Imagining Revolution: Portuguese African Liberation and the Mainstreaming of Anti-imperialism in the United States

Saturday, January 9, 2016
Galleria Exhibit Hall (Hilton Atlanta)
R. Joseph Parrott, University of Texas at Austin
Between 1961 and 1975, the struggles for independence in Portuguese Africa emerged as global shibboleths of anti-imperialism. Nationalists in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau worked assiduously to build global networks to sustain the military and social aspects of liberation. The socialists of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cabo Verde (PAIGC) under Amílcar Cabral and the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) refused to be limited by Cold War or imperial borders, appealing to East and West, North and South. While arms came primarily from Africa, China, and Eastern Europe, Westerners provided important material and political aid even as American and European governments maintained alliances with Portugal. In countries like the United States, local activists working for racial and economic reforms identified with the liberation struggles and celebrated them as models of communal self-assertion. The social policies that FRELIMO implemented in the liberated territories of Mozambique and Cabral’s theoretical writings became models for organizing in the United States. The result was the growth of a solidarity that worked to isolate imperial Portugal and directly support the liberation parties, linking African struggles with local economic and social concerns to create a global anti-imperial imaginary.

The popularity of this anti-imperil internationalism played an important role in mainstreaming New Left critiques of American realities. Less contentious than Vietnam due to the near universal disapproval of Portugal’s practice of direct colonialism, support for Lusophone liberation among young radicals, African Americans, and religious leaders helped popularize and formalize grassroots criticisms of U.S. government policy and business practices in the mid-1970s – both abroad and at home. Working directly with African revolutionaries, local organizations from Boston to Los Angeles raised funds, pressured elected representative to break with North Atlantic ally Portugal, and eventually agitated against Gerald Ford’s anti-communist intervention in Angola. In so doing, they extended criticism of American policy beyond Vietnam into new regions and arenas. The creation of interpersonal networks and a common vocabulary of left-leaning internationalism helped institutionalize a less reactionary vision of American engagement with the developing world, laying groundwork for both the anti-apartheid movement and popular opposition to Cold War interventionism in the 1980s.

My poster will illustrate this thesis through media produced by nationalist parties and activists that communicated the liberation ideology to Americans. These objects include posters, pamphlets, buttons, and American interviews with African nationalists recorded in the 1970s. The juxtaposition of documents and visual material highlights the common themes that sold revolutions to a wide swath of the U.S. public. Tropes and visual cues developed during this period established a common vocabulary for sympathetic Americans of varied backgrounds. These sometimes repackaged and expanded familiar imagery from Vietnam protest but also developed new themes that shaped later organizing concerning both Africa and Latin America. By integrating these images and ideologies into a single display, I will demonstrate how the Portuguese African struggles helped turn an anti-imperial counterculture into a legitimate, sustained domestic opposition to reactionary Cold War policy in the developing world.

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