“The coup surprised us,” recalls ambassador Luís Filipe Castro Mendes, then secretary at the Portuguese embassy in Madrid. The mood was one of disenchantment, with Spain experiencing a political crisis, exacerbated by ETA terrorism. For months they had been circulating in the capital – “the great cloaca”, in the words of the prime minister, Adolfo Suárez – conspiracies, plans and rumors that pointed to the hypothesis of a government of national unity chaired by a military man.
The day before, the far-right newspaper The quarterdeck on the first page, in a ciphered form, it signals the coup (something only deciphered by those who already expected it). Even so, few expected what happened, as was the case with Portuguese representation officials.
On February 23, 1981, Spanish deputies were being called individually to cast a favorable or unfavorable vote on the new government, by Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo, from UCD, the same party as Suárez.
At 18.23, before the noise coming from abroad, the secretary of Congress interrupts the call and asks: “What is going on?”. An employee enters the hemicycle, but the reason for the unrest comes from a tricorn on his head and his Civil Guard suit, a mustache on his face, and a gun. It is Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero, a man from the extreme right who is hit by blows. Go up the stairs of the presidency and yell “Everyone quiet!”
Watch here the film of events on TVE.
Faced with the attempt to subvert the democratic order by force of arms, Deputy Prime Minister Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado, general, jumps out of his place, next to Suárez, and tries to put the coup military in order.
Tejero’s reaction may have dictated the coup’s failure. Mellado is pushed by the soldier and a machine gun breaks out. The general does not bend and Tejero himself goes down the stairs and unsuccessfully tries to overthrow the military man, then 66, thin and fragile. He ends up sitting next to Suárez. They are the men of the outgoing government who are not bent on intimidation, along with the secretary-general of the communists, sitting on the other side of the Chamber, Santiago Carrillo.
Dignity and courage prevailed at that moment before soldiers who lacked organization and discipline and who, at the very least, started shooting in the air.
The two reference books on the 23rd of February point to the hypothesis that the coup was waged with the good or the knowledge of Juan Carlos.
The nervous Tejero and his 200 subordinates kidnapped the deputies and the government in office, and when Adolfo Suárez stood up to get his satisfaction he was taken away and isolated in an office, while the coup-makers announced they were waiting for a general. In Valencia, General Jaime Milans del Bosch declares a state of exception, and an hour after Tejero entered the Congress of Deputies, the general occupies Valencia in support of the coup.
General Alfonso Armada tries to meet King Juan Carlos, but his successor, Sabino Fernández Campo, does not let him. Armada ends up addressing himself on parliament and tries to convince Tejero to lay down arms in exchange for a government of national unity composed of elements from all parties, including the communist (which had been legalized by Suárez for the military and extreme scandal) -right), and headed by the Armada itself. Tejero refused.
Already close to 1.00 on the 24th, a speech by King Juan Carlos broadcast on TV gives the unmistakable sign that he was on the side of democracy and constitutionality. Milans del Bosch obeyed the monarch’s orders, but Tejero would only surrender at noon.
Many books were written about these decisive hours for the future of Spain, among which stand out that of the journalist Pilar Urbano, as early as 1982, May it please … I inquired about 23-F, e Anatomy of an Instant, by writer Javier Cercas, in 2009, the result of a three-year investigation.
One and the other point to the hypothesis that the coup was waged with the goodwill or with the knowledge of the king on the part of Alfonso Armada, who died without commenting on the subject in public. “There are in fact several theories and everything rests on who was the general that Tejero was waiting for, if it was General Milan del Bosch, if it was General Armada”, says ambassador Luís Filipe Castro Mendes.
“General Armada was a man of great loyalty to the king and would have prepared a show of strength, to reach such a government of national unity, because it was said that the socialists had known or been contacted, but none of this is proven” , to be continued.
What is certain is that when Juan Carlos speaks, the coup has no effect. “The king comes out highly prestigious and strengthened, it is a huge plebiscite for the monarchy. Some say that Queen Sofia had a decisive role, because she had the experience of the coup d’état in Greece and knew that the military and monarchy does not work. Or, as Pilar Urbano suggests, the king saw that everything had gone wrong, military personnel shooting at deputies was not the best way to start a process to start a government of national unity. “
In conclusion: “Whatever happened before, the king owes a decisive role in containing the coup.”
Juan Carlos and the monarchy gain popularity and the transition period turns out to be a success, despite the continued violence of ETA. “At that time there was already talk of the king’s amorous adventures and there is a famous phrase by the socialist Pablo Castellanos:” The only night that interests me to know about the king is that of February 23, “recalls Castro Mendes, who today sees it as the” monarchy it is no longer respected “,” Juan Carlos is seen hunting elephants and other things “, alluding to the investigation he is subjected to due to suspected corruption.
The king abdicated in 2014, but the monarchy remains under criticism. Family business cases, starting with son-in-law Iñaki Urdangarin, arrested for embezzlement, and ending with Juan Carlos himself, with millions of euros entering his ex-lover’s account via Saudi Arabia, left the minefield for the successor, Felipe VI, who sees the separatist threat from Catalonia and a new generation showing itself openly against the monarchical institution, as seen in demonstrations in support of rapper Pablo Hasél.
The protagonists of the coup
It is the service operative, the man who breaks out of the pistol in his hand at the Congress of Deputies “in the name of the king” and gives orders for the representatives to subdue themselves. Months earlier, the Civil Guard lieutenant colonel had been arrested for planning the government’s kidnapping. He served 15 years in prison and is now 88 years old.
Juan Carlos’ former military instructor and ex-secretary general of the king was sentenced to 30 years for his role in the coup (although he only served five), but it remains to this day whether this general who died in 2013 acted on behalf of the king or on their own.
The prime minister was in the last minutes of his government when he defied the military’s orders and remained in place. In the hours that followed he revealed a rare courage and sense of mission. He died in 2014.
The old Francoist general converted to democracy (he was the deputy prime minister) stood up and tried to stop the coup d’état, in a gesture that has remained in history. Neither the soldiers nor Tejero can bring him down, despite his fragile appearance. Suárez ends up convincing him to sit next to him. He died in 1995.
The secretary general of the Communist Party of Spain is the other elected official who remains steadfast and unmoved in his place, while all around him everyone lay down to the sound of the blasts and orders from the military. He later said that when he saw Tejero he thought he was going to die and maybe that’s why he faced fate. He ended up living until he was 97 years old.
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