the “wind of change” had resulted in other European imperialists relinquishing their grip on their colonies, Portugal held on steadfastly and violently without other countries’ support.

Orgulhosamente sos” (Proudly alone”), Salazar famously said in 1965.

Between 1961 and 1974, 9,000 of the 800,000 mobilized to the colonial war in Angola, Guinea and Mozambique defected, while, in the 1970s, 20 percent of those who were to called up for duty already had left the country, reported the exhibit’s eponymous catalog, Primaveras Estudantis: Da Crise de 1962 ao 25 de Abril.

Salazar’s hard-fisted rule was characterized by systematic repression of civil and political rights, mass torture, arbitrary arrests, concentration camps, police brutality against protestors, electoral fraud, and colonial wars that killed hundreds of thousands.

Through a wide network of covert cells, which were spread throughout Portugal and its colonies, the regime’s secret police, PIDE (International and State Defense Police), had infiltrated almost every underground movement, including the independence movements. PIDE encouraged people to become bufos (snitches) and denounce suspicious activities through monetary and prestige incentives.

Order and stability were the goals of Salazar's Estado Novo, an anti-liberal, anti-communist and anti-democratic dictatorship oriented according to authoritarian principles.

Young members of the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) and of the Catholic University Youth (JUC), and others who adhered to socialist and democratic views struggled against the Estado Novo, reported Student Movement in Portugal Throughout the ‘60s: Actors’ Representations of a Period of Social and Cultural Experimentation, Espacio, Tiempo y Educacion, (2019). In the 1960s, the Communist Party was the main organized force opposing the regime. It operated underground because the state had banned it. Also, at this time, wider sectors of Catholicism became increasingly critical of Salazar.

“The history of the Portuguese Student Movement (ME), being inseparable from the history of the Portuguese people, has its own history, its own heritage, its own ‘memory’, according to Albano Nunes, a leader of the student movement who was expelled from the University of Lisbon, and a prominent figure in the PCP (Portuguese Communist Party (The Militant, March/April 2002).

“Successive generations of students benefitted from previous experiences in order to develop their struggle. This was particularly clear during fascism. I am referring, for example, to the central struggle for the right of association, for university autonomy, for student representation in university bodies, for the democratization of teaching.

“The revolution of the 25th of April itself did not represent a break with the forms of organization and objectives that came before it, although it naturally meant a qualitative leap.”

In 1932, Salazar had begun to regulate freedom of expression by considering as disciplinary offences “actions that represent hostility towards the Executive Power”, according to The Portuguese ‘May 68’: Politics, Education and Architecture, European Journal of American Studies (2008):

“The Student Unions, founded in Coimbra in 1887, had opposed the Estado Novo (since the beginning). Salazar had introduced legislation to curtail the organizational activities of these associations, but the repressiveness of the legal controls and police violence against the student demonstrations further mobilized the opposition which, at two crucial moments in 1962 and in 1969 ‘opened significant cracks’ in the Estado Novo. The ‘university of the regime’ as Coimbra was called, was now the center of the opposition.”

Salazar had been the chair of Political Economy and Finance at the University of Coimbra, where he had received a degree in law and a doctorate in Economics. Despite repeated promises, the former teacher achieved little improvement in the country’s education. Portugal’s literacy rate was officially 50 percent in 1946, one of the lowest in Western countries, but was probably much lower since those who could barely sign their names were counted as literate, reported Time magazine (July 22, 1946).


Isabel do Carmo, in the foreground, speaking at the University Stadium in Lisbon. PIDE highlighted her appearance in a written report. A participant in the 1962 student revolts, she is said to be the first woman to be asked to speak at assemblies. Isabel do Carmo was co-founder of the Revolutionary Brigades in 1970 and of the Revolutionary Party of the Proletariat (PRP) in 1973. In 1978, she was arrested and imprisoned for four years. Now, an endocrinologist, President Jorge Sampaio decorated Isabel do Carmo with the rank of Grand Officer of the Order of Liberty in 2004. (Photo from Isabel do Carmo’s private collection)


Hunger Strikes, Occupations, Clashes with Police

“The ‘1962 Academic Crisis’ was one of the most massive expressions of student resistance to the fascist dictatorship,” said Albano Nunes of the PCP. “It is fair to point out that it was the first of the great student struggles that swept Europe in the 1960s.”

According to the exhibit’s catalogue, Primaveras Estudantis:

“Despite the importance of other moments of struggle, for public freedoms and against the dictatorship, carried out by the student movement (such as the challenge to Decree-Law No. 40,900, in 1956, which attempted to regulate student activities and limit student representation), the prohibition of Student Day led to student protest taking on new forms and contents of struggle: demonstrations, class strikes, clashes with the police, hunger strikes, occupations, among other forms, increasingly more creative, of protest.”

Student repudiation stopped the enforcement of the 1956 decree. Also, the regime backed down from its intention of involving Mocidade Portuguesa (Portuguese Youth). Founded in 1936 and dissolved in 1974, membership in the youth group was compulsory from the ages of 7 to 14, and voluntary until age 25. Inspired by the Nazi Hitler Youth and the Italian Fascist Opera Nazionale Balilla, it inculcated the cult of the leader and the Roman salute.

However, university student opposition to the regime did not abate with this student victory. The Academic Crisis of 1962 paved the way for 12 years of growing radicalization of student movements.


During his 1958 presidential campaign, a crowd greeted Humberto Delgado known as O General Sem Medo (The Fearless General) in Praça Carlos Alberto in Porto. (Photo @Antonio Velhote/Diario de Noticias Archive)


Humberto Delgado’s Presidential Campaign

Some, such as Primaveras Estudantis, say that the Academic Crisis marked the beginning of the end of the dictatorship. Others, such as Student Movement in Portugal Throughout the ‘60s, say that it was Humberto Delgado’s campaign as an independent for the 1958 presidential elections, which caused never-before-seen huge demonstrations in Lisbon and Porto in support of social and political reforms. University students figured in both.

Asked what his attitude would be towards Salazar if he won, Delgado said that he, obviously, would fire him, aware that the president’s power to remove the prime minister from office was the only check on Salazar.

PIDE harassed and attacked Delgado supporters, and there were many reports of electoral fraud. Salazar refused to allow opposition representatives to observe the counting of ballots.

General Delgado, who had participated in the overthrow of the chaotic First Republic in 1926, lost the election in what PCP leader, Albano Nunes, called and most would agree was “an electoral farce”. Delgado was expelled from the military and forced into exile, where he continued political organizing. PIDE agent, Casimiro Monteiro, a Goa native, shot Delgado dead and strangled his secretary in Spain near the Portuguese border in 1965. (Monteiro also was believed to have been involved in the 1969 book-bomb killing of Eduardo Mondlane, 48, founder of Frelimo, Mozambican Liberation Front, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania).

On the 50th anniversary of Delgado’s death, Lisbon municipality council proposed that Portela (Lisbon) Airport be renamed in his honor. In 2016, the airport was renamed Humberto Delgado Airport for the man who founded TAP Air Portugal in 1945, when he was the director of the National Secretariat of Civil Aeronautics.


About 6,000 students responded to the victims of the flash floods of November 25-26, 1967 with medical and social assistance. It may be that more than 700 lost their lives in the neighboring municipalities of Lisbon, such as Loures, Vila Franca de Xira, Alenquer, and others. The exact number remains unknown, partly because of the difficulty of reclaiming bodies from the mud and partly because of censorship of the Estado Novo. The traditional blue pencil censored headlines with death tolls. Also prohibited were texts talking about the government’s responsibility in the tragedy and poignant photographs, for example, showing people crying.


Fatal Floods of November 1967

During the four decades of the Estado Novo, there were many causes championed by students. For example, Portugal’s most fatal flood of November 25-26, 1967, in the Lisbon metropolitan area affecting 14 municipalities marked another moment of galvanization. With the death toll ranging from 500 to more than 700, it was the country’s deadliest natural hazard since the 1755 Lisbon earthquake.

Extreme poverty and high birthrates had led to a rural flight toward the main cities of Portugal, particularly Lisbon. Some of these newcomers had built houses illegally on flood plains and riverbanks, according to the paper, The deadliest storm of the 20th century striking Portugal: Flood impacts and atmospheric circulation, Journal of Hydrology (October 1, 2016).

“The authoritarian regime, incapable of providing help and almost admitting its negligence, tried to cover up the situation, censoring the news coverage of the floods,” according to Primaveras Estudantis.

A broad network of about 6,000 student volunteers, both in the student union movement and in Catholic groups, worked to help people after the flood, reported Student Movement in Portugal Throughout the ‘60s Many, who were middle class, awoke to the social reality of the country, which led to increasing politicization of university youth. Fernando Rosas, a leader in the 1962 and 1969 student uprisings and a flood recovery volunteer, recalled:

“. . . the shock felt by students as they came into contact with a misery unknown to them. The floods . . . it was the waterproofing of the urban soil, which took the swirl of mud to Greater Lisbon. Greater Lisbon was the greatest misery you can imagine. There were no houses, there were shanties. . . .There were absolutely primitive living conditions, entire villages, and that was the real Portugal. Five hundred people died. Salazar banned the release of the death toll in the country. And we went there to help, to remove the mud from peoples’ houses, to dig up the corpses in the mud, to try to organize people a little too. Help those massively illiterate people.

“What we did was to disclose and spread (what was going on). We made information bulletins about it. That’s why the government started banning students from going to the floods.”


During the Estado Novo, 2,500 people passed through the gates of the 16th-century Fortress of Peniche, which was used as one of several prisons for the regime’s opponents in the 20th century. One former inmate recalled individual cells, not being able to speak to others, no books and whitewashed windows to prevent a view of the sea, reported The Guardian (March 31, 2019). “The whole system worked with whistles. A whistle to get us up, to come to meals, to sit down, to come in from the recreation area, to go to our bed at night – all the orders were given by whistle.” Today, the prison, where people were beaten and tortured, houses the National Museum of Resistance and Freedom. (Photo by Rafael Marchante/Reuters)


From Enemy of the State to National Hero

The political trajectory of Fernando Rosas resembles that of many students of that time. In the Academic Crisis of 1962, Rosas was 15 and in his final year of secondary school, where he helped found a student association. That year, he joined the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP). In 1963/64, he entered the School of Law in Lisbon, according to Student Movement in Portugal Throughout the ‘60s.

“The repressive character of the regime was felt in a very particular way in the faculty he attended, where teachers were former and future leaders of the Estado Novo. His statement that the School of Law was an undercover military academy is categorical. The gender division was explicit, the girls sitting in the front rows and the boys in the others. The traditional character of the teaching was evident. The professor was speaking on the subject in absolute silence. Interrupting the teacher was forbidden. It was a thoroughly traditionalist, conservative and erratic, highly hierarchical teaching. And there was strict discipline.

“In contrast, it was also one of the most politicized schools with the most radical student activism. The prudent associative discourse was often replaced by open political confrontation. Economics and Law were exemplary schools in the protests, with a lot of street struggle. And it all ended with the police invading the department, banning and closing the association. The academic environment clearly deteriorated in the last years of the regime. The student opposition became more radical and political repression became more violent and penetrated the university spaces. The university became ungovernable. And they put guerillas inside who attacked and beat people. It turned into a siege environment.”

In 1965, Rosas was arrested and imprisoned for 15 months.

In 1968, Rosas abandoned the PCP as did many after the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union, Poland and Bulgaria and Hungary. The invasion halted the Prague Spring liberalization reforms and strengthened authoritarianism. Reactions from communist parties worldwide were split. The Portuguese Communist Party supported the Soviet position. Alvaro Cunhal, for example, who joined the party in 1931 when he began study at the University of Lisbon law school, never abandoned his communist ideals and leadership.

(Cunhal had been tortured and imprisoned in 1937, 1940 and 1949-1960 for a total of 15 years, eight of which were in isolation. He and his comrades accomplished a famous escape from the Fortress of Peniche prison, Leiria District, in 1960. After the Carnation Revolution, he served as minister without a portfolio in the four provisional governments and, later, as a representative in the Assembly of the Republic in 1976, 1980, 1983 and 1985. Born in Se Nova parish, Coimbra District, he died at age 91 in 2005. His funeral in Lisbon was attended by more than 250,000, reported Expresso (June 15, 2005).

Rosas participated in the 1969 Academic Crisis, the year he finished his course. He became a lawyer at the Cabinet for Land Transport Studies and Planning. In 1971, he was arrested again, subjected to sleep torture, and imprisoned for 14 months. After finishing this sentence, he was prevented from returning to public service.

In 1973, Rosas promoted the campaign to denounce the assassination of Amilcar Cabral, 48, in Conakry, Guinea. Cabral, a Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verdean intellectual, was one of Africa’s foremost anti-colonial leaders. An inspiration to revolutionary socialists and national independence movements worldwide, he was influenced by Marxism.

(Less than a month after his Cabral’s death, the United States concluded that Portugal was not directly involved in the leader’s death, according to official documents declassified in 2006. However, the U.S. State Department’s Information and Investigation Services also concluded that “Lisbon’s complicity” in the assassination of the leader of the struggle for Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau’s independence “cannot be ruled out”.)

With Rosas’ participation in the Cabral campaign, he managed to escape an arrest attempt. From that time until the Carnation Revolution, he lived underground.

Rosas has remained politically active through candidacy for office, journalism, and teaching and writing history. In 1986, he completed a master’s degree in History of the 19th and 20th Centuries at Universidade Nova de Lisboa. In 1999, he participated in the founding of the political party, Bloco de Esquerda.

In 2006, Rosas was made Commander of the Order of Liberty (Ordem da Liberdade), created in the context of the Carnation Revolution to distinguish services provided in defense of the values of civilization, the dignity of humanity and the cause of freedom.


Jose Antonio Leitao Ribeiro Santos (March 19, 1946 – October 12, 1972) was assassinated by a PIDE agent at a student political meeting in opposition to the dictatorial regime. The day after the killing in Lisbon, there was an explosion of anger and revolt, numerous student demonstrations, distribution of communiques to the people, several clashes with police and the stoning of government facilities and banks. Two days later, students, workers, and ordinary men and women thronged the street of his house in Ajuda for his funeral. The procession had advanced about 50 meters when police forcefully seized the coffin that Ribeiro Santos’ relatives, comrades and friends were shouldering for the procession to the cemetery. The crowd shouted: “Murderers!” and “Down with fascism!”


Secret Police Kills Student Jose Ribeiro Santos

The dictatorship fought to eradicate the opposition with prohibition, censorship, violence and imprisonment. Its actions, however, turned on themselves as they strengthened the voices of opposition. When a PIDE undercover agent shot dead Jose Ribeiro Santos, 26, in 1972, at a political meeting at Lisbon’s Instituto Superior de Cienças Economicas e Financeiras (ISCEF), the member of the Federation of Marxist-Leninist Students became an icon for the student struggle.

The students’ freedom of organization was problematic for the dictatorship, which realized the students’ power and dedicated itself to combating the influence of the democratic opposition and, above all, of the clandestine PCP (Portuguese Communist Party), illegalizing the MUD-Juventil (Youth Movement for Democratic Unity), which Mario Soares co-founded and Salazar outlawed in 1946.

Mario Soares Arrested 12 Times

Co-founder of the Socialist Party (PS) in 1973, Soares began his political career in his youth as an activist in the Portuguese Communist Party.

Arrested 12 times by the Salazar regime’s secret police, PIDE (International and State Defense Police), Soares served three years in prison. Later, he was deported to Sao Tome and after his return, forced to leave the country. After the Carnation Revolution, he served as Prime Minister of Portugal (1976-1978 and 1983-1985) and President of the Portuguese Republic (1986-1996).

Lessons of the Past

“The majority of the Portuguese population already was born after the 25th of April 1974,” said Pedro Adao e Silva, Minister of Culture, in Primaveras Estudantis, a sociologist who was born days after on May 12, 1974.

“For them – for us – the Revolution is a distant reference, in many cases cloudy. To commemorate 50 years of democracy obligates us to evoke what our predecessors did – the conquest of liberty and the consolidation of the new regime – but it also invites us to contemplate the country that we have and that we want.”

What did the people of 1926 have as a country, and what did they want?

Chaotic First Republic (1910-1926)

After the October 5, 1910, overthrow of the centuries-old monarchy, the First Republic (1910-1926) experienced widespread terrorist attacks and political assassinations.

Between 1920 and 1925, 325 bombs exploded in the streets of Lisbon, according to police. The cost of living increased 25-fold. The gap between rich and poor continued to widen. The First Republic, which associated the Catholic Church with the monarchy, persecuted the Church by expropriating its property and assets and by expelling, suspending and persecuting bishops, and closing many seminaries. Yet, in its attempt to create a secular society by separating Church from state, it also approved divorce and family laws that considered marriage a strictly civil contract; prohibited religious education in primary and secondary schools, and religious holidays became working days.

The First Republic had eight Presidents, 44 cabinet reorganizations and 21 revolutions.


Antonio de Oliveira Salazar (April 28, 1889 – July 27, 1970) visited Emissora Nacional, the predecessor to RTP (Radio and Television of Portugal), on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of his entry into government. Years later in 1969, Salazar told L’Aurore, a French newspaper, that Marcelo Caetano was not part of the government. Caetano, in fact, was his successor after Salazar suffered a fall and ill health. When the elder statesman recovered, for two years, a farce was staged around him to make him believe that he still governed Portugal. Every day, he received ministers, governors and police officers. Every day, he read the Diario de Noticias, whose director had rewritten the newspaper, expunging news of Marcelo Caetano. A single copy of that paper was printed for the single reader.


"Finance Wizard Salazar"

Salazar was born in the Kingdom of Portugal in 1889. A native of Vimeiro, Santa Comba Dao, Viseu District, his father managed land for a well-to-do family.

He began a career in the Portuguese state after the debacle of the First Republic (1910-1926) with its climate of terror and violence.

The Second Republic saw the entrance of Salazar as Minister of Finance.

After a two-week stint in 1926 as Minister of Finance, Salazar resumed the post in 1928 after he achieved his demand of control of expenses and income from all ministries. He imposed strong austerity measures and strict control of accounts, huge increases in taxes and the imposition of new taxes, postponement of capital works and the freezing of wages. He achieved consistent government surpluses. However, while in power, he did not balance the budget of Portuguese families, reported Time magazine in 1946. One typical family with a monthly income of 1,200 escudos paid out 1,663 escudos for rent, clothing, water and electricity.

The new Constitution of 1933, approved by a public vote, created the Estado Novo, a corporate state, perhaps inspired by the social doctrine of the Catholic Church. Salazar, a Catholic, had studied eight years at the Seminary of Viseu.

The Portuguese strongman said that the Estado Novo would be based on two papal encyclicals, or open letters, the first by Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (Revolutionary change) of 1891. Considered a foundational text of modern Catholic social teaching, it addressed the condition of the working classes, “for the most part, in a situation of misfortune and of undeserved misery”. It supported the rights of labor to form unions, and rejected both socialism and unrestrained capitalism while affirming the right to private property.

The second encyclical, Quadragesimo ano (In the 40th Year) of 1931 by Pope Pius XI was issued 40 years after Pope Leo’s letter. Pius XI discussed the ethical implications of the social and economic order. He described the dangers for human freedom and dignity arising from unrestrained capitalism, socialism and communism. He called for reconstruction of the social order based on societal solidarity. Pius XI advocated corporatism, which advocates the organization of society by corporate groups, such as agriculture, labor, military, business, scientific, or guild associations, on the basis of their common interests. The term is derived from the Latin corpus, or body.

From these encyclicals, Salazar seemed to have adopted only corporatism and a rejection of capitalism, communism and socialism.

“However lofty may have been his inspiration, Salazar’s execution was on a quite different pattern, one already known and hated as Fascism: free thought was abolished, the individual became subordinated to the state, the human bill of rights was suppressed and the secret police became the main arm of government,” reported Time magazine.

“Financial Wizard Salazar” graced the cover of Time, published 3,000 miles away from censoring Portugal in New York, on July 22, 1946 with the caption, Portugal’s Salazar: Dean of Dictators. “How Bad is the Best? was the headline of the six-page story, which predicted Salazar’s imminent, perhaps violent, overthrow. The piece began:

“Last week, Portugal produced no big spot news; it hadn’t for 20 years; it might not for 20 years more if the God he strove so hard to serve spared Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. For Salazar distrusted news.

“He suppressed and distorted it for the good of the Portuguese who, he believed, were unfit for facts. After 20 years of Salazar, the dean of Europe’s dictators, Portugal was a melancholy land of impoverished, confused and frightened people. Even Salazar, that model of rectitude, showed signs of succumbing to a law of politics, discovered by Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Salazar ruled for another 22 years.

Students risked their university and professional careers, their physical freedom and their lives in their opposition to dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar’s stranglehold on Portugal.

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