Fortieth anniversary of Spain’s failed coup

Fortieth anniversary of Spain’s failed coup

On 23 February 1981 Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero, an officer of the Guardia Civil, entered the Spanish parliament, Las Cortes, waving a loaded pistol aloft, and proceeded to hold the members of parliament hostage. Our contributor Paul Whitelock recalls the day 40 years ago when the newly-fashioned democratic Spanish state came under threat once again from the military, as it had done in 1936, prior to the Civil War.

Shots were being fired in the Spanish parliament. Live camera images on television showed a lone figure in a tricorn hat taking control of the chamber. He was then joined by other armed men in uniform with machine guns. More than 37 shots were fired as delegates dived for cover. It later transpired that Tejero had been supported by 200 armed civil guards and soldiers.

The 23 February 1981 Spanish coup d’état attempt (Spanish: Intento de Golpe de Estado de España de 1981) was an attempted coup d’état. Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero led 200 armed Civil Guard officers into the Congress of Deputies during the vote to elect a President of the Government. The officers held the parliamentarians and ministers hostage for some 22 hours, during which time King Juan Carlos I denounced the coup in a televised address, calling for rule of law and the democratic government to continue. The following day, coup leaders surrendered to the police.Tejero made the following statement: “We received a country in perfect condition; we are obliged to hand it to our offspring in the same condition.”

Though shots were fired, the hostage-takers did not kill anyone.

Background

The coup attempt was linked to the Spanish transition to democracy. Four factors generated tensions that the governing Democratic Centre Union (UCD) coalition of conservative parties could not contain:

  • almost 20% unemployment, capital flight and 16% inflation caused by an economic crisis,
  • difficulty devolving governance to Spanish regions,
  • increased violence by the Basque terrorist group ETA,
  • opposition to the fledgling democracy from within the Spanish Armed Forces.

The first signs of unease in the army appeared in April 1977. Admiral Pita da Veiga resigned as Navy minister and formed the Superior Council of the Army. This was a result of Da Veiga’s disagreement with the legalisation of the Communist Party of Spain (PCE) on 9 April 1977, following the Atocha massacre by neo-fascist terrorists. In November 1978, the Operation Galaxia military putsch was put down. Its leader, the very same Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero, was sentenced to seven months in prison.

While seditious sentiments grew in sectors of the military and extreme right, the government faced a serious crisis at the beginning of the decade, and its position became increasingly untenable in the course of 1980. The growing weakness of Adolfo Suárez at the heart of his own party led to his televised resignation as prime minister and president of the UCD on 29 January 1981.

On 1 February, the “Almendros Collective” published an openly insurgent article in the far-right newspaper El Alcázar, which was the mouthpiece of the Búnker hardliners, including Carlos Arias Navarro, Luis Carrero Blanco’s successor as prime minister, and the leader of the francoist party Fuerza Nueva, Blas Piñar. From 2 to 4 February, the King and Queen traveled to Guernica, where the deputies of Basque separatist party Herri Batasuna received them with boos and hisses and various incidents.

In this atmosphere of mounting tension, the process of choosing Suárez’s successor began. Between 6 and 9 February, the 2nd UCD congress in Majorca made it clear that the party was unravelling and Agustín Rodríguez Sahagún was named acting prime minister. On 10 February, Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo was named candidate for prime minister.

On the day of the assault on Congress several TVE cameramen and technicians filmed almost half an hour of the event, providing the world with an audiovisual record of the attempted coup (which would be broadcast several hours after it ended). Moreover, members of the private radio station SER continued their live broadcast with open microphones from within the Congress of Deputies, which meant that the general public was able to follow along by radio as events unfolded. As such, the date is sometimes remembered as “the Night of Transistor Radios” (La noche de los transistores).

At 18:00, the roll-call vote for the swearing in (investidura) of Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo as prime minister began in the Congress of Deputies. At 18:23, as Socialist-party deputy Manuel Núñez Encabo was standing up to cast his vote, 200 Guardia Civil agents led by Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero and armed with submachine guns, burst into congressional chambers. Tejero immediately took the Speaker’s platform and shouted “¡Quieto todo el mundo!” (“Nobody move!”), ordering everyone to lie down on the floor.

As the highest-ranking military official present, Army General (and Deputy Prime Minister) Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado refused to comply, confronting Tejero and ordering him to stand down and hand over the weapon. Outgoing Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez made a move to join Gutiérrez Mellado, who briefly scuffled with several civil guards until Tejero fired a shot into the air, which was followed by a sustained burst of submachine-gun fire from the assailants. (The shots wounded some of the visitors in the chamber’s upper gallery). Undeterred, arms akimbo in defiance, 68-year-old General Gutiérrez Mellado refused to sit down, even after Tejero attempted, unsuccessfully, to wrestle him to the floor. Their face-off ended with Tejero returning to the rostrum and Gutiérrez Mellado returning to his seat.

After several minutes, all the Deputies retook their assigned congressional seats. The captain of the Guardia Civil, Jesús Muñecas Aguilar, strode to the Speaker’s platform, demanded silence and announced that all those present were to wait for the arrival of “the competent military authority.”

At 19:35, prime minister Suárez stood up and asked to speak to the commanders. Shots were fired in response, and a guard flashed a submachine gun towards the deputies’ seats, demanding silence. One of the assailants ordered, “Mr. Suárez, stay in your seat!” Suárez was about to reply when someone else shouted, “Se siente, coño!” (“Sit down, damn it!”)

Finally, Tejero grabbed Suárez by the arm and led him forcefully to a room outside the chamber. When Suárez demanded that Tejero explain “this madness”; Tejero‘s only reply was “¡todo por España!” (“Everything for Spain!”). When Suárez pressed the point, citing his authority as prime minister (“president of the government”), Tejero replied, “Tú ya no eres presidente de nada!” (“You are no longer the president of anything!”)

Military occupation of Valencia

A simultaneous rebellion in eastern Spain fizzled out. Shortly after Tejero took control of the Congress, Jaime Milans del Bosch, Captain General of the III Military Region, executed his part of the coup in Valencia. Deploying 2,000 men and fifty tanks from his Motorized Division as well as troops from the port of Valencia onto the streets and into the city centre, they occupied the Town Hall (Ayuntamiento) and the Valencian judicial court building (Las cortes valencianas). The revolt, known as Operation Turia, was considered key if other military regions were to become involved in the coup. By 19:00, Valencian radio stations began broadcasting the state of emergency declared by Milans del Bosch, who was hoping to convince others to endorse his military action. Well into the night, Valencia was surrounded by armoured military trucks and other troop units called in from the Bétera and Paterna army bases. Police snipers took their places on rooftops, military marches were played on loudspeakers and a curfew was imposed on the citizens. An armoured convoy was dispatched to the Manises Air Base in order to convince the commander there to support the coup; however, the Colonel of the 11th Wing in charge of the base not only refused to comply, he threatened to deploy two fighter jets armed with air-to-ground missiles (which he claimed to have standing by with their engines running) against the tanks sent by Milans del Bosch, thereby forcing the latter to withdraw. This setback hinted the impending failure of the Madrid coup.

Juan Carlos’s repudiation

King Juan Carlos refused to endorse the coup. The monarch, after protracted discussions with colleagues, was convinced of his military leaders’ loyalty to himself and the Constitution. Two and a half hours after the seizure Juan Carlos phoned the president of the Government of Catalonia Jordi Pujol and assured him that everything was under control. Pujol, just before 22:00 that evening, made a short speech via national broadcasting stations inside and outside of Spain calling for peace. Until 1:00 in the morning (24 February), negotiations took place outside the Congress between the acting government as well as General Armada, who would later be relieved of his duties under suspicion that he had participated in planning the coup.

At 1:14 on 24 February, the King of Spain appeared live on television, wearing the uniform of the Captain General of the Armed Forces (Capitán General de los Ejércitos), the highest Spanish military rank, to oppose the coup and its instigators, defend the Spanish Constitution and disavow the authority of Milans del Bosch. The King declared:

“I address the Spanish people with brevity and concision:

“In the face of these exceptional circumstances, I ask for your serenity and trust, and I hereby inform you that I have given the Captains General of the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force the following order:

“Given the events taking place in the Palace of Congress, and to avoid any possible confusion, I hereby confirm that I have ordered the Civil Authorities and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to take any and all necessary measures to uphold constitutional order within the limits of the law.

“Should any measure of a military nature need to be taken, it must be approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“The Crown, symbol of the permanence and unity of the nation, will not tolerate, in any degree whatsoever, the actions or behavior of anyone attempting, through use of force, to interrupt the democratic process of the Constitution, which the Spanish People approved by vote in referendum.”

From that moment on, the coup was understood to be a failure. Deputy Javier Solana stated that when he saw Tejero reading a special edition of the El País newspaper brought in by General Sáenz de Santamaría, which vehemently condemned the hostage situation inside the Congress, he knew that the coup had failed.

For his part, Milans del Bosch, alone and thereafter isolated, abandoned his plans at 5:00 that morning and was arrested.

The deputies were freed that morning after emerging one by one from their all-night ordeal shouting “Long Live Freedom”.Tejero resisted until midday on 24 February and was arrested outside the Congress building.

Legacy

The most immediate consequence was that, as an institution, the Monarchy emerged from the failed coup with overwhelming legitimacy in the eyes of the public and the political class. In the long term, the coup’s failure could be considered the last serious attempt by adherents to Francoist ideology to destroy Spain’s future as a democracy and implement their fascist totalitarian designs on the nation.

The Supreme Court of Military Justice, known as the Campamento trial (juicio de Campamento), condemned Miláns del Bosch, Alfonso Armada and Antonio Tejero to thirty years in prison as the key instigators of the coup d’état. Eventually, thirty people out of some 300 accused would be convicted for their involvement in the coup.

With acknowledgements to Wikipedia

Paul Whitelock

About Paul Whitelock

Paul Whitelock is a retired former languages teacher, school inspector and translator, who emigrated to the Serranía de Ronda in 2008, where he lives with his second wife, Rita, and his dog, Berti. He spends his time between Montejaque and Ronda doing DIY, gardening and writing.