Otelo de Carvalho, a force behind the 1974 coup in Portugal who later became a terrorist leader – obituary

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·5-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Otelo de Carvalho gives a press conference following the coup in Portugal - Giorgio Piredda/Sygma via Getty Images
Otelo de Carvalho gives a press conference following the coup in Portugal - Giorgio Piredda/Sygma via Getty Images

Otelo de Carvalho, who has died aged 84, was one of the chief masterminds of the army coup in April 1974 – the “Carnation Revolution” – which put an end to 48 years of authoritarian rule in Portugal.

For the next 19 months, a world press corps that converged to report on the revolutionary turbulence that had been unleashed, often saw this flamboyant and quixotic major as its chief symbol. Within a year, however, he was confessing that he lacked the acumen to make Portugal a second Cuba and he was sidelined by moderate officers.

In the 1980s he acquired notoriety for founding a terrorist organisation whose spree of violence over six years killed 18 people. He was revered by much of the political Left, but many other Portuguese who were forced to flee the country’s colonies, or who lost property and jobs, viewed him far less kindly.

Otelo Nuno Romão Saraiva de Carvalho was born in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo), Mozambique, on August 31 1936. His father Eduardo worked in the colony’s postal service, and his son was named Otelo in honour of an uncle who had been a talented actor. Despite a much stronger vocation for acting than soldiering, he enrolled as a cadet in the Portuguese army in 1955.

A rally in Lisbon on the day of the coup - Jean-Claude Francolon/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
A rally in Lisbon on the day of the coup - Jean-Claude Francolon/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

This was a well-worn career path for ambitious young men lacking means. From 1961 to 1974 Portugal faced guerrilla challenges in each of its African territories which eventually removed the lustre of military service. In 1963 Carvalho was an instructor for the regime’s militia, the Portuguese Legion.

By 1971 he was involved in psychological warfare in Guiné, scene of the most intense guerrilla challenge. There he fell foul of the governor, António de Spínola, a noted disciplinarian. But within three years, the gregarious and crafty major was at the heart of a conspiracy of disgruntled junior officers worn down by the tedium of military service.

The rudderless regime collapsed on 25 April 1974 and Carvalho’s fate would be intertwined with that of Spínola. Appointed provisional Head of State, the monocled general placed Carvalho in charge of the Continental Operational Command (Copcon). It was meant to ensure order, but the politically naive Spínola soon became a casualty of the radical ferment and within months Carvalho had replaced him as the best-known officer in the military-controlled government.

He threw his weight behind the rapid abandonment of Portugal’s 400-year overseas empire, as well as the most sweeping nationalisations seen anywhere in Europe outside the communist bloc. The vicious feuding between local Communists, Trotskyites and Maoists wore down the military’s appetite for power and Carvalho found himself at the mercy of events by the summer of 1975.

A man believed to be a government agent is escorted away by soldiers during the unrest following the Carnation Revolution - Henri Bureau/Sygma/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
A man believed to be a government agent is escorted away by soldiers during the unrest following the Carnation Revolution - Henri Bureau/Sygma/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Religiously devout rural and small-town Portugal erupted into revolt due to the Left’s excesses. By November Carvalho was easily sidelined as moderate officers moved against their far-Left comrades to avoid outright civil war.

Carvalho was an unsuccessful candidate in the presidential election held in June 1976, chiefly backed by the far-Left, and obtained 16.5 per cent of the total vote. In his second and last attempt in 1980, he received only 1.49 per cent.

He then threw himself into terrorist activities, disappointed that Portugal was retreating from socialist transformation to bourgeois politics. He became a driving force behind the Front Popular 25 de Abril (FP-25) group.

The organisation carried out dozens of armed assaults, kidnappings, robberies and bombings, leaving many dead and wounded. In May 1981 a rocket was fired in the Royal British Club in Lisbon in solidarity with the IRA; Carvalho had earlier travelled to Ireland to speak at a Sinn Fein conference.

Captured in 1984, Carvalho was given a 15-year prison sentence for his role in FP-25. He was released after five years, and he and other imprisoned militants were granted a full amnesty in 2004.

Carvalho with co-defendants during his 1985 trial on terrorism charges: sentenced to 15 years in jail, he served five - Fernando Ricardo/AP
Carvalho with co-defendants during his 1985 trial on terrorism charges: sentenced to 15 years in jail, he served five - Fernando Ricardo/AP

In 2011, as Portugal was reeling from bankruptcy and an EU-supervised austerity regime, he remarked that if he had known how things would turn out, he would not have carried out the coup. He also caused controversy when he declared: “We need a man with the intelligence and honesty of Salazar [Portugal’s ruler from 1932 to 1968] but without the intention of imposing an Italian-style fascism.”

Carvalho’s death has divided a society that is once again becoming sharply polarised on political lines. The Left-wing government of António Costa has set up a commission to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1974 coup and it is likely that Carvalho will be the symbolical centre of these celebrations. But it was deemed too controversial to grant him a state funeral given his equivocal stance towards democracy and the rule of law.

Otelo de Carvalho had two sons with Dina Alambre, whom he married in the 1960s. While in prison, he formed a relationship with a prison functionary, Maria Filomena Morais. He shared his affections with both women over the next 30 years, it is said, lunching with his mistress and her daughter then dining at night with his wife.

Otelo de Carvalho, born August 31 1936, died July 25 2021

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting