3 on 23-F
February 23, 2009 3:40 PM   Subscribe

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.
posted by Skeptic (20 comments total) 83 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, this sounds fascinating. Thanks Skeptic.
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:44 PM on February 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Nice post! I have a very distant memory of my mother making frantic phone calls back to her siblings in Spain (I grew up in the UK, my mother is Spanish.) The only other thing I know is that this prompted a huge argument between my two uncles at the end of a family lunch a few years ago. I can't quite remember their positions (both of them we completely against the coup, so they were arguing about details) but they carried on for hours and I actually left to go for a beer and they were still on the subject when I got back.
posted by ob at 3:59 PM on February 23, 2009

What a great thing to commemorate, thanks Skeptic. Spain's transition from Franco's fascism to the democracy of today was fascinating and gratifying to see (especially after the horrors of the Civil War), and the failure of this coup played an important part. (I admit though that the splendor of Franco's tomb still creeps me out.)
posted by gudrun at 4:02 PM on February 23, 2009

Great post. Goes to show that courage, honesty and commitment can exist across the political spectrum, which is something easily forgotten during more partisan times.
posted by AdamCSnider at 4:07 PM on February 23, 2009

This is really good stuff. Awesome post.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 4:33 PM on February 23, 2009

I've found it interesting the way that the transition to democracy in some countries has been catalyzed by the influence of a benevolent monarch, often returning from exile. Another example is King Sihanouk, who helped the transition to democracy in Cambodia after the horror of the Khmer Rouge.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:34 PM on February 23, 2009

I knew absolutely nothing about this piece of history before reading these links - and they reinforced how little I know about the modern history of Spain. Thank you so much for posting this. It has not only given me an excellent lunch hour's worth of reading, its also given me a lot to think about - and left me with the desire to learn more about the recent history of Spain.
posted by Joey Michaels at 4:49 PM on February 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

great post, Skeptic.
posted by mwhybark at 6:40 PM on February 23, 2009

you don't have to be from Spain to remember that. am from Puerto Rico and i was still in high school and remember vividly the TV footage of El Rey Juan Carlos.

but what was really amazing was the reaction people had about that coup. it almost was applauded because for a lot of people it meant that the really bad franquistas could be put away once and for all.

thanks for reminding me about this. now i'll have to blog it :D
posted by liza at 6:59 PM on February 23, 2009

I've found it interesting the way that the transition to democracy in some countries has been catalyzed by the influence of a benevolent monarch, often returning from exile

I think the latter bit there is the key. This is actually something I've been mulling over recently - the way in which, during the twentieth century, much of the ruling class of the West (including many monarchs) had to confront the idea that it is better to have less power within a stable system than more power in a system you might be tossed out of at any time. I think you saw a similar thing after the Napoleonic period, especially in the run-up to the 1848 revolutions - the idea that the choice is not between being an absolute monarch or a constitutional one, but between being a constitutional monarch and being thrown out by some populist movement (right-wing or left).
To speak of Sihanouk, he had the experience of being driven from power first by the French and then later by a popular revolution when he tried to take too much power. The only way to preserve his power was to tie himself to the people, to become a quasi-benevolent "King-Father" (wikipedia rendition of his title) and constitutional monarch. In an age of turmoil and dictatorship, those who represent stable power, supported more by authority than violence, have an interest in allying with democratic forces which are interested in stability against those who want to dominate through violence, and the smarter ones understand this.
To go off on a slightly weird tangent, this was one of the reasons why I always found the "Bush coup" rhetoric that occasionally cropped up here on the blue rather odd. Bush and company, as members of an economic and political elite, had no real interest in destabilizing a system which benefited them and their families in the long term for short term goals. Within our system they get to live out long, peaceful lives and transmit their wealth and power (only slightly limited by democratic and social forces) to their descendants, whereas in a coup situation they could expect to hold much greater wealth and power for a indeterminate period of time and then probably see it disappear with them or their successors' violent deaths.

Anyway, all that was longer than it should have been. As I said, I've been mulling this over for a bit. Carry on. /rambling
posted by AdamCSnider at 7:04 PM on February 23, 2009 [7 favorites]

What is interesting about Juan Carlos is that in those early years he was very much like a George Washington - the steady hand who was there to guide and ensure that a fragile democracy could and would solidify. When he came under Franco's tutelage in the 1960s in an attempt by Franco to shore up some legitimacy, he was essentially told that he would become Franco's successor.

Much like Washington, Juan Carlos could very well have decided to take the crown and rule as a sovereign, but he declined and helped ensure that a democratic government took hold.
posted by tgrundke at 7:32 PM on February 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Another video of Gutierrez Mellado confronting the armed assailants, even while they are firing machine guns.
posted by needled at 7:52 PM on February 23, 2009

Great, great post, skeptic.
I was one year old when this happened, and my parents were living in Málaga attending a language school. They remember El Tejerazo very well, and describe trying to work out what was going on from the radio, under curfew.
The Spanish wiki has quite a few more links, and details: for instance, that in Valencia the military governor (Capitan General) ordered armoured cars onto the streets in support of the coup.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:54 PM on February 23, 2009

Fascinating post. Thanks, Skeptic.
posted by homunculus at 7:58 PM on February 23, 2009

I was teaching English as a Second Language in Barcelona at the time, and I remember the strange sensation of school being called off because of a coup attempt. And I will never forget Juan Carlos on TV in his military uniform calmly asserting control over the golpistas and keeping the country under civilian control.
posted by wfitzgerald at 8:19 PM on February 23, 2009

cool -
never heard of this event before,
but given it was in Spain, should expect some interesting characters :)

thanks for the post, Skeptic
posted by sloe at 10:15 PM on February 23, 2009

Nice post, although the shifting infographic in the video weirded me out. I thought the floor was moving.
posted by wastelands at 4:06 AM on February 24, 2009

A few months ago I spent an entire night watching Spanish-language Youtube videos about this event. Its a fascinating historical event, and should be a badge of honor for the Spanish people and monarchy. Thanks for this post, which fills in the "Where Are They Now" blanks quite nicely for me.
posted by msittig at 12:05 PM on February 24, 2009

If three of the same men had done the same thing it would have been a weird incident.
posted by tarvuz at 3:01 PM on February 24, 2009

Is there an english translation (preferably a video with subtitles) of the king's speech?
posted by gryftir at 1:30 PM on February 28, 2009

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