Beyond the music: Portugal’s Avante! festival combines culture and Marxist politics
Crowds take in a symphony concert on the opening night of Festa do Avante. | Avante

AMORA, Portugal—Hundreds of thousands gathered this past weekend for a three-day extravaganza of culture and revolutionary politics in the Lisbon suburb of Amora. While the annual Avante! Festival (Festa do Avante!) has a musical lineup that could rival the profit-driven Coachella, the jamboree was embedded with the spirit of resistance and anti-fascism.

The Portuguese Communist Party (PCP)-run event comes at a time when the stakes are high not only for workers in Portugal but working people around the globe. It was a celebration of how far the people of Portugal have come since the dark days of fascism in their country and a call to action for the new work to be done to keep at bay right-wing forces bent on taking power.

Then and now, the current look of the PCP newspaper Avante! (left) and how it was printed when it was an illegal publication under the fascist Estado Novo regime (right). | Chauncey K. Robinson / PW

Named after the PCP’s newspaper, Avante! (Forward!), the festival has occurred annually since 1976, just after the overthrow of the fascist dictatorship in Portugal. The massive gathering features musical performances, dance, sports, theater shows, cinema, carnival rides, and foods from across the world all intertwined with a Marxist perspective highlighting everyday struggles faced by the people. Two major themes of the event were the upcoming Oct. 6 elections, and the 45th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution.

PCP General Secretary Jerónimo de Sousa opened the festival by thanking the hundreds of volunteers and supporters of the party that made the festival possible, along with acknowledging the uniqueness of the event. “At a time when the idea that mobilization and political participation are not used in initiatives and rallies, whether in electoral campaigns or in daily life, here come the many thousands to attend the opening of the 43rd edition of Avante!,” he exclaimed to the cheering crowd.

Celebrating revolutionary history

Throughout the sprawling festival grounds were paintings and displays of the symbolic carnation flower. The Carnation Revolution, also known as 25 de Abril (25th of April), was a military and civil resistance action in 1974 that toppled the far-right fascist Estado Novo (New State) regime. Nearly no shots were fired, and instead, carnations were offered to the soldiers when the people took to the streets in celebration of the end of the dictatorship.

Although no blood was shed on the day of the revolution itself, for years thousands of militants—many members of the PCP—had been subjected to imprisonment and torture under the authoritarian regime of Antonio Salazar. Forced underground, they continued to organize, print Avante!, and maintain the resistance. The history of this struggle was showcased at the festival with short documentaries and photo displays of the movement leading up to the revolution. Not only this, but those who lived during the time of the fascist regime were present, walking the grounds, and interacting with festival-goers.

Revolutionary hero Conceição Matos. | Chauncey K. Robinson / PW

One such heroic figure was 83-year-old Conceição Matos. She is a long-time member of the PCP and one of the many who were subjected to torture by the police of Salazar’s “Second Republic.” Matos was imprisoned for a year and a half in 1965 and multiple times after, yet even in the face of torture that would leave her with health issues for the rest of her life, she kept her resolve. Matos, along with her husband Domingos Abrantes, who was also subjected to torture and imprisonment for several years, were present at the festival with words of encouragement for the younger generation about the new dangers faced today.

Culture with a political edge

Political topics weren’t reserved only for historic displays, as infographics highlighting today’s political demands by the PCP—such as a national wage increase for workers and affordable public transportation—lined the walls of food stands and carnival rides. Another use of getting progressive messaging out was seen through the presence of Cineavante, a film series on the grounds screening movies, particularly by Portuguese creators.

Cineavante organizer and Film Studies professor Sérgio Dias Branco spoke to People’s World on the importance of film at the festival and the selection of movies. “We try to highlight films that are difficult to see in mainstream theaters due to the subjects and politics they cover. It’s grassroots cinema,” he explained.

Branco highlighted a number of films being screened this year that he felt helped document the lives of the people both past and present. The documentary El Silencio de Otros (The Silence of Others) reveals the struggle of victims of Spain’s 40-year dictatorship under General Francisco Franco who continue to seek justice to this day. 15 memorias do fogo (15 Memories of Fire) deals with the aftermath for the people affected by the 7,900 Iberian wildfires of Oct. 2017 in northern Portugal and northwestern Spain.

Children play on a hammer and sickle sculpture at the Avante! festival grounds. | Avante

Intermixed throughout the stages and food stands were designated areas for panel discussions on various political topics. Situating these forum-style events between areas of heavy foot traffic and not too far off the beaten path optimized festival-goers’ chance to stop and listen in on the debates. Relevant issues such as “The European Union is not Europe,” “What can be done for April to be fulfilled in women’s lives,” and “Capitalism is not green,” were scattered throughout the festival, often gathering sizeable audiences from the broad crowd of attendees.

João Pimenta Lopes, a member of the European Parliament representing the PCP until recently, explained to People’s World that “there’s a little bit of something for everyone here. Culture is important, and [within that] we make sure to always remind the people of what needs to be fought for.”

New dangers and the road forward

At the forefront of the festival at every turn were the high stakes of upcoming Oct. 6 parliamentary elections in Portugal. These elections will determine whether the country will continue along the more progressive path been on or instead see a government come to power that rolls back recent gains and imposes more austerity.

Four years ago, the PCP played a key role in prioritizing the livelihood of working people by keeping the center-left Socialist Party in power and blocking the conservative Social Democratic Party (a misnomer) from being able to form a government. Since then, several gains have been made, but the country has seen the introduction of new anti-labor laws supported by the Socialists that threaten progress. The Communist Party is now fighting to keep their parliamentary seats and influence in order to keep the pressure on the Socialist Party for the rights of workers.

“Today, we need to fight and win a new battle, creating the conditions to keep moving forward and prevent them from going backwards,” General Secretary de Sousa declared to a crowd tens of thousands strong at the festival’s closing rally. “The way forward is to build the largest vote possible for the PCP. No one is fooled, what has been advanced is not guaranteed, and these recent times show that the balance has begun to tip further, beyond all promises, to the opposite side of defending the interests of workers,” he explained further.

The view from the main stage as PCP General Secretary Jeronimo Sousa addresses a crowd of thousands at the closing rally of the Festa do Avante. | Avante.

Pointing out the ills of capitalism that have ravished Portugal, such as continued inequality and low wages, de Sousa asserted that a new day was upon the workers of the country. “Portugal is not condemned to be left behind, nor to walk backwards. It is possible and necessary to carry out another policy and move forward. We are ready for the upcoming battles. Ready and excited by our beliefs and ideals. Ready with the political courage that is needed. Ready with all the courage you need!”

It was a rousing send-off, ending with boisterous music and dancing in the huge crowd, preparing the attendees for the work ahead after their weekend of celebration and education. As it has for decades, the Avante! Festival truly embodied the practice of deploying art to agitate, resist, and, hopefully, triumph.


Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.