Last Monday, the papers carried a photo distributed by the American Press (AP) syndicate, accompanied by the caption “Prepared to Fight: Portuguese farmer Jorge Van Zeller and his armed foreman stand ready to defend their farm, south of Lisbon, against takeover by Communist forces. There are 20 to30 land-grabs a day in the Alentejo Plain area.” There was no story run with the picture.
The photo is interesting because it is typical of the way the commercial press has been covering events in Portugal. Almost every day, there are very brief, punchy items about unrest in Portugal somewhere, always having to do with “Communists” and “ultra-leftists” out to create chaos. Only very rarely do the stories carry any background information about the events they report. No larger context is given. Portugal, as it appears in the press, is simply an unrelieved picture of “anarchy” and violence. It’s strangely reminiscent of coverage of Chile while Allende was in power, and the function may be the same: to prepare public opinion outside Portugal for a military coup. We’re supposed to conclude that all the chaos makes a return to dictatorship necessary and inevitable.
Take the photo mentioned above as a case in point. Notice the use of the word “farmer”. The immediate association is with a North American farmer, the type who works long and hard to make a barely adequate living from his land. Naturally, American Press doesn’t tell you that on the Alentejo Plain there are no farmers of this type. Nor are there poor peasants of the kind that populate northern Portugal. In southern Portugal, the land is divided into huge estates producing commercial crops like cork and olives. The “farmers” are wealthy landowners, many of them absentee, who administer their holdings like large factories, complete with overseers, foremen, and a vast workforce of landless labourers. Many of them had close ties to the old fascist regime. One such “farmer”, the Duke of Cadaval, who lives in Paris on his incomes, last visited his estates forty-two years ago.
Encouraged by factory occupations in the cities, the response to these conditions has been a wave of land occupations in the Alentejo, beginning early this year. For example, a dozen ploughmen moved onto the Duke of Cadaval’s estate and began ploughing it. They made it clear that they didn’t think that because they had made the first move onto the land, they were the only ones entitled to cultivate it. Said one representative: “We don’t want to destroy one capitalist system just to build another.” This was followed by a meeting in nearby Evora in which thirty thousand farm workers met to discuss their plans for agrarian reform. At another location, farm workers formed Portugal’s first agricultural cooperative on seized land.
The wave of land seizures, born of a combination of old angers and new hopes, has created the possibility of transforming the economy of southern Portugal. They are the expression of widespread popular enthusiasm: the suggestion by the press syndicates that the movement is controlled by a few Communists only indicates complete ignorance, or willful distortion. Not that these farm workers fear radical solutions: on the contrary, their solutions are often too radical for the bureaucrats of the increasingly unpopular Communist Party. But that is another story.
Certainly, though, the popular movement in Portugal is laying the basis for a more just and lasting social order than the institutionalized violence and terror that marked the previous half-century of Fascism. In suggesting that this flowering of freedom, of genuine mass participation in politics, represents a step backward from the “stability” of dictatorship, the press is simply acting as advance man for the partisans of “stabilization” in the CIA.
Published in the Varsity, 1974.