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GMTM-12-E - The Call of God: Carnations, Communists and the CIA

The Bible is full of references to God’s intervention in the lives of individuals and empires, but do we recognize His intervention when it directly affects us in our day? On April 25, 1974, the 48-year-old fascist regime founded by António Salazar in 1926 in Portugal was overthrown in a matter of hours. Not one shot was fired, and this coup went down in history as “the Carnation Revolution”. Two years later, in 1976, we arrived in Madeira, and here are some of the things we witnessed as we adapted to a new country. We discovered that the Madeirans, too, were still adapting to, what was, after all, a new country for them.

Followers of this podcast/blog will note that I am taking a giant leap forward in our mission story. This episode leapfrogs over our three years in Brazil and another 18 months in the US, the period between March 1972 and our arrival in Madeira in December 1976. I will resume narrating the story of that important time in the next episode, the Lord willing. Then why this sudden leap? It’s because yesterday was April 25, 2024. Yesterday, for me, would have been a day much like any other, as I’m sure it was for everyone else here in the US, but I received an email from the British magazine History Today with its article marking the 50th anniversary of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution of April 25, 1974. The magazine asked three professors and a journalist for their comments on the revolution.

As I read the article, I realized how intimately that day in history was interwoven in the story of our mission work on Madeira Island from 1976 to 2016. More details will emerge in due course as this blog follows our work chronologically, but I must take this opportunity to say something about how profoundly that event affected our lives personally, even though we were in Brazil at the time, working in the church at Santa Cruz do Rio Pardo, SP. Our colleague Steve Montgomery had to leave the mission field for two years or so after he broke his neck in a traffic accident in December 1973.

The news of the revolution made major headlines in Brazil, of course, and I remember reading accounts of it in one of Brazil's largest newspapers, O Estado de São Paulo. The regime of the Estado Novo was instituted in Portugal in 1926 and led by Antônio de Oliveira Salazar until 1968, when, for reasons of poor health, he was replaced by Marcelo Caetano, who held onto power until the regime was overthrown in 1974. Salazar’s regime was inspired by Italian Fascist ideals, although he maintained Portugal’s neutrality in WWII. Salazar was staunchly Catholic and staunchly anti-communist and his regime was feared for its secret police, PIDE, the Portuguese version of East Germany’s STASI or the USSR’s KGB. This secret police was active against critics of the government, harassing evangelicals and Protestants who opposed the errors of the Roman Catholic Church, and sending left-leaning politicians into exile who espoused socialist/communist ideals.


Then came April 25, 1974. In only 18 hours, less than a day’s time, the 48-year long regime of Estado Novo collapsed without a shot being fired. Marcelo Caetano, who had succeeded Salazar, was simply shipped off to Brazil, in exile. The populace, breathing the air of freedom for the first time, celebrated by placing carnations in the barrels of rifles and tanks, as the Carnation Revolution changed the nation overnight.

Photos published in reports of the revolt on April 25, 1974.

When a former secretary of Pope Pius XII stayed at our house

It was February 1975 before we were directly affected by the revolution of April 25. We had invited Pastor António Gonçalves Pires to preach a series of meetings at our church in Santa Cruz do Rio Pardo in the interior of the state of São Paulo in February 1975. António Pires entered the priesthood in 1926 and worked in various functions in the Catholic Church in northern Portugal and Rome. Eventually he was called to work as secretary to Pope Pius XII in the Vatican. During WWII, he stood on the walls of the Vatican and watched as the Allied Forces bombed Rome. It was after the war that his long search for the assurance of salvation was answered as he read the Bible and accepted Jesus as his Savior, recognizing that the Roman Church could never fulfill its promises to save his soul. He requested leave from the Vatican to return to Portugal, but when the Archbishop of Lisbon tried to force him to return to his duties in Rome, he refused, saying that as a believer in Jesus Christ, he could never again pledge obedience to the Pope, and he was no longer a Catholic. In that case, according to the Roman Church and the Portuguese regime, he was a communist, since he was no longer a Catholic, and he spent a week in solitary confinement, before being released to go home, where he found a passport waiting for him. He was “allowed” to flee to Spain and from there to live in exile in Brazil. There, in São Paulo, one day he entered a Baptist Church and heard the Bible preached the way he had read it for himself. He became a Baptist pastor in São Paulo, and now in February 1975, he was preaching a meeting at our church.

"If I were younger..."

As we sat eating at our dining table one night after the church meeting, Bro. Pires mentioned that, with the fall of the dictatorship in Portugal 10 months earlier, he was no longer a “persona non-grata”. Some of the leaders of the revolutionary movement had asked him to come back to Portugal. "If I were younger," he said, "I would return to Portugal and preach the gospel to my people," but he was in his 70s and his wife was not in good health. God used Bro. Pires’s words to put the thought in my mind and heart, “He can't go, but I speak Portuguese. What if we went to Portugal to preach the gospel?” The details of what happened the next day and how Madeira entered the picture and how we actually ended up on the island almost 2 years later are part of the story I’ll tell in due time.

But that contact is what established the link between the Carnation Revolution and the work God did through us on the island for 40 years. When we arrived in Madeira two years after the Revolution, the marks of the revolution were still evident, as Madeirans were adjusting to a new reality.

A red-and-yellow welcome

We landed in Madeira at around 8:00 p.m. on December 3, 1976, a Friday night. Our first view of the Island consisted of the lights from houses that dotted the dark mountainsides above the airport. That was before the days of internet and we didn’t even know where we would be spending the night. I asked a man at the post office in the airport if he knew a place that would be clean but inexpensive, as I was certain we would not be able to afford a hotel. “It doesn’t have to be in Funchal,” I said, knowing that the main city was 40 minutes from the airport. He called a boarding house in the neighboring village of Santa Cruz, and the Pensão Matos became our residence for 6 weeks, until we could find a house. (More of that story later.) When we got up the next morning, we looked out the window at our surroundings, and watched the waves wash back and forth over the rounded stones of the beach, a sound we would become very familiar with over the next 40 years. From our window, part of the beach was hidden by the local slaughterhouse, which sat right across the street from the pension. Looking out the opposite side of the building, we saw a small grassy courtyard, and in

it there was a booth, which I want to say was made of metal, painted bright red and covered with slogans painted bright yellow. The most outstanding feature was the sigla PCPT-MRPP in large letters that accompanied a hammer-and-sickle logo.

We were informed that the booth had been used in the island’s first autonomous elections following the April 25 revolution of 1974. Provisional governments in Lisbon had finally been able to install a national parliament with members freely elected from among candidates representing parties ranging from monarchists (the last monarch was deposed in 1910, when a republican form of government was constitutionally instituted) to a variety of far-left parties with a communist bent. In between were parties such as social democrats and socialists. Many of the leaders of these parties had returned from exile to run for office.

One of the chief aims of the new national government was to set up the regional autonomous governamental systems for Madeira Island and the Azores. For 500 years, these archipelagos had been little more than districts controlled directly by the central government in Lisbon. We heard stories from people who had had to take a boat to Lisbon just to resolve bureaucratic issues like building permits and business licenses. The matters that could be handled locally were very limited. Under the new constitution, the two island groups were each allowed to have their own Regional Assembly and President, and the first regional elections had been held in October 1976, six weeks before we arrived.

So what was this PCPT-MRPP booth doing, sitting in the garden of this pension? We learned that the MRPP was Portugal’s Maoist Communist Party, founded by Arnaldo Matos. His family owned the Pensão Matos where we were staying, and it was run by his father and his sister! How ironic! Here we were, fresh from the USA, the bastion of world capitalism, staying in an establishment owned and operated by the family of the founder of perhaps the most extreme left-wing party in the country.

A poster that predates the Revolution, when Arnaldo Matos was put in prison by the regime:








This campaign poster may have been from the first regional elections held just before we arrived. (From an internet search and undated)




I hasten to add here, that we never met Arnaldo Matos, but his parents and sisters were our neighbors, even after we moved into our own house, and they were as nice and friendly as they could be. I know nothing about the relationship between Arnaldo and his family; his name was never mentioned by any of the family. Arnaldo’s wife was the daughter of José Saramago, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. One of his famous works was The Gospel according to Jesus Christ, but his being an atheist gives you an idea of what his version of the Gospel would be. The Roman Catholic Church banned the book. No surprise there. His daughter, the wife of Arnaldo Matos, was actively involved in regional politics, as one of the members of the Regional Assembly, which had a small minority of representatives from left-wing parties.

Secret agents of the secret, we didn't even know about it

Years later, we learned that it was rumored among the local population that we were CIA agents, sent to keep an eye on the “evolution of the revolution”, as it were. Forty years or so after the revolution, articles were published recounting the political maneuvering in those early years, as the US feared that left-wing groups would seize

power in Portugal, a member of NATO. In November 1974, in fact, there was a failed attempt by leftist forces to take over control of the new government. The political stakes were high, and I'm sure there were CIA agents all throughout the country. But us, CIA agents? For the love of God (literally), we had our hands full with our own personal international crisis.

That was even before our February 1975 interaction with Bro. Pires

that led to our decision to move to Madeira. When I told the church in Santa Cruz do Rio Pardo that the Lord had called us to Madeira, one of their first reactions was, “What if the communists take over Portugal?” To which I simply replied, “Well, the communists need the gospel, too. My calling is not conditioned on whether the communists gain control of the government.”

There were other signs that the Island society was in a state of flux. The freedom of political expression, repressed for decades, led to an inundation of political propaganda from every side. Streets and squares were lined with tables filled with previously prohibited pamphlets, booklets, tracts and assorted literature of Portugal’s Communist Party. Several members of the Classical Orchestra of Madeira studied music in conservatories in the USSR during this time, as I discovered later in translating the CVs and resumés of the orchestra members. Cruise ships with the hammer and sickle on their chimney were a common sight in Funchal’s harbor in those early years. Russia indeed was making an intense effort to evangelize Portugal and Madeira.

Liberty or licentiousness?

But remember that the regime that fell was not only right-wing, anti-socialist, and anti-communist. It was also staunchly Roman Catholic, and in practice, if not in law, that was the state church. That also meant that the regime emphasized the Family, and took a strict stand against pornography. Of course, when the regime fell, so did the ban on pornography. The result: right alongside the tables of communist literature were the tables on the sidewalks filled with all types of pornography. The movie houses could now openly advertise showing XXX films. I had the sense that the society, as a whole, was unprepared to deal with unrestricted liberty. They were expected to think for themselves and they weren’t quite sure how to respond.

How many teachers does it take to teach the first grade?

The civil administration evidenced the effects of this disruption. Rachel and Rick started in first grade in the local school as soon as we arrived. They were in class for a couple of weeks before the Christmas break. When they went back to school in January, they had another teacher. When they came back from the break at Easter, there was a new teacher again. I’ll have to check my notes, but I seem to think there was yet another change in teachers before the end of the school year in June.

Dec. 1976: Rick, Jeff, and Rachel in Santa Cruz, Madeira.

Behind them, across the creek is the slaughterhouse, and the brown building behind that is the Pensão Matos. The second building behind the pension is the courthouse, where you could take care of just about any kind of business. Unless, of course, you needed a judge.

Disorder in the court...

When we did find the house the Lord led us to buy, there were complications with some of the paperwork. I’ll leave the gory details of that confusion for a later telling, but what matters here is that I was ready to pay for the house, but some papers had to be signed by the judge in that municipality. The problem was that there was no judge. In the shake-up of the judicial system resulting from the revolution, the Santa Cruz court was left without a judge. We had to wait over a year before we got legal possession of the house we were living in, and that was only because a judge was sent temporarily from the capital, Funchal, for a couple of weeks to dispatch some of the backlog of accumulated cases, and our papers were in that batch.

... and in society in general

That whole problem with the house was due to a combination of political ideologies and social chaos. The rejection of the right-wing fascist policies of the former regime resulted in a decidedly socialist trend in the new governments. Rents were frozen; landlords were not allowed to raise rents or evict tenants. Basically, tenants could live out the rest of their lives at a fixed rent, and as inflation soared, rents got cheaper. Landlords had no incentive to make repairs on their properties. Houses sat empty because the owners could not risk renting them under those conditions. We came prepared to rent, but we had to purchase a house instead, just to stay on the island. That, too, is a story for later.

This was all exacerbated by the large number of retornados, Portuguese refugees from the former African colonies, Mozambique, Angola, and Cape Verde, in particular. In large part, the Carnation Revolution was brought on by the collapse of Portugal’s hold on its African colonies. The wars of independence led to the mass exodus of whites, Portuguese who had emigrated to Africa for economic reasons. Some families had been in Africa for generations and considered themselves Angolans, for example, but the color of their skin did not coincide with the new political reality. Portugal, as a whole, and Madeira, of course, were inundated with refugees from the former colonies, who came with nothing but the shirt on their backs after losing all they had worked for, sometimes for generations. This put pressure on an already dire housing crisis, and it was common to see empty houses occupied by squatters, homeless refugee families. On the island, there were families who lived in caves dug into the soft lava hillsides. It took years for the government, both regional and national, to resolve these issues, and make Portugal and Madeira the successes they are today. We arrived in the aftermath of the Carnation Revolution, and these are only some of the things we saw and experienced.

Old wounds heal slowly

The 500 years of “colonial” domination of Madeira left its mark on the islanders. On more than one occasion, we heard remarks by Madeirans calling “continentais”, that is, the Portuguese from the mainland, “pigs”, for example. In conversations with agents of the Guarda Fiscal, the customs police, who had been transferred to Madeira from the mainland, they complained of they way they were treated by some Madeirans. Even in churches of other denominations who sent pastors from the mainland to lead their work on the island, there were signs of friction. One pastor transferred from the mainland to the island told me that the only way to shepherd Madeirans was “with a rod of iron”. Is it any wonder there may have been signs of resentment among the local believers? But remember, these are snapshots of what we saw in the late 70’s and early 80’s. We witnessed Madeira grow up and mature. The changes are everywhere. Were they all positive? Overall, yes, but obviously, we can always point to areas where we might wish things were like they were “back then”. Nostalgia for the “good old days” exists in every society, and I see it in Facebook posts here in the US all the time. But just how “good” were the “good old days”?

For all these reasons, you may be able to understand why yesterday, April 25, 2024, brought back this flood of personal recollections on the 50th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution. The leaders of the revolution back then had no idea of the role they were playing in the establishment of a Baptist Church in Madeira. Yes, God still intervenes in world affairs to accomplish His work and demonstrate His glory. We would do well to remember that as we witness the progression of events between nations on the international stage today. The sovereignty of God is not affected by the uprisings of men.

I came to the conclusion that, as Americans, we were probably in a better position to be accepted by the local population than if we had come from mainland Portugal. Despite the rumors we were secret agents of the CIA.

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