How I Became Involved in a Coup

You are in the army and you are ordered to take part in a coup. What would you do?

In just a few days, on February 23, it will be the 40th anniversary of a coup (known in Spain as the 23-F) that tried to reverse Spain’s transition to democracy and bring the country back to a Fascist dictatorship. Given the ongoing debate about whether the January 6th assault on the Capitol was a coup, it is interesting to reflect on what happened in Spain that day.

A chess game that I never got to finish

The entire government, the Senate, and the Parliament was taken hostage. The country was effectively decapitated.

On the evening of February 23, 1981, I was playing chess in the army barracks near the city of Burgos in northern Castile, Spain. Burgos has a weird historical significance: it was the Fascist’s capital during the Spanish Civil War, while the government of the Second Spanish Republic held fast to Madrid.

Suddenly, somebody came into the room with alarming news:

“You guys wouldn’t believe what just happened! I was listening to the radio transmitting the transfer of power in Congress, when these Guardia Civil came in shooting. They have taken everybody hostage!”

“Everybody” meant the entire government, the Senate, and the Parliament. The country was effectively decapitated.

Spain’s transition to democracy

You may wonder how it could be that the government, Senate and Parliament were all gathered in same place. To explain that and what the coup meant, I need to recap what had happened in Spain in the previous five years.

  1. On November 20, 1975, general Francisco Franco died. He had been the dictator of Spain since winning the Spanish Civil War on April 1st, 1939.
  2. Franco left as successor Juan Carlos the Borbón, the last heir of a dynasty that had ruled Spain for hundreds of years. He was crowned king Juan Carlos the First in December.
  3. King Juan Carlos was a secret democrat and had made plans with Adolfo Suárez, a member of the fascist Falange party, to engineer a peaceful transition to democracy.
  4. In June 1976, king Juan Carlos named Adolfo Suárez President of the government.
  5. Suárez immediately set to work to create a peaceful, legal transition to democracy, something that had never been done before, anywhere in the world. To do that, he had to work with the existing, unelected Congress to change the laws.
  6. The entire process was done democratically. The Spanish people voted in a referendum to approve a law of transition to democracy.
  7. That law set the stage for democratic elections, which were won by Unión de Centro Democrático (UCD), a centrist party quickly created by Adolfo Suárez. The Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), founded in the 19th century, trailed close behind. The Communist Party of Spain (PCE), which had fought Franco throughout the dictatorship and had just been legalized, won a bunch of seats as well. Another new party, Alianza Popular, positioned itself to the right of UCD. The pro-Franco parties won no seats.
  8. In December 1978, another referendum approved the new Spanish Constitution, which transformed the country into a democratic monarchy similar to that of other European countries like Holland, Sweden and the UK.
  9. Adolfo Suárez stayed President, but during the next two years his management of the economy drew sharp criticism from the left (PSOE and PCE), the right (Alianza Popular) and even from inside his own party, UCD. There were even rumors that Suárez had lost the trust of the king.
  10. Finally, UCD orchestrated the ousting of Adolfo Suárez to elect a new President from inside the party, Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo. To do that, a confirmation hearing had to be held in the Congress, with the attendance of the government, Senate and Parliament.

The takeover of Congress was broadcast live on Spanish television.

Given the importance of the event, it was being broadcast live on TV when Guardia Civil lieutenant coronel Antonio Tejero and his troops barged in. You can watch the video here. It’s 33 minutes long, but the key footage is the first 3 minutes.

The coup viewed from the army’s barracks

At first, I was in denial. This couldn’t be happening. These people could not be real policemen, there were probably terrorists in disguise, from the ETA or some other group. But, as I gathered around the radio with the other soldiers, the importance of what was happening landed on me.

There were more alarming news: in Valencia, a region in eastern Spain, general Milán del Bosch had ordered a curfew and had sent tanks into the streets. Nobody doubted that he was supporting the coup. We were serving in a tank brigade. Were we next?

Sure enough, we heard the trumpets call “generala”, the main alarm. We were each given an automatic rifle and several magazines of live ammunition. My squadron had troop carriers, heavily armored all-terrain vehicles with six wheels and a powerful machine gun operated from the inside. They could move on roads up to 80 mph, much faster than any tank. They were the perfect weapon to take over a city. The drivers lined up the vehicles in the yard and set up radio connection. We were ordered to turn off the radios and wait in our rooms. Nobody knew who’s side we were on.

I hadn’t read as much about the Spanish Civil War as I have now, but I had heard that those that were caught in the army had to serve for years. I have been there thirteen months, since January 1980, and was just a couple of weeks from being discharged. That was all that I could take. Before being drafted, I had finished five years of college with a degree in biochemistry and I was looking forward to do a doctorate in neuroscience. I would not spend the rest of my youth in the army, supporting a dictatorship. I’d rather die.

If we were ordered to shoot civilians, we might as well turn our weapons to our officers.

I was serious about it, and so were many of my comrades. We often discussed politics, although we were not supposed to. The five-year transition to democracy had been a thrilling process, and everybody had clear political ideas. We would not take part in the establishment of a new dictatorship. We were heavily armed. If we were ordered to shoot civilians, we might as well turn our weapons to our officers. That could well mean death; other soldiers may decide to shoot us. But at least we would have died for the right cause.

The sergeants knew what we were thinking. They moved nervously about and averted our gaze.

I started forging a more elaborated plan. If we were ordered into the armored troop carriers, I would hijack mine as soon as we hit the road. I was a corporal, so with any luck I would be in charge of the vehicle. I would tell the driver to take us to the French border. Once there, we would surrender to the French authorities and ask for political asylum. Chances were good that many of my comrades would agree with the plan. If necessary, we would shoot with the machine gun anything that stood in our way. The French border was only two hours away, so we could make it. Then again, we might die in the process.

Soon it was night. I laid on my bunk bed, fully dressed, boots on, a harness with magazines weighting me down, my gun by my side. Somebody turned on the radio, really quiet. Then we heard king Juan Carlos speak. According to the new Spanish Constitution, if the government was incapacitated, all authority reverted to him. And he was ordering Antonio Tejero and Milán del Bosch to be arrested. He was against the coup.

I cried quietly. Some of my fellow soldiers did, too, and probably many other people, all over Spain.

The day after

It was not over yet, though. Tejero still held the government hostage, and Milán del Bosch controlled a large chunk of Spain. Since the time of Franco, the Spanish Army was divided geographically into Capitanías Generales, each under the orders of a Lieutenant General. Milán del Bosch was one. If more of these generals turned against the king, the coup could still succeed. Or there could be another civil war. The Spanish Civil War, which produced nearly a million deaths in a country of twenty million, had started with a failed coup.

The Lieutenant General of our region hadn’t taken sides yet.

But when the new day dawned, the king was firmly in control. The generals called him, one by one, to plead their fealty. With relief, we returned our guns and ammunition to the armory.

In a weird stroke of luck, I had been arrested, which meant that I had to stay inside the barracks cleaning the floors. My comrades were made to march up and down the yard. The officers seemed upset, maybe because they wanted the coup to succeed?

Alone in the barrack, I could listen to the radio while I mopped the floors. A bunch of journalists had spent the night outside the Congress. Famous sport journalist José María García was on the radio, transmitting the news with the same rapid-fire, overexcited voice that he used to report a soccer match.

General Alfonso Armada volunteered to walk to the door of the Congress to negotiate with Tejero. However, it later came to light that Armada had also been planning a coup and wanted to talk Tejero into supporting it. But Armada had in mind creating a coalition government with independents and politicians from UCD, Alianza Popular and PSOE. Tejero wanted a return to Franco’s regime. He refused Armada’s offer.

But the policemen inside Congress had radios, too. They had listened to the message of the king and the news of the coup unraveling. One by one, they walked to the back of the Congress building, jumped out of a window and surrendered. José María García announced each policeman who jumped out of the window like a goal in a soccer match. I mopped the floor and cried.

Dissecting the 23-F coup

Several books have been written about the 23-F coup. I really like Anatomía de un Instante (translated to English as The Anatomy of a Moment) by Javier Cercas. In it, he recounts what happened inside Congress. The first half hour is common knowledge in Spain because it was transmitted live on TV and recorded. The camera operator was ordered to turn it off, but he convinced the policemen that the red light meant that it was off. That’s how we know that everybody in Congress dove to the floor when the Guardia Civil came in shooting. Only three people dared to stay sitting up: Adolfo Suárez; Santiago Carrillo, the secretary general of the PCE, and general Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado, the Minister of Defense. Gutiérrez Mellado immediately went to confront Tejero, ordering him to surrender his weapon. Tejero tried to push him to the ground, but the fragile-looking old general couldn’t be overpowered.

Adolfo Suárez, Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado, Santiago Carrillo, Felipe González (the leader of the PSOE who later became President of Spain) and other notorious politicians were taken to a separate room. They knew they would be the first to be shot.

Rebel officers of the División Acorazada Brunete sent troops to the king’s palace to take him hostage. They were confronted by the king’s guard.

The most dangerous part of coup happened near Madrid, in the División Acorazada Brunete. Several officers rebelled, gathered their troops and went to surround the king’s palace. They wanted to take him hostage as well, to prevent him to take command. However, the king was prepared and sent his own troops to defend the palace. Keep in mind that when I say “troops” I mean men drafted into military service, just like I was. Would they shoot other fellow soldiers? No way.

Unlike what happened here on January 6th, nobody died in the 23-F coup.

The Guardia Civil is a peculiar Spanish institution, a sort of militarized police force in charge of keeping order outside the cities. These days they operate as a highway patrol, coastguards and border guards, among other things. Tejero’s police officers had been indoctrinated for months, but their loyalty was rather tenuous.

Three different coups were being prepared during 1980.

So strong was the drive to reverse course and cancel the new Spanish democracy that not just one, but three different coups had been prepared during 1980, led by Antonio Tejero, general Milán del Bosch and general Alfonso Armada, respectively. It is unclear to what point they knew about each other. The bold maneuver of Tejero precipitated the other two coups. Armada was going around saying that he spoke in the king’s name. He said that didn’t want a return to dictatorship but to “redirect” democracy by fixing the economy and probably illegalizing the Communist Party and some Catalan and Basque parties advocating independence from Spain.

There had been plenty of warning

When coup plotters are not punished severely, they will attempt the coup again.

Tejero, together with National Police captain Ricardo Ynestrillas, had already plotted another coup on November 1978. It was called Operación Galaxia because it was planned in the Cafetería Galaxia in Madrid. It never went very far because two of the officers that participated in the meeting informed their superiors of the plot. Tejero and Ynestrillas were given very light sentences — seven months and six months, respectively — and kept their military ranks. This allowed Tejero to plot the 23-F coup. It also sent the message that planning a coup in Spain was not a risky business.

With three coups being planned simultaneously, Spanish intelligence had to know about it. That the government was not alerted shows that either military intelligence was an accomplice of the coup or that it was extremely inefficient.

The take-home message here is that when coup plotters are not punished severely, they will attempt the coup again. As a minimum precaution, coup plotters should be separated for life from the military or the police. Coups can have serious consequences. The Spanish Civil War produced from half a million to a million deaths. The coups of Augusto Pinochet in Chile and by the Argentinian military junta resulted in tens of thousands of people being tortured and killed. Therefore, a coup is a crime more serious than murder and should be punished by life in prison.

The aftermath

Two weeks later I was granted leave from the army, just in time to participate in a giant demonstration in Madrid in support of democracy. Millions of people filled the streets. We couldn’t march anywhere because the whole place was full with the crowd.

Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo was inaugurated President soon afterward, but his mandate didn’t last long. He lost the elections of 1982, which put PSOE in power. Those were the first of three consecutive elections won by the socialists, who stayed in power for the next 12 years.

Alfonso Suárez became a national hero, celebrated for his masterful transition to democracy. He founded another party, Centro Democrático y Social, with little success. He developed Alzheimer’s disease in the 90s and died in an institution. The Madrid airport is named after him.

Antonio Tejero, Milán del Bosch and Alfonso Armada were sent to jail. However, there was popular discontent about the privileged treatment that they received, with their luxurious cells and unlimited visits.

Could a coup happen in the USA?

There have been military coups in Western civilization since Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon to send his troops into Rome. It would be foolish to think that the USA is immune.

There have been military coups in Western civilization ever since Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon to send his troops into Rome. The most recent happened in Myanmar just a few days ago. It would be fooling ourselves to believe that the USA is immune. However, perhaps because they orchestrated coups in other countries and know how destructive they are, the American military has a strong culture of obeying the Constitution and the civilian chain of command.

On January 6th, as we watched the mad crowd invade the Capitol on TV, my wife Lilith Blackwell keep asking me: “is this a coup?” “As long as the army is not involved, it’s not a coup,” I answered. However, if the Trump rebels had managed to take hostage members of Congress and the Senate, a situation similar to the 23-F in Spain would have ensued. Trump was still President and with no authority coming from Congress, who had the power? Who would had organized the rescue of the hostages?

In situations like that, an intervention from the army is extremely dangerous. Because, once the army is in control, how do we know they will give back the power? Some general may had gotten into his mind the same thing that general Armada was planning in Spain: a coalition government with members of both parties and independent “technocrats”. But, once you let the fragile mechanisms of democracy unravel, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men may not be able to put Humpty-Dumpty together again.

UCLA professor. Neuroscientist doing research on pain. Writes about science, philosophy, politics and kinky sex.

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