Most Spaniards over 35 remember exactly where they were in the evening of February 23, 1981, best remembered as "23-F". It was the day of the last big stress test of Spain's then young democracy, when a group of conspirators tried to seize power by force
. When armed policemen assaulted Parliament, and started shooting their machineguns
to intimidate the lawmakers, on the benches, only three very different men refused to take cover.Santiago Carrillo
remained seated and calmly lit a cigarrette, even if he knew that, in the case of a successful putsch, he'd probably be the first man shot. Not only was he the leader of the Spanish Communist Party at the time, but, as a young Councillor for Public Order in the Defense Council of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, he was blamed by many for the summary executions of over thousand alleged "fifth columnists
" in Paracuellos del Jarama. Having spent most of his life in exile, he'd only arrived back to Spain four years earlier, originally under disguise
The acting Prime Minister, Adolfo Suárez
, also remained defiant. That plenary session of Parliament was actually meeting to replace him in his post, after the lawmakers of his own party had turned against him. Nevertheless, this centrist politician, who had started public life as an upwardly mobile technocrat in Franco's "National Movement
" and then, as PM, smoothly led Spain's transition to democracy
, was determined to preserve the dignity of his position as an elected representative of the people.
The acting vice-PM and minister of Defence, Lt.-Gen. Manuel Gutierrez Mellado
, however, did not just stay seated. The 73-year-old, as military superior to the assaulters, indignantly stood up and confronted them, even as they shot their submachine guns. As a young officer, he had actually joined Franco's rebellion and his intelligence service. As an agent in Madrid, not only did he escape prison himself, but he also had helped many others escape...Carrillo's squads, quickly rising in the military ranks after the war. At the end of Franco's regime, however, he had also been one of the few generals to reckon the need for change, and steadfastly pushed for reform within the military, to prevent the kind of coup which seemed to be taking place at the time.
The coup ultimately floundered, when King Juan Carlos appeared on television
ordering the military to respect the will of the people.
Quite remarkably, Carrillo is still alive, no longer a Communist, yet an eager political commentator
Quite cruelly, while Suárez is now fondly remembered by most Spaniards as the best political leader Spain possibly ever had, he can't remember it himself: he suffers from advanced stage Alzheimer's disease
After leaving politics, and shocked by the death by overdose of a friend's son, Gutierrez Mellado created the FAD Foundation for Support against Drug Addiction
. He died in a traffic accident on his way to a fundraising event.