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- See also subsequent 1982 Spanish coup d'état attempt
23-F was an attempted coup d'état in Spain that began on 23 February 1981 and ended on the following day. It is also known as El Tejerazo from the name of its most visible figure, Antonio Tejero, who led the failed coup's most notable event: a group of 200 armed officers of the Guardia Civil burst into the Spanish Congress of Deputies during the vote to elect Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo as the country's new Prime Minister. King Juan Carlos I gave a nationally televised address where he denounced the coup, called for the rule of law to be upheld and for the democratically elected government to continue in place. The coup soon collapsed. After holding the Parliament and cabinet hostage for 18 hours the hostage-takers surrendered the next morning without having harmed anyone.
The coup d'état of 1981 was closely related to the events of the Spanish transition to democracy. Four factors generated permanent tensions that the governing Democratic Center Union (UCD), a coalition of conservative parties, could no longer contain:
- problems arising from the economic crisis (almost 20% unemployment coupled with capital flight and 16% inflation)
- difficulties in establishing devolved governments for the Spanish regions,
- increased violence by the Basque separatist group ETA,
- following 37 years of Franco's military régime, a significant part of the Spanish Armed Forces felt reluctant to accept, and in some cases opposed, the fledgling democratic system, which they believed to be unable to address the aforementioned problems properly.
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-fascists (Spanish: 'ultras'). In November 1978, the Operation Galaxia military putsch was put down. Its leader, 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. Key events saw the resignation of the Minister of Culture, Manuel Clavero on 15 January; the restructuring of the government on 3 May; the motion of no confidence against Adolfo Suarez moved by the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) between 28 May and 30 May; the resignation on 22 July of the vice-president, Fernando Abril Martorell, which produced a new reshuffle in September; and the election in October of Miguel Herrero Rodríguez de Miñón, alternative candidate of the official bid for president of the centrist parliamentary group promoted by Suárez.
The growing weakness of 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 Colectivo "Almendros" 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 February 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. On 6 February, the engineer Ryan from the Lemoiz nuclear project was found murdered, having been kidnapped a few days earlier. Meanwhile, there was no further news about industrialist Luis Suñer after his abduction.
In this tense climate, the process of choosing Suárez's successor commenced. Between 6 February and 9 February, the 2nd UCD congress was held in Majorca, where the party appeared to be in disarray and Agustín Rodríguez Sahagún was named acting prime minister. On 10 February, Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo was named candidate for prime minister.
Tensions came to a head on 13 February, when news emerged of the torture and death in Carabanchel of Jose Ignacio Arregui, a member of the armed Basque separatist movement ETA, who had been held incommunicado for 10 days in the General Security Directorate (Dirección General de Seguridad). A general strike in the Basque region and an acrimonious debate between opposing parliamentary groups in the Congress followed. The government then dismissed various police chiefs, while in the Interior Ministry there were resignations in solidarity with the torturers. El Alcázar judged the government's actions a show of weakness that needed to be stopped.
Against this extraordinary backdrop, Calvo Sotelo introduced his government on 18 February, but in elections on the 20th he failed to obtain the necessary majority for confirmation as Prime Minister, so a new vote was scheduled for the 23rd. This was the day that the plotters had chosen for their coup attempt. It would be the result of a strong effort by Tejero and General Jaime Milans del Bosch, on the one hand, and a more subdued one by General Alfonso Armada, a confidant of the King, on the other.
At 18:21, the different coup plots that had been fomenting since the beginning of the transition to democracy met in a coordinated action. At 18:30, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero, 200 Guardia Civil agents, armed with submachine guns, interrupted the Congress of Deputies of the Spanish parliament. Several TVE cameramen and technicians (as well as members from private broadcaster SER, who were forced off air by the military) recorded almost half an hour of the event, providing the world with an audiovisual record of the attempt (which would be transmitted several hours after the coup ended). From the rostrum, gun in hand, Tejero ordered everyone to be silent and wait for a competent military authority, who never came.
During the shooting of around 30 machine gun rounds, whilst almost all deputies dropped terrified on the floor, three kept standing defiantly: acting Minister of Defense General Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado, who stood up and ordered Tejero to desist; acting Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez, who remained sitting down instead of crouching on the floor; and Communist leader Santiago Carrillo, who, sitting down, calmly lit a cigarette and did not seem to be disturbed by the events.
General Mellado and Prime Minister Suárez ordered the insurgents to disarm. The Guardia Civil agents assaulted them, following the attack, by firing numerous rounds from a submachine gun into the ceiling. By taking the parliament and dragooning the executive and legislative powers, they sought to create a power vacuum in which to establish a new political power.
Moreover, four of the deputies were separated from the rest: the still prime minister, Suárez; the opposition leader, Felipe González Márquez; the second on the rolls of the PSOE, Alfonso Guerra González; and Carrillo.
Shortly afterward, the Captain General of the Third Military Region, Jaime Milans del Bosch, rose up in Valencia, put tanks on the streets, declared a state of emergency and tried to convince other senior military figures to support the coup. At nine o'clock that night, a communication from the Interior Ministry announced the formation of a provisional government with the undersecretaries of different ministries, under the instructions of the King, to ensure governance of the state and a tight contact with the Assembly of Military Chiefs of Staff (Junta de Jefes del Estado Mayor).
Meanwhile, another insurgent general, Torres Rojas, failed in his intent to supplant General Juste in the Brunete division of the military, giving up the intention to occupy strategic points in the capital, among them the seat of radio and television operations, and the proliferation of communiques about the success of the coup.
The refusal of the King to promote the coup led to it being called off during the night. The monarch assured himself after discussions, personal and with colleagues, of the fidelity of military leaders. He also noted the attitude of the President of the autonomous government of Catalonia, Jordi Pujol, who just before 10 p.m. that evening made a short speech via national broadcasting stations, to all of Spain and the exterior, calling for peace. Until 1:00 in the morning, negotiations took place around the Congress, with the participation of the acting government as well as General Alfonso Armada, who would later be relieved of duty over suspicion that he participated in the coup.
At 1:14 on 24 February, the King interceded on television, in uniform as the Captain General of the Armed Forces (Capitán General de los Ejércitos), the highest Spanish military rank, to position himself against the insurgents, defend the Spanish Constitution and undermine the authority of Milans del Bosch. He declared, "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." At that moment, the coup was taken to be a failure.
At midnight, Alfonso Armada presented himself in Congress with a dual objective: to convince Lieutenant Colonel Tejero to relinquish his posture and assume himself the role of head of government under the order of the King, in a clearly unconstitutional manner. But Armada was not the awaited "competent, military authority" and Tejero ignored him. For his part, Milans del Bosch, isolated, cancelled his plans at 5:00 that morning and was arrested, while Tejero resisted until midday of the 24th and was arrested outside the Congress building. The deputies were freed that morning.
Deputy Javier Solana has described how when he saw Tejero reading a special edition of the El País newspaper brought in by General Sáenz de Santamaría, which strongly condemned the hostage-taking, he knew that the coup had failed.
The King's speech (translated)
"Addressing all Spaniards, with brevity and conciseness, in the extraordinary circumstances that we are currently experiencing, I ask of everyone the greatest serenity and confidence and I inform you all that I have given the Captains General of the military, the navy, and the air force the following order:
"Given the situation created by the events that took place in the Palace of Congress and to avoid any possible confusion, I confirm that I have ordered Civil Authorities and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to take all necessary measures to maintain constitutional order, within 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, the symbol of the permanence and unity of the nation, cannot tolerate, in any form, actions or attitudes of people attempting by force to interrupt the democratic process. A process which the Constitution, voted for by the Spanish people, determined by referendum."
Shortly after the assault, the coup was strongly condemned by country members of the EEC, with which Spain was under negotiation for adhesion (that finally took place in 1986). Margaret Thatcher, prime minister of the UK, called the coup a "terrorist act."
The most immediate consequence was that the monarchy emerged powerfully reinforced in the eyes of the public and the political classes. Over the longer-term, the coup's failure may be seen to have marked the final occasion on which Spain's democratic future was at all seriously in danger at the hands of Francoist survivors.
In the judgment of the Supreme Court of Military Justice, known as the Campamento trial (juicio de Campamento), Miláns del Bosch, Alfonso Armada and Antonio Tejero Molina were condemned as principally responsible for the coup d'état and were sentenced to thirty years in prison. Thirty people were eventually convicted for the attempted coup, out of an initial 300 who were involved.
The extent of any civilian plot behind the coup was never investigated rigorously. Juan García Carrés, ex-leader of the Sindicato Vertical (the only legal trade union organisation in Francoist Spain), was the only civilian to be convicted.
The uncanny, bloodless yet apparently chaotic unravelling of the coup, the plethora of unanswered questions on its alleged proceedings, the staunch Monarchist allegiance of two main conspirators (Armada and Milans del Bosch) and the King's lengthy absence before he finally made a late-night public stand are some of the backing arguments for several conspiracy theories emerging during the Campamento trial and active ever since.
These theories cast doubt on the King's role and characterize the coup as an example of coercive realpolitik taken to the next level. The gist of the usual version is that the coup itself was orchestrated by the Secret Services with the complicity of the Royal House and several high-ranking representatives of the main political parties and the mainstream media, among others. The plot's centerpiece and apparent motivation was the so-called Operation Armada, a "soft" coup modeled after Operation De Gaulle and aimed at a national-unity government headed by Armada himself and comprising an array of ministers from all the main parties. A first goal was to oust Prime Minister Suárez, who had been hounded relentlessly by the media and the rest of the political elite for months and even lost the King's good graces, partly on account of an ambitious reformist agenda which had gone off-script. The next goal was a consequence of the former: to rush the country's organic credentials into fulfilling the actual convergence criteria it was being groomed for, namely NATO and EU membership and the consolidation of an effectively bipartisan parliamentary monarchy. According to the rationale provided by the theory, this goal required both purging the armed forces of its most reactionary elements and scaring the common voter into accepting the monarchy and the two-party system as an institutional default.
Another, more specific, goal would have been to neutralize an impending "serious" coup due to take place later that year, probably during May 2. A major clique among the planners of this coup was the so-called Colonels' group, headed by former SECED chief José Ignacio San Martín; the fact it is colonels and lieutenant colonels, rather than generals, who have direct control over the troops has been mentioned as the reason why this plot was particularly dangerous.
According to these theories, Suárez foresaw Operation Armada long in advance. This might explain his unexpected resignation, since the Constitutional somersault would have kicked off with the impending motion of no confidence due to take place weeks later. The plan went forward in spite of the prime minister's resignation but Tejero's failure to understand its ramifications, his belief it was actually a hardline coup plot, the PR debacle prompted by his abrupt entrance in Congress and his adamant refusal accept the multi-partisan government proposed by Armada, aborted the "hard" and the "soft" coup plots at the same time.
Former CESID Special Operations chief José Luis Cortina Prieto, one of the three military officers acquitted during the trial, plays an ubiquitous role in these theories, some of which place him as a major power player within the conspiracy as well as the man responsible for coalescing all coup plots into one and neutralizing them simultaneously.
Arguably up until the book La gran desmemoria by Pilar Urbano, these theses had never found an explicit incarnation in the mainstream, although innuendos and subtle implications were not unusual therein. Some of these implications may be involuntary. The King's authorized biography by José Luis de Vilallonga contains the following interview excerpt: "If I were to carry out an operation in the King's name, but without his consent, my first move would have been to isolate him from the rest of the world and prevent him from communicating with the exterior. Well far from it: that night I could have entered and left my residence at will; and concerning phone lines, I received more calls in a few hours than I had received in a whole month! From my father, who stayed in Estoril -- and was also very surprised to be able to contact me --, from my two sisters in Madrid and from friendly heads of State who encouraged me to resist." Sabino Fernández Campo, chief of the Royal House, expunged this from the Spanish edition.
- Operación Galaxia, an earlier coup plan.
- Coup d'état conspiracy for the 27 October 1982 (Spain)
- Spanish transition to democracy
- El Gobierno nombra Comisario Provincial de Tenerife a un convicto por torturas, Armando Quiñones in Canarias Semanal, 29 March 2005 (Spanish)
- McLaren, Lauren (2008). Constructing democracy in Southern Europe: a comparative analysis of Italy, Spain, and Turkey. Routledge. p. 210. ISBN 978-0-415-43819-3.
- Unauthorized biography of the King
- Coronel Martínez Inglés: “El golpe del 23-F lo dirigió el rey Juan Carlos”
- See Chapter devoted to Cortina Prieto
- This article draws heavily on the corresponding article in the Spanish-language Wikipedia, which was accessed in the version of 29 January 2006.
- 23-F: The Coup That Never Existed (23-F: El Golpe Que Nunca Existio) by Amadeo Martinez Ingles, 2001 - ISBN 84-95440-13-X
- The Business of Liberty (El negocio de la libertad) by Jesús Cacho, 1999 - ISBN 84-930481-9-4
- The Coup: Anatomy and Keystones of the Assault on Congress (El Golpe: Anatomía y Claves Del Asalto Al Congreso) by Busquets, Julio, Miguel A. Aguilar, and Ignacio Puche, 1981 (written a few days after the coup)
- Anatomy of a Moment (Anatomía de un Instante) by Javier Cercas (Spanish, Mondadori, 2009, ISBN 978-84-397-2213-7), (English, Bloomsbury, 2011, ISBN 978-1-60819-491-9)
- Diecisiete horas y media. El enigma del 23-F by Javier Fernández López (Spanish) editorial:TAURUS EDICIONES, 2000 ISBN 978-84-306-0412-8