Caetano Becomes Prime Minister of Portugal

Marcello José das Neves Alves Caetano was appointed premier, or prime minister, of Portugal, succeeding dictator António de Oliveira Salazar and his forty-year conservative regime. Although Caetano brought some modern reforms to Portugal, he was considered a dictator by many and was overthrown in 1974 in a bloodless coup, leading to democracy in Portugal.

Summary of Event

Marcello José das Neves Alves Caetano was born in Lisbon on August 17, 1906, into a middle-class family. He attended law school at the University of Lisbon. While there he became involved with a right-wing group, the Integralists, whose ultraconservative views were based on the monarchy and the theories of the French writer Charles Maurras. Caetano obtained his law degree in 1927 and became a legal consultant to the finance ministry and a protégé of Finance Minister António de Oliveira Salazar. Prime ministry, Portuguese
[kw]Caetano Becomes Prime Minister of Portugal (Sept. 27, 1968)
[kw]Prime Minister of Portugal, Caetano Becomes (Sept. 27, 1968)
[kw]Portugal, Caetano Becomes Prime Minister of (Sept. 27, 1968)
Prime ministry, Portuguese
[g]Europe;Sept. 27, 1968: Caetano Becomes Prime Minister of Portugal[09940]
[g]Portugal;Sept. 27, 1968: Caetano Becomes Prime Minister of Portugal[09940]
[c]Government and politics;Sept. 27, 1968: Caetano Becomes Prime Minister of Portugal[09940]
Caetano, Marcello José das Neves Alves
Salazar, António de Oliveira
Soares, Mário Alberto Nobre Lopes
Tomás, Américo Deus Rodrigues

In 1933, Caetano became an assistant professor of social science and administrative law at the University of Lisbon School of Law. He helped write the 1933 constitution for Salazar’s fascist new state. Salazar’s Portugal consisted of balancing power within the country among the military, landowners, business and commerce, colonial interests, and the Roman Catholic Church. No criticism or discussion was allowed outside this intimate circle of Salazar supporters. All political parties were banned, and Salazar’s leadership consisted of a small, informal ruling political and commercial elite.

The philosophical tenets of the Salazarist regime were authoritarian government, patriotic unity, Christian morality, and the work ethic. The regime also indulged in ideological fascist-like rallies and youth movements. The government assumed greater control over politics, business, and labor. It also authorized the establishment of a police force known as PIDE (International Police in Defense of the State [p]International Police in Defense of the State, Portuguese ). PIDE, which resembled the Gestapo, had the power to arrest and imprison, without formal charges, anyone who was accused of having committed a crime “against the safety of the state.”

For more than twenty years, Caetano held a variety of appointments under Salazar’s dictatorship: In 1936, Caetano was elected to the Council of the Colonial Empire; in 1940, he headed Portugal’s state-organized youth movement; in 1941, he was a special envoy to Brazil. Caetano was appointed minister for overseas territories from 1944 to 1947; in 1947, he became president of the National Union, National Union, Portuguese the party that controlled Portugal’s political life. From 1950 to 1955, he was president of the Corporate Chamber, an appointed parliamentary body of the nation’s economic, cultural, administrative, and religious associations. As an ex-officio member of the council of state, Caetano and his advisory body rendered opinions to the supreme court and to the national president. From 1953 to 1958, Caetano was vice president of the Overseas Council, and in 1955, he became minister of state of the presidency (deputy premier).

As Caetano became more moderate in his conservative, right-wing views, he decided to leave government service. He became rector (president) of the University of Lisbon in 1959. Three years later, he resigned in protest of police arrests of student demonstrators; later, he wrote an article in defense of the police action. For the next six years, Caetano taught at the university, practiced law, and served on the boards of various companies. He was a teacher, jurist, and scholar of international reputation who had helped draft the 1933 Portuguese constitution. He also was the editor of a law journal, O Direito (the law), and author of several books on political science and law. He wrote the first complete treatise on administrative law in Portugal.

When Salazar fell ill on September 16, 1968, with no hope for recovery, President Américo Deus Rodrigues Tomás met with the Council of State to choose a successor. After convincing ultra right-wing conservatives that he would continue Salazar’s policies (especially in the colonies), Caetano was appointed premier, or prime minister, of Portugal on September 27, 1968. For the most part, the Portuguese seemed content with the choice of Caetano to succeed the dying dictator; the right wing was convinced that Caetano would follow Salazar’s policies, while the left wing saw him as the only liberal hope who had any possibility of being chosen by the ruling regime.


In his short acceptance speech Caetano spoke of “evolution within continuity.” In other words, he wanted changes to keep up with reform expectations, but not so fast as to antagonize Salazar’s conservative supporters. Thus, he promised to continue Salazar’s policies (retaining the African colonies, fighting communism, and repressing dissent at home). In his speech, however, he also recognized the need for government reform and advocated an expansionist economic policy. He renamed Salazar’s new state as the social state.

As if to reassure conservatives, Caetano reappointed Salazar’s ministers to their former posts. Caetano’s modest reforms began in his fifth year of office. He eased police repression and censorship laws, but, while he allowed freedom of expression in newspapers, he would not allow criticism of Salazar. Politically exiled citizens were allowed to return to Portugal. The outspoken bishop of Porto, along with Alvaro Cunhal (of the Portuguese Communist Party) and Mário Alberto Nobre Lopes Soares, a socialist lawyer (who had been exiled on the island of São Tomé), among others, were allowed to return to continental Portugal.

Little by little, Caetano replaced Salazar’s ministers with his own appointees, particularly younger and more progressive economists, and began moderate government reforms. Although his policies toward the Portuguese African territories remained unchanged, Caetano called for increased autonomy in the colonies during his 1969 visit. Voting laws were liberalized, giving women equal voting rights and allowing all literate Portuguese adults, without criminal records, the right to vote. In October of 1969, the first “free” elections in forty years were allowed; however, opposition groups were not allowed to form parties. Although newspapers could report on opposition groups, candidates were not allowed to use radio, television, or public rallies to further their causes. As a result of restrictions, all progovernment candidates were reelected.

One month after the election, Caetano abolished the dreaded secret police, PIDE, established by Salazar in 1945. During Caetano’s tenure, the Portuguese capital of Lisbon became the headquarters for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Iberian Atlantic Command (IBERLANT), the Treaty of Friendship and Nonaggression. Caetano continued Portugal’s agreement with the United States to maintain a military base, Lajes, on the island of Terceira of the Azores archipelago.

Although he inherited Salazar’s post of prime minister, Caetano faced the ultraconservative authority of President Tomás, who was emerging as increasingly more powerful. With Salazar’s death in 1970, President Tomás was given more freedom to exercise constitutional power to its fullest. Tomás went so far as to threaten Caetano with a military coup if he continued liberalized economic changes.

Like Salazar, Caetano was a conservative Roman Catholic who continued Portugal’s concordatas (agreements) with the Vatican and discouraged divorce and birth control, and provided state assistance for Catholic education in public schools. Unlike Salazar, however, Caetano appeared to have a more global vision and visited other Western European nations, the African colonies, and other countries to bring higher recognition for Portugal (one of the least affluent European states) abroad. Caetano was decorated by the governments of Portugal, Spain, Belgium, and Brazil. In an effort to appear more open to the people, Caetano inaugurated televised fireside chats. This apparent openness to public opinion rendered him more popular than Salazar.

Although Caetano brought about some reforms, his government lacked a democratic vision and achieved modest economic growth. Increased consumption without adequate production led to a 15 percent inflation rate. The gap between the rich and the poor continued to widen, and development in literacy and educational reform remained slow.

The military junta of General António de Spinola ousted Caetano’s government and took command of the Portuguese Republic on April 25, 1974. The bloodless revolution led to the establishment of democracy in Portugal. Soares (of the Socialist Party) would serve as the prime minister of Portugal from 1976 to 1978 and 1983 to 1985 and as president from 1986 to 1995. Caetano was exiled to Brazil, where he died on October 26, 1980, in Rio de Janeiro. Prime ministry, Portuguese

Further Reading

  • Birmingham, David. A Concise History of Portugal. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Provides readers with a general history of Portugal. Includes chapters on the eras of dictatorship, colonialism, democracy, and the European Union.
  • Figueiredo, Antonio de. Portugal: Fifty Years of Dictatorship. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1975. Provides a comprehensive perspective on the Portuguese regimes of Salazar and Caetano.
  • Gallagher, Tom. Portugal: A Twentieth-Century Interpretation. Dover, N.H.: Manchester University Press, 1983. Presents a historical interpretation of Portuguese government, including the Salazar and Caetano years, and subsequent democratic changes, after the 1974 military coup and revolution.
  • Jenkins, L. “New Style of Tyranny.” Nation, November 13, 1969, 532-534. Implies that Caetano’s regime perpetuated Salazar’s tyrannical policies and that Caetano also was a dictator.
  • Soares, Mário. “Stagnant Dictatorship: The Legacy of Salazar.” Nation, April 17, 1972, 491-492. Soares, who served as Portugal’s prime minister and as president, criticizes the government of Caetano and his apparent continuation of Salazar’s dictatorial policies.
  • Solsten, Eric, ed. Portugal: A Country Study. 2d ed. Lanham, Md.: Bernan Press, 1994. Complete and informative handbook whose chapters include history, society and environment, the economy, government and politics, and national security. Includes statistical tables, bibliography, and glossary.

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