On a previous trip to Lisbon I interviewed someone who had been a mid-level government official in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) during most of the last decade of Portuguese rule. Portugal’s African colonies had once been malarial dumping grounds for criminals and political dissidents. By the 1960s, though, they were places where some young professionals went willingly, even eagerly, to escape the stifling, puritanical atmosphere of Portugal under Salazar’s right-wing dictatorship. In looser sub-tropical Lourenço Marques, you lived in a bigger apartment, sex was less sinful, you breathed freer air. The former official told me that the newcomers from Portugal like himself (and there were many in the last two decades of colonial rule) referred to the Mozambique-born Portuguese, those who it seemed had always known this more easygoing life, as “Coca-Colas.” He didn’t know why they were called that. I’m working on the answer.
We know that Salazar banned Coke in Portugal because he considered it something of a threat to Portuguese morality. On that note, we might entertain a story that I have yet to confirm, and may never: that Fernando Pessoa, essentially Portugal’s national poet, resorted to writing ad copy during penniless days in the 1920s, including what was going to be the country’s first Coke ad campaign. “First you’re surprised, then it penetrates you,” went the slogan. Pessoa’s emphasis on Coke’s mind-altering qualities supposedly ensured that Coke would remain illegal in Portugal for the next half century. The Pessoa story has its adherents. But it just seems too good to be true.
We are told that dissident general Humberto Delgado, who attempted to overthrow the Salazar regime, was known derisively as “General Coca-Cola” because of his open links to the U.S. We know that contraband Coke would have been easy to obtain in Lourenço Marques from nearby South Africa, where the drink had been bottled since 1928. And so we can see how for Portuguese arriving in Lourenço Marques in the mid-1960s, a 3 pm Coke on ice with a slice of lime might have defined a lifestyle marked by relative liberty and sweet transgression, as well as tranquil isolation from the guerrilla war for Mozambican independence then occurring roughly 1,000 miles to the north.