US/UN/East Timor/Portugal

João Paulo Monteiro jpmonteiro at
Thu Sep 30 20:34:58 MDT 1999

Michael Hoover wrote:

> US role in East Timor cannot be separated from its role in undermining
> Portugese Revolution of 1974-75.  Not until overthrow of dictator
> Antonio de Oliveira Salazar did Portugal initiate de-colonization (East
> Timor first appeared on UN de-colonization list in 1960).  Salazar had
> ignored UN condemnations of his colonial policies and continued to
> use military force in Angola, Mozambique, and Cape Verde & Guinea-
> Bissau.  The military coup that ousted Salazar unleashed multiple
> progressive social movements and the new regime moved quickly to
> the left.  There were Communist ministers in West European cabinet
> for the first time since 1947.

Not bad, for a brief conspectus.

Unfortunately, Antonio Salazar (1889-1970) was not overthrown. He died in his
bed, surrounded by high representatives of the regime, who mocked councils of
ministers for him to preside and handed him fake newspapers with the most
glorious stories. He effectively fell from power in a very metaphoric way. In
1968, in his private office, he fell from a chair and suffered an incapacitating
brain injury. Poor chap. As a conservative man, he only trusted his old
furniture. José Saramago has a delicious novel glorifying the protracted and
patient work of the termites that so decisively has undermined Salazar's hold on
power. He had ruled in the most autocratic way for 40 years.

He was succeeded by Marcelo Caetano, a law professor and ideologue of the regime.
He tried to make some very mild liberal overtures but was caught by the cadaveric
rigidity of the regime and his own indecision about ending the colonial wars.
This was the man who surrendered power to the democratic military coup on 25 of
April 1974 (the revolution of the carnations).

> Secretary of State Kissinger used same CIA tactics to destabilize
> Portugal that he had used previously against Salvador Allende and
> Popular Unity in Chile and that he was using against Michael Manley
> and People's National Party in Jamaica - channeling money to
> conservative groups and parties, disseminating disinformation though
> the media, working with religious officialdom (US covert operations
> in Portugal occurred at the very time such activities were being
> investigated in Congress).  The left-ward march of the revolution
> would wane, the Soviets would opt for continuing detente, moderate
> Socialists would win parliamentary elections, the new government
> would abandon pledges to assist in transition to East Timorese
> sovereignty, and Portugal would remain with the West.

This is also accurate, on the whole. However, the problem of East-Timor was a
very minor question in those years, both for Portugal and for the global
contenders in the cold war. I think it is unfair to say the US are to blame for
the fate of the east-timorese in other ways than its clear acquiescence for the
indonesian invasion. President Ford and Kissinger had been in Jakarta six days
before the launch of the operation and gave their consent for it, if not
encouragement. But I believe this has had little to do with the CIA operations in
Portugal. Political events in Portugal have had important repercussions in
East-Timor, but when the americans were interfering with cover actions in
portuguese affairs I believe they weren't particularly thinking on any faraway
half-an-island on the other side of the world.

It didn't take imperialist destabilization for Portugal to have completely lost
control of the situation on the territory. The portuguese revolution has
liberated social and political forces that, on the case of East-Timor (that
hadn't have an organized liberation movement), were still very immature. On the
other hand, the portuguese garrison was very weak, divided among the different
political sensibilities of the time and in absolutely no mood for fighting. In
fact, military discipline was very lax. The political situation in Lisboa was
confuse (with coups and counter-coups), the orientations weren't clear and
contacts were difficult and sparse.

There were three main political parties in East-Timor, all of them formed after
the revolution: UDT (bourgeois and neo-colonialist), APODETI (pro-indonesian) and
FRETILIN (leftist and radical nationalist). First UDT made an alliance with
FRETILIN in order to marginalize the pro-indonesians. The broad guide-lines for a
transitional process towards independence were then settled with the portuguese.
A conference between the portuguese administration and the three parties was
called for Macau, in June 1975, to set the time-table. But FRETILIN, encouraged
with the events in Lisboa (and by some portuguese military leftists on the
territory), was now very radicalized. It protested against the presence of
APODETI and boycotted the conference. UDT and APODETI were now hand in hand. The
conference called for elections to a popular assembly to be held in October 1976.
This assembly would define the political destiny of the territory and portuguese
sovereignty would, either way, end in October 1978.

FRETILIN would accept nothing of the sort. It said independence was
non-negotiable and started with a policy of military maneuvers and "liberated
zones". UDT and APODETI protested against what they claimed to be the tolerance
and connivance of some portuguese officers with FRETILIN's activities. By that
time, portuguese control of the politico-military situation was in fact
deteriorating very, very fast. Having no reply to their demands, UDT then staged
a coup in Dili and Baucau on August 10, 1975. The indonesian army was on alert
near the frontier. Negotiations ensued, between UDT and FRETILIN, but came to
nothing. The timorese soldiers of the portuguese army divided themselves between
the two feuding parties. FRETILIN counter-attacked very effectively.

The portuguese administration and army then retreated for the little island of
Atauro, just in front of Dili. FRETILIN rapidly gained complete control of the
situation and made repeated pleas for the portuguese to return and resume the
transition process. But the governor Lemos Pires just wouldn't come back. It was
ridiculous and went on for months. Then there was the right-wing military coup of
November 25, in Portugal, which effectively put an end to the revolution.
FRETILIN felt the times were no longer favourable for deals with the portuguese
and proclaimed independence unilaterally on November 29, 1975. The indonesians
begun border provocations and launched a full scale invasion on December 7.

João Paulo Monteiro

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