The Azores Liberation Front has woken up

Since 1975 a group of Azorean struggle for the independence of the archipelago. In recent years, the movement has awakened to fight against Portugal’s “colonial rule”. But they must face “fear”, surveillance from the secret services and the media’s disregard.

Maria José Oliveira

Translation by Paulo Montes

June 2014

A quick search of the word ‘Açores’ on the public petitions website yields an endless number of proposals, from changing the lyrics of the regional anthem to the poem ”islands of mist”, by Natália Correia (with four signatories) to defending the independence of the archipelago, in a text titled ”I’m not Portuguese, I’m a very proud Azorean” (62 people). There are also those who postulate the opposite: on the petition “Independence of Portugal in relation to the Azores” it can be read “I’m Portuguese and I don’t want to continue sustaining the Azores. They cost a lot of money to Portugal and are always crying” (for now, four people support this idea).

The Azorean “separatist exaltation”, as designated by Álvaro Monjardino, the first president of the Regional Legislative Assembly and Deputy Minister during the Mota Pinto Government (1978-1979), erupted mainly in the summer of 1975 with the birth of the Azores Liberation Front (FLA), a movement created in London by José de Almeida, former representative of the National People’s Action party. Before that, shortly after the April 25, 1974 revolution, there were signs of some mobilization around separatist ideas: on June 6, 1974, the Correio dos Açores newspaper published an anonymous article claiming independence of the nine islands. Monjardino wrote in an article published in Nação e Defesa magazine, that the Azorean spoke “openly about independence.” However, “nobody really believed in it.”

Although the text published in the São Miguel island daily newspaper wasn’t signed, its authorship was quickly claimed by MAPA, the Movement for the Self-Determination of the Azores, that later joined the FLA, creating the Separatist Student Movement. The 6th of June became indelibly associated with the self-determination initiatives of the archipelago.

During the IV Provisional Government headed by Vasco Gonçalves and with the PREC (Ongoing Revolutionary Process) in full throttle, Ponta Delgada witnessed, on Friday June 6, 1975, the most important event in the biography of the FLA – thousands of people gathered in a demonstration shouting slogans of independence. But the protest started with another motivation: the opposition of local farmers against the fixing of prices on meat, milk and other farming products. But the crowd assembled in front of the Conceição Palace, residence of the Civil Governor, António Borges Coutinho, quickly became uplifted by the shouts from members of the FLA against the Armed Forces Movement (MFA) and for the independence of the Azores. Inside the palace, Borges Coutinho, heard the protesters asking him to resign from his post, which he eventually did.

Excited about joining the separatist cause, the elements of the FLA even tried staging a civilian coup: they occupied the Regional Broadcasting facilities and from there, they headed to São Miguel airport. Such improvisation ended with 28 people being arrested by the military authorities, who didn’t have to put much effort in stopping the unrest. After this, the Gonçalves Government ordered the establishment of a military Government, led by General Altino de Magalhães. But the unrest wasn’t over.

The U.S. Embassy in Lisbon was watchful of the independence movements, reporting periodically to the State Department, as well as NATO, on the activities of the FLA. On July 23, a few weeks after the protests in São Miguel, Ambassador Frank Carlucci wrote a telegram about the echoes in the Portuguese press about a meeting of members of the FLA with an “unidentified” representative of Henry Kissinger, the U.S. chief diplomat, which, during the ‘Hot Summer’ of 1975, feared the power would be taken by the Communists and was looking to remove Vasco Gonçalves from the Government. Carlucci pointed that the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), according to newspapers, was calling attention for the existence, in some Azorean islands, of an “offensive” prepared by “separatist and reactionary forces.” Therefore, the ambassador, who remained in Portugal until 1978, stressed in his final comment that the newspapers, “dominated by the left-wing”, were trying to associate the U.S.A. with the Azorean separatists, whose actions, were “relatively contained”. He concluded: “(…) the Communists decided to include the Azores in their current anti-USA, anti-PS and anti-PPD offensive.”

If the FLA initiatives were considered “contained” by July, the same can’t be said for the last months of 1975. That was when the organization decided to radically change its methods and become a bombist group – in order to fight the Gonçalvismo policies, they destroyed the headquarters of left-wing parties in several islands, they burned cars and attacked the house of socialist Jaime Gama. The use of violence coincided with the first broadcasts of the Free Voice of the Azores Radio and with the publication of the FLA ”Programmatic Principles”, collected in a small book whose cover was illustrated with the flag of the independent movement: blue and white, a goshawk with open wings embracing the nine islands, represented by stars (many years later, when Mota Amaral was leader of the Regional Government, he altered the design, putting Portugal’s five corners shield in the upper left corner). In these statutes, the FLA didn’t assume itself as a political party, but proposed the creation of a “Liberation Committee” that would allow the transition into independence, launching at the same time the basis for a “true democracy” – something they said didn’t exist in mainland Portugal. The members of the FLA, defending the end of the “colonial rule” in the region, wanted to start negotiations with the Government in Lisbon for the execution of a referendum, although accepting the possibility of a unilateral declaration of independence, supported by a “national uprising of the Azorean people”, which could only end with “the final victory”. The independent Azores would then have a President of the Republic, a representative Assembly and a Government. The financing of the new country would be made through the “valorization” of the local economy. Namely: farming, fishing, industries and tourism. As for factory work, the FLA wasn’t that far from some Gonçalves policies – “(…) workers develop their own personality at the company; so their right to participate in its management, profits and property must be ensured” – even imposing an agrarian reform in the archipelago. ”An agrarian reform will be effected. During the transitional period, with the FLA in charge, all nationalization processes decreed by the Portuguese Government shall be maintained.”

On the central pages of this draft of a Constitution, the separatists published lyrics of intervention songs, much in the style of the independence movements. “Do you feel that there’s wealth to be explored / in these fruits of fire in the entrails / of this Land caressed by the sea? / So raise your arm / like I do, and pray and dig the land / where your future is. / We are a people of brothers / We must join hands / We are an elite people / Let’s conquer the sun.” (“Invitation”).

©osomeafuriaAzorean Spring?

Still during 1975, the community of Azorean immigrants in the U.S. would go along with the separatist ideas of the FLA and support the establishment of a Government in exile, called the Provisional Government of the Azores, set up in Fall River, Massachusetts, home of José de Almeida, the founder of the movement. It was probably him, a former representative of the Marcelo Caetano regime, who tried to get the U.S. to support the FLA cause, using the concession of the Lajes Base on Terceira Island as a negotiating ”trump card”. But the Americans were already in talks with Mário Soares and the ‘Group of the Nine’ to halt Vasco Gonçalves Government’s program, and because of that, supporting the Azorean separatists was considered counterproductive. Under these circumstances, it was no surprise that, after receiving the telegram aforementioned, dated July 1975, Kissinger requested the Ambassador Frank Carlucci to contact Mota Amaral (who to this day denies any association with the FLA) and the leaders of the organization to refrain from taking any further action.

The FLA wasn’t let down with this request by the Americans. They tried to get funds to buy weaponry and by the end of 1975, some members met in Paris with Azorean emigrants in the U.S. who were duly qualified in financial terms. However, the meeting wasn’t a success. Also a group of conservative Catholics in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) showed interest in supporting the FLA, but again the separatists’ expectations fell short.

In 1976, the approval of the Constitution and the consecration of the autonomous regions of the Azores and Madeira came as a major blow to the pretensions of the FLA, that fell asleep ever since.

Thirty-seven years after its origin, the FLA reappeared in 2012, promising to reactivate its initiatives. In May of that same year, the Expresso newspaper even spoke of the “resurrection” of the FLA; and in June, on the eve of the anniversary of the great demonstration in Ponta Delgada, the news agency Lusa quoted José de Almeida in a critique of the Azorean people who “are not aware of the real value of the Azores in the various areas of the Portuguese economy and finance”.

Last year, on the 6th of June, the historic leader of the organization returned to the place of the 1975 protest to proclaim that “the Azores will be independent”, in an evolutionary process to be accomplished through “dialogue” with Portugal and the U.S. Quoted by the Açoreano Oriental newspaper, José de Almeida doesn’t wish to repeat “past mistakes”, recalling that the Azores ocean has “a potential for tens of millions of euros per year”, which would be enough to finance the territory.

But it’s not only its marine resources sustaining the desire of an independent Azores. From the city of Ponta Delgada, Aires Ferreira, 50, founder of the Separatist Student Movement points to the fact that along with the “billions of euros” coming from the ocean, one should also account for the taxes charged by the Government of the Republic to the Azorean, the revenue from the use of the archipelago airspace and the income from the Lajes Base. “There is every reason for the Azores to be politically free. We are the richest in Macaronesia [a region that includes the Azores, Madeira, the Canaries and Cape Verde] and have an enviable geographic location”, he says.

With the FLA confined to the underground, due to the outlawing of all separatist groups, the Azorean independence advocates created the Paço do Milhafre Association (named after a book from author Vitorino Nemésio), that apart from traveling the islands with information events, has also promoted an economic study on the self -financing of the archipelago. “It takes the patience of a saint not to go against the law. So we created this social gathering. But the FLA is an Azorean state of mind”, says Álvaro Lemos, a businessman and former commander of the Ponta Delgada Fire Department. The association keeps being supported by some Azorean emigrants and now wants to get closer to some international independence movements. Álvaro Lemos prefers to keep this matter a secret, but Aires Ferreira says that there have been some contacts with similar groups in the Canary Islands, Catalonia and Galicia. In an attempt to make the Paço do Milhafre official, the separatists are preparing a dossier to join the United Nations committee for colonized peoples, because the idea that the region is still under the “colonial rule” of mainland Portugal remains very much alive among the separatists. Nonetheless, Álvaro Lemos remarks that “the first country” with whom the association wants to dialogue “is Portugal.” And he argues: “If they lose the Azores and Madeira they know they’re on their way to become a province of Spain.” According to Aires Ferreira and the FLA programmatic principles, the emancipation project should go through a referendum. But until then, they will need “one to two years of freedom to openly discuss their independence, mainly in the media.” Currently, the Paço do Milhafre is trying to open a radio station. Álvaro Lemos says that this is due to the fact that “the press doesn’t publish anything about our activities and there are pressured not to.” Also, Aires Ferreira believes (“on good authority”) that there are “direct orders from SIS [the Portuguese Security Intelligence Services] for the media not to give any airtime to the independence movement.” So, the scarcity of members in the organization is plain to see. But there is also “fear” in the islands. “People fear being associated with the FLA. They can lose their jobs and because of that we no longer have representations on all the islands”, the businessman explains. He also stresses that despite the fear, many young people have joined the movement. But none of them want to give not even an anonymous interview, as they’re scared of becoming “monitored by the authorities”.

But as Aires Ferreira observes, “The FLA has woken up” and is ready to join the “emancipation movements that appeared all throughout Europe.” Will we witness an Azorean Spring one day?