Cruising past the Ponte 25 de Abril, which, when I squinted, could have been the Golden Gate Bridge I’d left back home, I wondered if my passport might burst into flames. I was going to a communist festival in Amora, Portugal, hardly the sort of festival I’d envisioned myself attending during my summer in Lisbon.
Though the view from the ferry took me back to American soil, where the word “communism” still lands with a thud, for the people of Portugal, Lisbon’s bright red bridge commemorates the Carnation Revolution that toppled the fascist Estado Novo regime, under which members of the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) were persecuted. On April 25, 1974, a group of left-leaning officers in the Portuguese army started a coup in the nation’s capital that would become a mighty, nonviolent civil resistance. As the regime fell, ending with it Portuguese colonialism, civilians gave soldiers red carnations, many of which wound up in the barrels of their guns.
Two years later, an emboldened PCP threw the first Festa do Avante! in Lisbon, naming it after the party’s official newspaper, Avante!, or Forward! The festival has since grown, and moved, today drawing hundreds of thousands to the suburbs of Lisbon every first weekend in September.
A communist festival that’s much more
“Think of it like Glastonbury,” a friend who’d studied abroad in England told me, pitching the festival for the following Saturday. I’d never been to Glastonbury, but I couldn’t picture hammer-and-sickle flags flying during a Mumford and Sons set.
“Really, it’s just a big party,” another added, sensing my skepticism. Minutes later, they’d all break out into a spirited chorus of PCP anthem “Avante, Camarada.”
Though a joke, the exchange captured Avante! perfectly.
From a distance, it looks like any other festival, only larger. Ten stages shuffle through musical acts, theater and film screenings, debates, and more. There are book tents, art and science exhibits, and play areas with kid-friendly activities like puppet workshops and concerts for babies. There’s enough food and drink to represent all the flavors of Portugal, as well as those from across the globe. And there’s sports both for spectators, like martial arts matches and roller hockey games, and participants, like running and bike races and ballet, boxing, and zumba classes.
Dedicated festivalgoers come for all three days, bringing caravans or pitching tents at the on-site campground, much like they do at Glastonbury and Coachella.
Up close, however, Avante! announces its politics loudly. Rather than typical concert merch, booths here sell “Free Lula” pins, in defense of polarizing Brazilian political prisoner Luiz Inácio “Lula” de Silva, and T-shirts emblazoned with Marxist icons. Festivalgoers of all ages walk around with Che Guevara on their chests like kids in Nirvana tees at their first rock concerts.
In heavily trafficked areas, such as the food pavilion seducing passersby with goodies like Porto-style bifana sandwiches and Alentejo wine, you’ll see literature pushing the party’s agenda and overhear panelists addressing topics ranging from child and parenting rights to social security and capitalism’s detriment to the environment.
This year, among other tributes, discussions also reflected on Portugal’s political past in honor of the 45th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution. Speakers remembered events like the 1969 students’ rights protest in Coimbra and youth opposition to the Estado Novo regime in its dying days. Some who lived through it shared their stories.
Celebrating Portugal’s past, present, and future
Debate has always been central to Avante! But in light of the revolutionary anniversary and Portugal’s then-upcoming October 6 general election, which saw Prime Minister António Costa secure a second term, this year’s discourse was particularly weighty.
Though the prime minister belongs to the center-left Socialist Party, his administration is significant for the PCP. During the last election in 2015, Costa brokered an unprecedented, informal alliance with the PCP and Left Bloc after winning fewer votes than the center-right Social Democrats, clenching a parliamentary majority and claiming the premiership.
Few expected the minority administration to succeed. It was labeled a geringonça, or “contraption,” comparing the coalition to an unstable machine.
Since 2015, however, Portugal has seen impressive economic growth in the wake of the eurozone crisis, nearly eliminated its budget deficit, increased the minimum wage, lowered unemployment rates, and reversed austerity measures, such as restoring four public holidays. Tourism and start-ups have also flourished.
Failing to win a majority in parliament earlier this month, Prime Minister Costa has expressed interest in renewing the alliance with the PCP and Left Bloc, as have both parties and Portuguese voters. In return for its parliamentary support, the PCP advocates for social welfare programs and workers’ rights, as well as issues like free textbooks in public schools and cheaper public transport — the same issues that fuel Avante!’s annual debates.
As the day goes on, the music takes over
Daytime at Avante! is a choose-your-own-adventure extravaganza of art, activism, education, and culture. Music plays throughout the day, whether an afternoon set by an indie rock band, a traditional fado performance, or a round of “Carvalhesa,” the communist anthem that always seems to be playing somewhere.
At night, though, the festival fulfilled my friend’s prophecy.
The crowd that had earlier rallied around General Secretary of the PCP Jerónimo de Sousa, who opened the festival to loud cheering and a sea of red flags, morphed into a more familiar mosh of dancing festivalgoers.
This year’s lineup featured Portuguese artists like the all-female pop-punk band Anarchicks and heavy metal group Moonspell, as well as international acts like politically vocal American rock band The Last Internationale and Spanish songstress Sílvia Pérez Cruz, whose debut solo album was nominated for album of the year in both Spain and France.
In previous years, Richie Havens and The Band, both of whom performed at Woodstock in 1969, also played the festival, as did Dexy’s Midnight Runners of ‘80s-classic “Come on Eileen” fame.
Avante! is not Woodstock. It’s not Glastonbury, and it’s certainly not Coachella, though it is fair to call it a music festival. It’s also political, cultural, and contradictory, at once engaged and carefree, wholesome and a little bit rowdy. In truth, it’s a fitting tribute to a country-defining revolution that’s often recounted as jubilant, festive even, and to an unlikely administration that’s finding leftist success when much of Europe is moving toward right-wing populism.
In an era in which the news cycle churns out more dramatic twists than soaps, Avante! is the rare political festival that manages to be politics-optional. It may be hard to pin down, but one thing’s for sure: It’s a hell of a party no matter how you vote — or, as it turns out, what country you’re registered to vote in.