February 23, 1981: Where Were You? 5

So it was about nine o’clock this evening and I decided to do what I guessed few others would have in mind for a Wednesday at that time, which was to head down to the Congreso de Diputados, the parliament building, just to kind of look at it.  After all, it had been thirty years and maybe there was some kind of big event going down.  I hopped on a Circular bus to Carlos V and hoofed it from there.  It was just about at that time 30 years ago when Juan Carlos ordered the insurgents to adhere to the constitution and to lay their arms down.  The building was completely dark, with just a lone guard pacing back and forth at the main gate.  And that was about it, except for the two enormous and handsome iron lions which melted down and cast from the real cannons captured in wars in Africa during the 19th Century.  I’ll take a chance and say 1863.  And that was it.  No lights.  No music.  No gaudy decorations.  Nothing that would have made farcical filmmaker Berlanga (RIP) rub his hands together with excitement.   Boy, you just can’t any more austere.  But that can be such the Castilian way of doing things.

            It was one of the first decent nights of the year and the streets were surprisingly active, but no one, not really anyone paid any attention to the Congreso.  Tourists passed by, kids skateboarded in a small park across the street.  A few people neared to see the lions and read about their origins, but that ended it.   I get the feeling no one knew the significance of the moment.  Not one person.  That can be both good and bad.

             I don’t know about you, but I still can’t get over the fact that as recently as 30 years ago, when Reagan was president and the TV series Cheers was starting that a Western European nation could actually suffer a coup d’etat attempt.  It seems as foreign to a foreigner as you can get.  But the former Spain had just relinquished its immense power, and hardly put up a fight.  And when the powerful become weak, they also tend to become desperate.  It’s only human.  Thank God other sides of human nature prevailed. 

            So, where was I?  I was probably reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises for 9th Grade Lit class and thinking that some day I would really like to visit this country.


February 23, 1981: Where Were You? 4

For a few hours there, the very future of this wonderful land was completely up in the air.  It must have been a terribly frightening experience, especially for those who had such wretched memories of the Spanish Civil War and the disparaging decades afterwards.  Who wanted to relive all that?  Seemingly, some were willing to.   Everything seemed to hinge on the young King Juan Carlos’ speech that evening.  One key factor affecting the success of the coup was the fact the rebels had not managed to take control of the media, which in the Pre-internet Age meant everything.  The king came on the air decked out in his finest military gala.  That, for some, may have appeared to be a sign he was siding with the army…but which side and which army?  Would he defend the uprising in the name of law and order or would he suppress it for the same reasons?  Much has been discussed about the actual role of Juan Carlos in the planning of the coup, and some even accuse him of being a part of the plot, but what history will remember him for is being the man who stood up to the overthrowers and upheld democracy and the constitution in front of the entire nation.  His exact words were: “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.”

The insurgents’ days, hours, even minutes were numbered.  Talk of the King’s Speech.

February 23, 1981: Where were you? 3

Well I wasn’t actually playing basketball because the soldiers actually burst into the chamber at 6:20p.m., and with the six hour difference I actually would have been asleep by then.  Spain hardly crossed my mind back then, and if I even knew where it was at all it was due to the fact I liked history because, otherwise, forget it.

            The first couple of minutes of the coup are now classic as they were filmed live on TV.  The leader of the group went by the last name of Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero.  He already had a reputation for being a sneaky untrustworthy type, just the kind who might like to topple a democratically elected government when things got rough.  He had already been in jail for seven months two years before.  So, when Tejero and his gain riddled the ceiling with bullets, everyone jumped for cover except for three extraordinarily ballsy characters: acting Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez, Communist Party leader Santiago Carrillo and the Minister of Defence Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado, a salty 69-year-old veteran who was not about to put with that kind of crap from some insurgents, and resisted his subordinates’ attempts to throw him to the floor.  The man became an instant hero.   Meanwhile in Valencia, a section of the division there joined the uprising and sent tans into the streets.  All of Spain held its breath.

February 23, 1981: Where Were You?

Well, where were you?  If you didn’t live in Spain, I bet you have no idea, and if you did and were older than five, I would put my money on it that you can tell when exactly what time you brushed your teeth.

            You see tomorrow is the 30th anniversary of famous coup d’etat attempt by formers supporters (what I am I saying?) then supporters of the former Franco dictatorship and by parts of the Spanish military who had clearly missed the good old days when they were pretty much in charge.  Up until this date, the transition towards a democratic nation had gone fairly smoothly, especially considering the hard feelings and tearful memories that each side held…in particular the losing side.   When Franco died on November 20th, 1975, things could have gotten ugly, but you have to give credit to this nation: it certainly knew how to keep its cool for the most part.

            Where things started getting touchy was in Cataluña and the Basque Country, and in Galicia to a lesser extent, which had strong independence movements which only became more virulent and bolder as the authoritative grip held on them began to ease up.  The Basques and ETA were especially violent in their reactions.  These were some of the bloodiest years for the terrorist group.   So, naturally, some people felt that the tight control the government once had on society keeping “undesirables” out of the way, was beginning to slip away and that Spain was spinning out of control.  The same way many felt on the eve of the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

            (Hold on to your seats…to be continued)