Luis Joaquím Portela

Luis Joaquím Portela was born in 1906 on the outskirts of Fontarcada in the district of Povoa de Lanhoso. At a young age he moved to Oporto with his parents. There he qualified as a plasterer working in the building trade. In his union he studied social ideas and built on his general knowledge of sociology and the humanities. Right across the country anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist workers were publishing dozens of weeklies and fortnightlies during the first three decades of the 20th century. From February 1919 on the General Labour Confederation (CGT - a title hijacked by the Portuguese CP after 1974), with its HQ at 38A Calçada de Combro in Lisbon produced its daily paper A Batalha which was impounded by the fascist government in 1927. The sociological leaven spread by the unions and the labour press turned many workers into extraordinary professionals, into reporters/workers/public speakers of enviable social education and peerless debaters. Some were newspaper and magazine directors up until the 1930s. Others launched and ran publishing imprints, contributing to the Spanish, Italian and French press. They took part in regional, national and international trades and ideological congresses, representing Federations and the Confederation (CGT) which at the time was affiliated to the IWA based in Germany. They corresponded with militants elsewhere and translated articles, pamphlets and even entire books from the Russian, German, French, Italian and Spanish.

Luis Joaquím Portela learnt from this breed of intellectualised workers and acquired an enviable cultural baggage. For that very reason he was one of the first to make a stand against the nascent dictatorship [in Portugal] and, together with his comrades he refused to lend his support to the fascists’ trade union organisations and press.

The government then introduced Decree 23.050 in 1933, compelling all free trade unions to submit to the oversight of its Estado Novo [New State]. Workers with ideas resisted and many were jailed: Luis Portela, Abílio Augusto Belchior, Francisco Alberto and others tried to set the prisoners free and were arrested in turn. Portela had been arrested before in 1932 and on being rearrested was hauled off for “judgment” and given a 14 year sentence. Denied access to legal counsel, on the strength of that vicious sentence he was deported to the fortress of Sâo Joâo Batista on Ilha Terceira in the Azores, which is where they made their first attempt to kill him by shooting at him.

In 1944 with the Second World War raging the Azores were ceded by the Salazar government to the Americans under threat of ‘Operation Life Belt’ (a plan to seize the Portuguese islands) and the deportees on Ilha Terceira were relocated to prisons on the European mainland. Luis J. Portela was “housed” in Peniche fortress where he met Antonio Guerra and others who were to escape with him in the most spectacular break-out without the aid of politicians or police personnel. (Alvaro Cunhal and Dias Lourenço also escaped but they had the backing of the Portuguese CP and the connivance of a police officer from the fort.)

The planning of the escape started after Portela arrived on the scene. During some celebrations in the area several fireworks fell inside the perimeter and it occurred to Portela that they should salvage the cords securing the gunpowder cartridges (which were very strong in those days) and plait it to make ropes for use as an escape ladder. The break-out took place at 3.00 a.m, on 20 September 1946. As agreed between the six plotters, three would go out to begin with - Antonio Guerra, Joaquím Dos Santos Caetano and Manuel Gonçalves Rodrigues and they clambered down the left hand flank of the fort, wth their ears cocked. An hour later, since the guards had not raised the alarm, Luis Joaquím Portela, Abatino da Luz Rocha and Francisco Campos followed suit.

On account of the physical and psychological inhibitions of Antonio Guerra (a leading member of the PCP) the first trio headed for the location where the party had arranged to pick them up by car … but things went awry. Exhausted and almost blind, Antonio Guerra and his comrades headed for Moita de Ferreiros where they reckoned they could find some PCP “comrades”. Since things had not gone according to plan, they retreated into a shop. That was at 11.00 a.m and they had been missing for 8 hours when they were recaptured.

The trio that broke out an hour after them, having no party support, hid among some vines and survived for nearly 15 days eating the grapes and raw vegetables., etc. Once they were sure that there was no one searching for them nearby, they would venture out at night. Portela made for Oporto on foot (walking only under cover of night and laying low by day) and his two comrades pressed further south and were picked up in Setubal some months later.

The author learned of this and other escapes from Peniche fortress when I was there for a few months doing some work but I only ever met Luis Portela in 1948-1949. The fugitive was leading an underground existence and was in need of help. One day (the date escapes me) I was approached and I found work for Luis Portela on a “Residential Housing Project” in Matosinhos. But the health of our protégé was precarious and he had to seek hospital treatment in Oporto. They asked him for two documents: proof of address (he could scarcely name his hide-out) and another stating his name and social status. He was using the alias of Joaquím Fernandes at the time.

After these obstacles were overcome, Portela went back to work and everything went fine until his cousin said too much and the PIDE recaptured Luis in 1952, taking him back to Peniche again. He died on 26 July 1954, as a result of ill-treatment and of the “pills” he was forced to swallow by the prison doctor. He was on his last legs by the time the PIDE returned him to his family so that he could die at home and it saw to his burial.

From: Rebeldias, Vol. 2 (Sao Paulo, 2004). Translated by: Paul Sharkey.