Aljube retains few of the characteristics of its brutal past as a political prison. There are heavy bars on some windows, and a few small (two meter long) cells remain as exhibits in the Portuguese Resistance Museum, but this now airy building in Lisbon’s Alfama district defies the past. This is where political dissidents were detained, or worse, under the suppressive dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar.

A cell at Aljube

In the 1920s, European nations were divided into three categories: wealthy, poor, and below the poor, Portugal. From 1910, when a bankrupt Portuguese monarchy was overthrown and the First Republic instituted, until the military dictatorship of Oscar Carmona (following very brief stints by other generals) was installed in 1926, Portugal went through eight presidents, 44 cabinet re-organizations, and 21 revolutions. The longest-serving government lasted just over a year. Cost of living increased twenty-fivefold, and the currency dropped to 1/33 of its gold value. The country was poorly educated, with a literacy rate below 30%, and infrastructure was the worst in Europe. Salazar, an economics professor, was asked by Carmona to be Finance Minister, and agreed once he was promised broad powers – which he used to stabilize the currency and stimulate the economy. In 1932, Carmona appointed Salazar Prime Minister.

Salazar’s gradual takeover of complete power was in many ways opposite of other authoritarians of the time. Unlike fascists Hitler or Mussolini, Salazar avoided cultivating extreme nationalism – and even went so far as to jail Portuguese fascists. Rather, he promoted a sense of political apathy. His Estado Novo, or New State, never required people to join his National Union party. There were no rallies, no large public displays of party loyalty. But under a new constitution, only National Union members could join the National Assembly, and while elected Presidents had the power to dismiss the Prime Minister, all were merely figureheads, with elections a farce. (Most famously, in 1958, Humberto Delgado – for whom Lisbon’s airport is named – was defeated in an election in which nobody other than the National Union was permitted to see or count ballots. Delgado had famously said that if elected he would fire Salazar. The NU candidate, of course, was pronounced the winner with more than 76% of the vote, and Delgado was exiled and then assassinated.)

A photo of Salazar himself

Here at Aljube, visitors are shown cells where some of Salazar’s political dissenters were held. Torture routines are detailed as sham confessions were obtained by the secret political police (the PVDE, later known as the PIDE or DGS). Stories of prisoners exiled to some of Portugal’s colonies in Africa – where there were actually more secret police than in Portugal itself – are shared. It is a disturbing account of what someone desiring of power will do to keep it, even if his motivation began in the interests of the people he was supposed to serve.

The view from the barred prison windows

The dictatorial regime of António de Oliveira Salazar did accomplish some remarkable things during his 36 year tenure, and the regime’s additional six years of power after his becoming ill (and subsequent death two years later in 1970). By 1968, the literacy rate had improved from under 30% to 97%. Paved highways were built, connecting population centers. The currency stabilized, and Portugal even became a founding member of the early European joint markets. But he was a murderous dictator, jealously guarding his personal power at the expense of all basic morality. Does the former excuse the latter?

Heaps of praise have been piled upon Salazar for his “right intention,” as in the words of Portuguese historian António Jose Saraiva. Even if one grants this, which I’m not prepared to do, in my mind, no amount of good in areas like education and economics can excuse the censorship, arrest, torture, expulsion, and murders of any who would speak out against the regime. I am drawn to similar – albeit less extreme – language here in my own country of the United States. There are those who claim that the shattering of basic moral values and norms (like calling for the censorship of any press daring to report a negative story or calling for political rivals to be investigated and jailed for “treason”) is justified for the appointment of conservative judges or stock market gains. I find these arguments akin to those justifying Salazar’s regime by invoking his record on literacy, ignoring moral outrages like those mentioned above and others like the violent repression of independence movements in the country’s colonies. It holds no water for me, and shouldn’t for anyone with moral fiber. While people are all shades of gray, basic morality is something for which we should all stand, first and foremost.

Fortunately, the Portuguese New State came to an end with the Carnation Revolution of 1974, so named because almost no shots were fired, and carnations were placed in the muzzles of guns following the resignation of the regime. Salazar himself had died in 1970, after taking seriously ill two years earlier. In the end, repression and costly colonial wars were too much for the regime to hold on to power, and Portuguese democracy returned. Today, the only remnants of this dark period are in the memories of those who lived through it, and in some of the monuments erected during the rule. Salazar is – rightly – mostly thought of here as the monster he was, although hindsight has contributed much to this. World opinion has also mostly come around to the belief that the ends, and even the potentially noble goals, do not justify the means.

I finish my exploration of Aljube by visiting the names and faces of some of those who continued to resist oppression, despite imprisonment and torture here. This place in its current form is a monument to them, to the bravery shown simply in a refusal to keep their heads down, stay quiet, and live. It is so easy in the world today – and would have been so easy in Salazar’s Portugal – to just accept life as it is given, to learn to live with evil, to avoid the internal moral struggle needed to stand up despite personal risk. These heroes, and countless more whose names have long since been forgotten, watch us today, asking if we will live up to their example, or whether we will do as most have always done in the face of evil and shirk the moral responsibility being a citizen demands.

Aljube from the outside

Portugal today is vibrant, standing in stark contrast to the cloud that hung over it until only a few years before I was born. May the memory of Aljube inspire all of us to choose goodness over evil, active morality over blind acceptance, and means over ends, to never again let another Salazar here – or anywhere.

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4 thoughts on “Salazar: Portugal’s Dictatorship

  1. Interesting post, made me realise I know so little about the Portugal of the past. How quickly things can be forgotten if we don’t take great care to learn and remember.

  2. You realize after the Estado Novo fell, the communists and socialists took over and they imprisoned more people in that short period than Salazar did over his 40 years in power? Democracies like Sweden and Italy and other countries murdered more of their citizens in shorter spans of time than Salazar did in 40 years. To call him “murderous” is just silly. He locked up some communists, imagine the oppression commies bring.

    1. I would be highly skeptical that Sweden or Italy (as a democracy post-Mussolini) killed anywhere near as many people as did Salazar.

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