23-F Coup, 1981

(Part II. Part I here)

After Franco’s death, the prognoses for Spain were exceptionally dim: the experts were almost unanimous in their predictions of old hatreds and new violence flaring up. During his four decade long dictatorship, Franco did very little to resolve ethnic, geographic, political, and social divisions that once led to the bloody Civil War, and many declared these divisions unreconcilable.

But this tumultuous transition was masterfully helmed by two unlikely figures: the first was the Bourbon Prince Juan Carlos — Franco’s designated successor. Four months after Franco’s death, he created a sensation by speaking Catalan, which Franco had repressed; within eight months he had engineered the selection of centrist Adolfo Suárez as Prime Minister. Suárez, who had been Franco’s director-general of state broadcasting, was the second of this unlikely duo which led Spain towards democracy. In a surgical coup, Suarez succeeded in ridding himself of the last members of the regime and forcing through a democratic constitution. It was an exceedingly delicate and dangerous operation, for the threat of a new civil war dangled continually over the country.

The constitution was ratified in 1978, but there was one more test to come. After a series of bloody bombings by the Basque separatists, so-called ultras in the military launched a coup in 1981. On 23 February 1981, Col. Antonio Tejero entered the lower house of the Spanish Parliament, with 200 Guardia Civil and soldiers and held the depuities present hostage for some 22 hours. When it came down to it, Juan Carlos, who had been carefully maneuvered to play a modest role within the Francoist dictatorship, firmly stood his ground.

Within half an hour of the Guardia Civil’s attack, both the conspirators and the king were telephoning the country’s military leaders. The coup leaders were asking for the military’s support ”in the name of the king”. Juan Carlos insisted that he was on the other side, informed general after general that his name was being used in vain, and told to accept no orders unless they came from the chiefs of the general staff. He encountered hesitations and evasions, but Juan Carlos’ career in the military won them over. The military remembered the occasion when, with Franco on his death bed, Juan Carlos had flown to the rebellious Spanish Sahara to show solidarity with troops. As David Gilmour wrote in “The Transformation of Spain”, “They may have been dismayed, and perhaps surprised, that the king refused to back [the coup], but they accepted his decision. …. The king’s role . . . won him the respect and adulation of millions of people who had always considered themselves republicans.”

The coup was lost over the news media. The conspirators failed to seize key media outlets in Madrid; although the difficulty of getting cameras to the palace from the military-controlled television station delayed him, early next morning, eight hours after the first shots, the king finally appeared on television, in uniform as the Captain General of the Armed Forces, the highest Spanish military rank, declaring: “The crown, symbol of the permanence and unity of the nation, cannot tolerate, in any form, actions or attitudes attempting to interrupt the democratic process.” Without the king’s support, the last coup attempt in Western Europe simply petered out. The man once disparagingly dismissed as a king who would be known as Juan Carlos the Brief, almost singlehandedly rallied a reluctant military to the side of constitutional order. Four days later, 3 million people marched in cities throughout Spain in support of democracy, chanting “¡Viva el Rey!”

In a fitting end, Tejero signed a surrender — known as the “Bonnet Pact”, as it was signed on the bonnet of a police Land Rover. Thirty-three people were eventually tried for taking part in the February 23 uprising, although the extent of the plot is still unclear and many civilian plotters possibly went uncharged. Most importantly, the identity of Tejero’s superior whose reinforcements he had been waiting for, remains unanswered.

The photo above which won the year’s World Press Photo Award was taken in the heat of the moment. On 23rd February, photographer Manuel Perez Barriopedro was covering a tedious afternoon inside the parliament. Halfway through the proceedings (video), Guardia Civil burst into the chamber. Barriopedro took eleven frames, before removing his film to hide it from approaching Guardia Civil. Around 10 pm, when the journalists were released, Barriopedro smuggled the film out in his shoe.

After midnight, when the first editions of the Spanish press appeared, the photo was across all the front pages; El Pais, which produced seven editions between the afternoon of February 23 and the early hours of February 24, had it on three editions. A few hours later, the photo would be on the world’s front pages too.


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