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Freedom fighter, 1924-1973
by Carlos Pinto Santos
Translated by John D. Godinho
A “NIGHT OF LONG KNIVES” IN CONAKRY
Amílcar Cabral is assassinated in Conakry
one-story house, painted white, stands alone at the center of a wide
a huge mango tree grows in front of the house;
a shed used as a garage; the place is in Conakry, capital of the
Republic of Guinea, whose president is Séku Turé.
3 o’clock in the morning, January 20, 1973.
A car, a VW, is being parked under the shed.
Two spotlights focus on the car occupants – Amílcar Cabral and
his second wife, Ana Maria.
Out of the darkness a stern voice orders that Amílcar be tied up.
He struggles and refuses to be subdued.
The leader of the raid presses the trigger and hits Amílcar in the
region of the liver.
Amílcar, crouching on the ground, suggests that
The reply: a burst of machine gun fire aimed at the head of the
founder of the PAIGC.
Death is immediate.
Inocêncio Kani, the first to shoot, a guerrilla war veteran and
former PAIGC navy commander; the others are members of the party, all
other points of the city where the some 500 PAIGC militants are living,
the remaining leaders of the party stationed in Conakry are arrested by
groups participating in the uprising.
Among those arrested are Aristides Pereira, Vasco Cabral, José Araújo.
They are all taken to a scouting boat that heads for Bissau.
On January 21, Séku Turé receives the leaders of the party
uprising at the presidential palace.
Everything indicates that he supports Cabral’s assassins.
But, surprisingly, the President of
Guinea-Conakry gives them no protection. He orders that the conspirators be arrested, instructs the
Army to temporarily hold all members of the PAIGC and intercepts the boat
that was taking the imprisoned leaders to Bissau.
Séku Turé then sets up an international commission to investigate
all of these events. Gradually,
the old leaders of the PAIGC are granted their freedom. The party’s Superior Council for Liberation decides to go
further in the investigation.
that point on, conclusions are reached fairly quickly because of a web of
intrigue, denouncements, accusations and betrayals.
Approximately 100 party members are indicted, tried and executed.
This number includes the majority of those who participated in the
crime. But it also includes a
number of innocent people. This
type of occurrence is inevitable. The
death of Amílcar Cabral, the almost uncontested leader, gives rise to a
chain reaction of hatred and passionate reprisals.
In such an atmosphere, it is difficult for justice to be
impartially served, especially at a time when no one is interested in
abating the war against Portuguese colonialism.
The truth is that the assassination brings about no benefits for the Portuguese Army; the guerrillas intensify their activities. As of March 1973, the rebels have a new weapon at their disposal – the ground-to-air missile Stella – which effectively cancels out the air supremacy of the Portuguese armed forces. In May of that year, the Governor of Guinea-Bissau, General António Spínola, advises Joaquim da Silva Cunha, Minister of National Defense, that “...we are getting closer and closer to the possibility of a military collapse.” Then, on September 24, in the forests of Madina do Boé, the PAIGC unilaterally declares the independence of Guinea-Bissau.
|LARBAC, POET AND STORYTELLER|
Amílcar writes love poems
Under the dim light of a kerosene lamp, Juvenal Cabral sits at home, in
Cape Verde, writing a memorandum to Vieira Machado, Salazar’s minister
in charge of colonial affairs.
We are in December of 1941 and the minister is paying a
visit to the city of Praia, capital of Cape Verde, on the island of
São Tiago. Cabral’s
letter reaches the hands of that government official who, most likely,
doesn’t read it. Why bother
with the opinions of an obscure Cape Verdean elementary school teacher?
Nevertheless, the document is quite significant.
In it, Cabral expresses his worries about the drought and the
famine ravaging the archipelago and proposes that the minister adopt some
policies to improve the situation: locate
and harness water sources, establish an intensive reforestation program,
protect agriculture, do away with land taxes, create a line of credit for
farmers, protect the humble civil servant.
His son, Amílcar, is now 17 and attends high school in
Mindelo. He does not yet feel
confident enough to help his father in his crusade in favor of Cape Verde.
But, through his father, he has been made quite aware, since an
early age, of all the problems that affect his country.
By now, Amílcar has an assumed name.
He is Larbac. That’s how he signs his love poems: Quando Cupido acerta no
alvo (When Cupid Hits the Bull’s-eye), Devaneios
(Daydreams), Arte de Minerva (Minerva’s Art), among others.
The themes indicate classical influences.
His inspiration comes from the poets he studies in school:
Gonçalves Crespo, Guerra Junqueiro, Casimiro de Abreu.
Amílcar’s lyricism (Larbac is Cabral spelled backwards) is not
noted for its originality. It
does, however, reveal a romantic sensitivity that is present in his
adolescent prose writings, his short stories, annotations and commentaries,
where we can already detect a strong awareness of what is happening and a
desire to participate in the life of his island world.
A while later, in Lisbon, these feelings will become even stronger.
WAR, DROUGHT AND FAMINE
“He was born with politics in his head. He was the son of a politician. Juvenal used to talk to him about averything.” These words are pronounced in 1976, a year before Amílcar’s death, by his mother, Mrs. Iva Pinhel Évora, wife of Juvenal Lopes Cabral.
e Reflexões (Memories and Reflections), published in 1947 by
Amílcar's father, is a singular book in which the author recollects his
life, discusses the problems of his times and the environment in which he
lived, describes facts and events that clarify historical developments and
shed light on the social origins of the future leader of the PAIGC.
Juvenal is born in Cape Verde in 1889.
One of his grandparents is an important landowner.
But his fortune doesn’t last long in view of the natural
disasters that afflict the islands. His
paternal grandfather is a cultured man, also of some means, who names the
child Juvenal, after the Latin poet of the same name. Juvenal doesn’t
get to know his father, who meets a tragic death when the boy is a mere
two months old. At first, the
child remains under the care of his grandfather, but later goes to live
with his godmother, Simoa Borges, who will pay for his education.
First, he studies at the Viseu Seminary, in Portugal.
Juvenal is destined for the priesthood.
But a prolonged drought at the turn of the century makes it
financially impossible to keep him studying there.
So, he returns to Cape Verde and, in 1906, we find him studying at
the St. Nicolau Seminary. But
at the age of 18 he abandons his studies and leaves for Guinea in search
of a job. First, he manages to become a civil servant in Bolama and, later,
begins his activities as a teacher, even though he has no diploma.
The family is living in Bafatá when Amílcar Cabral is
born on September 12, 1924. The
birth certificate, however, states that the newborn’s name is Hamílcar,
his father’s way of paying homage to the famous Carthaginian Hamílcar
Simoa, the godmother, dies in 1932 and leaves Juvenal a
few tracts of land in Cape Verde. He,
his wife Iva and Amílcar return to the islands, where they remain
throughout the difficult years of World War II.
Under Salazar’s regime, the cost of living soars and goods and
supplies become scarce. In
1940, a particularly severe drought causes widespread starvation,
resulting in the death of more than 20,000 Cape Verdeans.
Then, between 1942 and 1948, a new calamity ravages the islands,
killing 30,000 more.
In the meantime, the Portuguese military contingent on
the islands has grown considerably, giving rise to innumerable conflicts
with the local population and bringing into greater focus the underlying
feelings of racism and colonialism. There
are practically no public assistance services to relieve the effects of
drought and famine. The
islands become underpopulated as the result of emigration to S. Tomé and
Angola and, later, to América.
Juvenal never remained silent.
In 1940, he sends a memorandum to the governor in which, based on
historical data, he predicts that there would be a drought in the years to
follow. His predictions come
true. Later, he will write a
document to the minister in charge of colonial affairs. (This terrible
period of successive calamities in Cape Verde is masterly described by
Manuel Ferreira in his novel Hora di
This is the atmosphere in which Amílcar Cabral spends
his early childhood and adolescent years.
If, on one hand, his father gives the example of public conscience
and civic engagement, within the limits permitted by Salazar’s fascism,
his mother, Iva Évora, on the other, is for young Amílcar an example of
love and affection, of family protection and of dedication to her work. Iva labors all day on a sewing machine to help the family
overcome, as wel as possible, the many crises they have to face.
Later in addition to her activities as a seamstress, she gets a job
a in a fish-packing factory. Amílcar’s
mother and her capacity for self-sacrifice will serve as an example which
he will pass to the young militants of the PAIGC.
At age 20, Amílcar is thoroughly familiar with the degrading living
conditions of the Cape Verdean people.
He is immersed in political idealism, absolutely convinced that
there will be better tomorrows, that there will be inevitable changes in
the world through a new order arising out of the post-war chaos.
In high school, Amílcar is a brilliant student and graduates with
outstanding grades, 17 out of a possible 18 point total.
He leaves for the capital, Praia, where he gets a job as an
apprentice at the National Printing Office, while he awaits the result of
his application for a scholarship so he can continue his studies.
At long last, he leaves for Lisbon in 1945.
AN ANTICOLONIALIST IN LISBON
Amílcar arrives in Portugal
Amílcar studies in Lisbon and thinks about his return to Africa
Cape Verdean authorities forbid broadcast of Amílcar Cabral's radio program
Amílcar proposes the reafricanization of the spirits
Amílcar Cabral arrives in Portugal in 1945. This is a year of great hopes and expectations for Portuguese
democrats. But such hopes
soon vanish when Salazar manages to continue his dictatorial regime with
the tacit approval and support of the victors of World War II.
Cabral’s first wife, Maria Helena de Athayde Vilhena Rodrigues, was his
classmate at the Agronomy Institute.
This is how she describes her first meeting with her future husband,
with whom she would have two children, Iva Maria and Ana Luísa.
The description was written by Mário de Andrade:
“I met Amílcar during our freshman year at the Agronomy Institute, in
1945. School had begun in
November and he arrived in December...I didn’t belong to his group but I
remember very well seeing him among the other students.
He stood out, since he was the only negro in the group...Amílcar
had not taken the college entrance examination...Everybody talked about
him...they praised his intelligence and, on top of that, he was very
pleasant and easygoing.
As far as his political activities were concerned, I remember that
my fellow students were gathering signatures in support of democratic
movements. Amílcar was
actively engaged in these antifascist student organizations.
Whenever there was a general meeting, he acted as moderator because
he expressed himself so well...In the beginning of our third year, in
October, 1948, we were in the same group, which was composed of the last
twenty-five students who had passed the examinations.”
Amílcar is remembered by his classmates and friends as a person of
contagious energy, a great sense of humor, and an enormous capacity for
making friends. He is
charming and women are easily attracted to him.
“He was the best dressed and groomed of all of us,” recalls his
friend, the journalist Carlos Veiga Pereira.
“My brother could make friends anywhere,” says Luís Cabral,
Guinea-Bissau’s first president. In
an interview to the newspaper Diário
Popular, he revealed that “...It was because of Amílcar’s charm
that the soviets gave us the missiles to control the Portuguese Air Force. The Italian tycoon Perelli was his friend and gave us the
officer uniforms we used. It
was all because of friendship and affection.”
Even having to attend to his studies, his political activities and his
romantic affairs, he still found time to practice his favorite sport:
And, according to the sports columnists, he could have made a career of
it, if he had wanted to. His
performance with the institute’s football team was so impressive that he
was invited to play for Benfica, one of the top teams in Portugal.
But Amílcar doesn’t accept the offer and prefers to stick with
the informal games at school.
He feels an irresistible calling during his college years, a feeling that
affected other Negro students as well:
it was necessary to return to
Not only because of his family, which he loves so deeply, but
because “...millions of people need my contribution in the hard struggle
against nature and against man, himself...There, in Africa, in spite of
the beautiful and modern cities on the coast, there are still thousands of
human beings who live in the utmost darkness."
In 1949, he writes: “I
live life intensely and from life I have extracted experiences that have
given me a direction, a road that I must follow, whatever the personal
losses that I might come to suffer. That
is my reason for living.”
The life he is referring to is lived in Lisbon, at the Agronomy Institute,
in the Casa dos Estudantes do Império and through the books that open up
horizons for the understanding of the world of his times.
One of such books has a fundamental influence:
Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie négre et malgache (Anthology of the
New Black and Malagasy Poetry), edited by Léopold Sédar Senghor.
This book convinces him that “...the Negro is awakening
everywhere in the world.” He
theorizes on the condition of the Cape Verdean man, the result of the
miscegenation of the archipelago’s first inhabitants, black and white.
He knows that the number of mestiços
(people of mixed races) is already six times that of the whites and three
times that of the Negros. From
a psychological point of view there is a “Cape Verdean spirit,” a cape-verdeanness.
This profession of faith must be brought into harmony with his
During his fifth year at school, Amílcar returns to the archipelago for
a summer vacation. He wants
to teach and pass along to his fellow Cape Verdeans all the knowledge at
his disposal, whether it be in his special field of studies, soil erosion,
or in general culture. He
delivers several lectures on the Radio Clube de Cabo Verde, in the city of
Praia, covering the soil characteristics of the islands.
He recognizes that, despite the difficulties, the economy of Cape
Verde is based on agriculture. As
such, it is essential that the man
in the street be elucidated, be well-informed, be made aware.
Amílcar discusses the problems of the elite
in Cape Verdean society. There
is a need for the creation of an intellectual
vanguard that will give the anonymous Cape Verdean citizen all the
information about his traditional problems.
As he says: “The
members of the organization must bring light to those who live in
Such information must travel beyond the borders of Cape Verde and become
global in nature so as to be available anywhere in the world.
This is Amílcar’s task as a militant:
to make Cape Verdeans aware.
But the Portuguese authorities are quick to forbid his access to the
radio waves. In the same
fashion, they forbid him to give a night course at the Central School, in
“Make Cape Verdeans aware of Cape Verde,” is a slogan that also
reflects what is happening in Angola, where a group of young intellectuals
has gathered around the poet Viriato da Cruz and has adopted the motto:
“Let’s discover Angola.”
Back in Lisbon, Amílcar makes connections that put him in close contact
with other students from the Portuguese colonies. This is a group of young people, members of the urban African
lower middle-class, who are conscious of the rebellious feelings against
colonialism and who have the advantage of being well-educated and cultured.
They are active in the Portuguese democratic youth movement known
as MUD Juvenil, the Movement for Peace.
As Amílcar Cabral put it, they have an ideal that distinguishes
them from the Europeans - it’s: the
reafricanization of the spirits.
THE PAIGC AND THE BEGINNING OF OPEN WARFARE
Amílcar goes to Bissau as an agricultural engineer
Amílcar founds the PAIGC and begins open warfare against the Portuguese government
After graduating from the institute in 1950, Amílcar goes through a
period of apprenticeship at the Agronomy Center, in Santarém.
Shortly thereafter, Juvenal Cabral dies. Then, in 1952, Amílcar
returns to Bissau, under contract with the Agricultural and Forestry
Services of Portuguese Guinea.
The man who arrives in Bissau is a 28-year-old agricultural engineer
whose goals are not limited to those connected with his profession (in
which, incidentally, he has always shown great competence). The most important of these goals: to raise the awareness of the Guinean common masses.
As he says is a memorandum to the members of the organization,
during the struggle for liberation, in 1969:
“I didn’t come to Guinea by mere chance.
My return to my native land was not occasioned by any material need.
Everything was carefully planned, step by step.
I had great possibilities of working in other Portuguese colonies
and even in Portugal itself. I
left a good job as a researcher at the Agronomy Center to take a job as a
second class engineer in Guinea...This was done following a plan, an
objective, based on the idea of doing something, of contributing to the
betterment of the people, to fight against the Portuguese.
That’s what I have done since the day I arrived in Guinea.”
The “Engineer,” as he will be called by his compatriots, is in the
best position to carry out the task of
“raising awareness.” As manager of the agricultural station at
Pessubé, he is able to contact rural workers, including Cape Verdeans.
But it’s difficult to bring the Cape Verdeans and the Guineans
together to form a common front. It
will be difficult to the very end, even though a number of Cape Verdeans
gather around him (Aristides Pereira, Fernando Fortes, Abílio Duarte,
among others). His political
activities run parallel to his professional work.
He is in charge of the planning and implementation of Guinea’s
agricultural sensus; his final report is, to this day, the first
dependable collection of data for a more accurate knowledge of
In the beginning, Amílcar tries to act in strict observance of the law.
He drafts the by-laws of a club dedicated to sports and cultural
activities open to all Guineans. The
Portuguese authorities do not permit it to function because the signers of
the document do not have a government issued identity card.
In 1955, Governor Melo e Alvim forces Cabral to leave Guinea, although he
permits him to return once a year for family reasons.
That very same year, a group of Asian and African countries hold a
conference at Bandung, Indonesia, the Bandung Conference, which gives
birth to the movement of nonaligned countries in world politics.
That year also marks the end of the first Vietnamese war of
independence and the beginning of open warfare by the National Liberation
Front (FLN) of Algeria. Amílcar
Cabral has been transferred to Angola and is working in Cassequel, as an
engineer...and coming into direct contact with the founders of the MPLA
(Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), of which he becomes a
During one of his visits to Bissau, on September 19, 1959, a new party
comes into existence founded by Amílcar Cabral, Aristides Pereira, Luís
Cabral, Júlio de Almeira, Fernando Fortes and Elisée Turpin. Its name: African Party for the Independence and Union of
Guinea and Cape Verde (known
by its Portuguese acronym PAIGC). It
is, obviously, an underground organization that will acquire legal status
only four years later when it establishes a foreign delegation in Conakry.
This is a period of exhausting
activities for Amílcar Cabral. He
continues his botanical and agricultural studies that force him to travel
frequently between Portugal, Angola and Guinea.
In November, 1957, he
attends a meeting in Paris called to discuss and plan the struggle against
Portuguese colonialism; he makes contact with anticolonialists in Lisbon;
goes to Accra, capital of Ghana, for a Pan-African meeting and then heads
for Luanda when the Pidjiguiti massacre occurs.
In January of 1960, he attends the Second Conference of African
Peoples, in Tunis, and goes to Conakry in May.
That same year, he goes to an international conference in London
where, for the first time, he denounces Portuguese colonialism.
But here he leaves it quite clear, as he did throughout the years
of struggle, that he is not against the Portuguese people.
His battle is exclusively against the colonial system.
Historical research and the testimonials of many of the participants in
the events show that the PAIGC’s leader always made himself available
for negotiations with the Portuguese government, but such openness was
never accepted by the dictatorship regime.
Between 1960 and 1962, the PAIGC operates out of the Republic of Guinea.
Its activities are developed along three courses of action:
to prepare militants and party workers to spread the party line in
the interior of Guinea; to obtain the support of neighboring countries (a
very complicated affair because the Republic of Guinea intended to use Amílcar
Cabral’s Guinean supporters to carry out its own political agenda and
because Senegal showed its hostility for six years) and, finally, to
marshal international support.
|A WEB OF INTERESTS|
Séku Turé instigates Amílcar's assassination
In an article published in the Expresso,
of January 16, 1993, José
Pedro Castanheira describes many of the circumstances surrounding Amílcar
Cabral’s death. Three years
later, Castanheira delves deeper into the subject in his book Quem
mandou matar Amílcar Cabral?(Who Ordered Amílcar Cabral’s Death?).
There are several acceptable possibilities. Using the tactics of “divide and conquer,” Portuguese
policies had been able to separate the Cape Verdeans from the Guineans.
The former are, by and large, the children of mixed races (mestiços),
are better educated and are favored by the central government.
They occupy positions which are less demeaning and enjoy
preferential treatment. When
the PAIGC is founded, the top
echelon is made up of Cape Verdeans, while the foot soldiers are Guineans.
Amílcar Cabral, himself, is considered to be a Cape Verdean, even
though he was born in Guinea. As
a result, there were always conflicts and tensions within the PAIGC.
In 1973, the war of national liberation is approaching its moment
of victory. The political
leaders are still Cape Verdeans. Probably,
the impending success in the struggle exacerbated the confrontation within
Séku Turé, who had been an African leader of great prestige since 1958,
is now losing influence. On
the other hand, Amílcar Cabral has become a well-known personality in the
African and in the international political scenes, receiving support from
a wide range of sources that go from China and the Communist regimes to
the Scandinavian countries. Turé’s
big dream of taking over Guinea-Bissau and creating “Great Guinea” is
now in danger. It is quite
probable that he gave his nod of agreement to the rebels – all Guineans
– to carry out the assassination. Cabral
would be out of the way, the PAIGC would become divided and would, for all
practical purposes, come under Turé’s
control. (In May, 1974, Leopold Senghor, President of Senegal, did not
hesitate in declaring to Colonel Carlos Fabião and to Ambassador Nunes
Barata that Séku Turé had been the instigator of Amílcar Cabral’s
And, finally, there is the PIDE/DGS, the secret Portuguese state police.
For a long time, at least since 1967, that organization had been
trying to kill Cabral. Some
of the guerrillas who had been taken prisoners were brain-washed into
collaborating with the police apparatus.
This was shown to be true in relation to some of the participants
in the assassination. Everything
leads one to believe that, to some unknown degree, the PIDE was not
unaware of the conspiracy.
|THE SEVERAL DEATHS OF AMÍLCAR CABRAL|
Amílcar Cabral was buried in the cemetery of Conakry. Thus, the most
enlightened African leader of his generation, the principal theoretician
of the armed struggle for African liberation leaves the political scene.
But Amílcar would die several more times, considering that his life was
lived in accordance with his ideals, that he had led a guerrilla movement
with one goal in view, as so often stated and written by him – the
establishment of a fraternal community that would flourish when the two
peoples forced to engage in war freed themselves from their common
On November 14, 1980, Amílcar Cabral died a second time, as an
undeserving victim of a settlement of accounts. On that day, Nino Vieira led a coup-d’état that destroyed
Amílcar’s great dream of making Guinea and Cape Verde one country or,
at least, a union of states that would be able to withstand the hegemonist
ambitions of the Dakar and Conakry governments.
As a result of the coup, the PAIGC, which he had founded, was
Cabral died once again as the result of the ostentation, the corruption
and the bloody hatred in the solution of political differences that
ensnared many of the Guinean leaders.
He died as the result of the utter poverty, disease and famine that
decimate the people twenty years after independence was so admirably
conquered in the forests of Madina do Boé.
A poem by Amílcar Cabral – Praia, Cabo Verde, 1945 -
Mother, in your perennial sleep,
You live naked and forgotten
thrashed by the winds,
at the sound of songs without music
sung by the waters that confine us...
Your hills and valleys
haven’t felt the passage of time.
They remain in your dreams
- your children’s dreams –
crying out your woes
to the passing winds
and to the carefree birds flying by.
Red earth shaped like a hill that never ends
- rocky earth –
ragged cliffs blocking all horizons
while tying all our troubles to the winds!