Love, politics and tragedy

This is a story of a love so powerful and strong that it was destined to last forever.


At first sight they were as different as two people could be: he was Portuguese, from a traditional Catholic family, a man who had lived mostly in his country, a successful lawyer turned politician; she came from the cold lands of the North, was widely travelled and all but conventional. Where he had dark hair she was blonde, where he had strong features that included an aquiline nose she had the perfect face. He was not a tall man so they had the same height. She was slender, poised and graceful, coming from a well off Danish family.


So different, yet united in their same quest for democracy and freedom, they wanted to change the world. She, through her independent publishing house, he through politics.


She had arrived in Portugal in the early sixties, having married into a traditional family. She and her husband settled in Lisbon and she might have become another “decorative” wife, dedicated to her household, children and social life (not necessarily by that order).

But she didn’t; it would bore her to death. She founded a publishing house and tried to share ideals through culture. At the time Portugal was living under a dictatorship and censors sometimes took action against some of the books she published as they were considered “subversive”. But she was brave and would not falter in what she considered to be her mission: to fight for freedom of expression.


Francisco Sá Carneiro had begun his career as a lawyer in his native city of Porto, in the North of Portugal. He then switched to politics, and held a seat in parliament during a brief period during the dictatorship, trying to introduce reforms without success. When the revolution came in 1974, he was ready for action: together with some friends he founded the PPD, the Social Democratic Party, becoming its leader. In the years immediately after the revolution he had some hard fights, though, as first there was a pro- communist government and then a socialist one. But over the years his party grew steadily, and in 1979 his coalition with the Christian Democrats and Monarchic won an impressive victory in the elections, making him the Prime Minister of Portugal. A brilliant, passionate speaker, he shared his vision for the country and people believed him.

Some go so far as to call him “the Portuguese Kennedy”. Still fairly young – in his forties – and committed to his mission he was a fascinating figure. In addition to his political charisma, he had a very human side; he had fallen in love against all odds.


In order to pursue his political career he had had to leave his city and come to Lisbon. His wife had stayed behind at home with their youngest four children, while the elder had accompanied his father to Lisbon to continue the family tradition of studying law. He went back to Porto to see his family but his visits were less and less frequent as his political engagements became more demanding.


As for Snu (a nickname she had used since she was very young, meaning “smart” in Danish), she found her married life increasingly dull. In a country where so many things were changing very fast, she thought her husband was not involved enough. One day as they were watching TV she sharply commented “You should be on television, not watching it!”.


A friend of hers and a poetess well known for defying conventions played Cupid and one day organized a lunch party and introduced them.


How could they not be attracted to each other? She was a modern, beautiful, intelligent and independent woman committed to the cause of freedom. He was everything she looked for in a man: strong, determined, with a vision for his country, intent on making change and improving the life of Portuguese citizens while preserving individual freedoms. They both felt lonely, desperate for a soul mate, and they found that in each other. They fell in love deeply, passionately, irrevocably, and never parted again.


What a scandal in the grey Portugal of the late seventies! Only a few years after the revolution, morals were still changing very slowly and divorce had only recently been allowed for Catholic marriages (only for the civil part of course). It was widely accepted that men might have affairs outside marriage while their suffering spouses pretended they didn’t know anything about it. In a society where most women did not work and were provided for by their husbands there were really no options for many of them outside the secure façade of marriage, even if an unhappy one.


But of course they were a different case. Now they had found what they had been, if not actively looking, but longing for, they would never let it go. They stood up for their love and faced the world together. She left her husband and managed to get a mutual consent divorce. He had no such luck – his wife refused him his freedom so he had to wait for the six years of separation the law stipulated to be able to get a divorce. But this did not stop them from openly living together as man and wife, which was at the time quite complicated, and mostly for a politician, always in the eye of the storm.


As he became Prime Minister protocol issues were added, but he would insist she accompany him on political rallies and state occasions, and his influence and that of his party continued to rise, as the people love a good love story and in the end admired their courage to fight for their love.


For almost a year Sá Carneiro ruled the country with a majority in parliament. But now he wanted more: he also wanted to choose the President of the Republic. He chose a relatively unknown figure, also a general like the President who was in office at the time, and he put all his effort in campaigning for him, going from North to South in an effort to convince his supporters to vote for his candidate. Snu, needless to say, was always by his side.


On 3 December 1980, only a few days before elections, they were due to fly to Porto with TAP (the Portuguese airline) for a rally when his Defence Minister, Adelino Amaro da Costa, called him and offered a ride in a small plane he had chartered, arguing it would be more convenient, allowing them to be more flexible with their time. Apparently Sá Carneiro hesitated, but finally accepted, and in the late evening he and Snu, together with the minister and his wife and an advisor, boarded a small Cessna 421. Soon it was taking off, headed for the North. Barely a few minutes later, the plane crashed into a building in Camarate, a quarter in the Lisbon area near the airport, and all passengers, including the pilot and co-pilot, died.


The country was in shock. From the first moment all of us, as I suppose many thousands, maybe millions of Portuguese citizens, believed that Sá Carneiro had been assassinated; no doubt he had many enemies, among them those he had defeated. But nobody knew exactly what had happened, on TV they just kept saying the plane had crashed for “unknown reasons” and the country was left in a bewildered state looking for answers and explanations that would never come.


Later on, we learned a few things about the accident, as eyewitnesses claimed they had heard the plane exploding still in the air, and others said they had seen pieces falling from the plane just moments after it took off – but the official version was that it had been fortuitous, and that version was stubbornly kept by the authorities even after several books were written about the subject following several parliamentary inquiries and police investigations. In fact, a parliamentary inquiry said in 2004 that there was evidence of a bomb in the aircraft after a 1995 inquiry had concluded there was evidence of sabotage. But justice was never done.


The most accepted theory is that there was a bomb in the plane that exploded as it took off. The target, however, was not Sá Carneiro as he in fact was not due to travel on that plane, but the Defence Minister Amaro da Costa, who was apparently digging into some “uncomfortable” files related to the selling of weapons and had become persona non grata in some circles. Some proof that this was the case has been presented, thus concluding that the so called accident was anything but that. However, the Portuguese authorities, for some obscure reason not explained to this day clearly found the accident theory a comfortable one and stuck to it.



Almost forty years have gone by. I have read quite a few books on Sá Carneiro, Snu, their love story and the so called “accident of Camarate”. Surprisingly, as in Kennedy’s assassination, circumstances have remained unclear, and are now buried in the mists of time. But the magic is still there around Sá Carneiro and Snu. The conviction that he would have turned his vision for the country into reality and that we’d all have a better Portugal because of it, no doubt; but also, the force of the love he and Snu had for each other, so strong it made them defy the world and force everyone to accept it. A love so true it would have lasted a lifetime but that in fact, and because of their tragic deaths, will last forever. Sá Carneiro and Snu, like other ill fated lovers, have become the stuff of legend.



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