Politics 23/02/2021

The shadows of the 23 Feb coup

Today marks 40 years since the failed coup d'état led by Colonel Antonio Tejero

Joan Esculies
3 min
The shadow zones of 23-F
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Forty years later, the failed coup d'état of 23 February 1981 means very little to new generations, while many of those who lived through it have gone from considering it the proof of the democratic consolidation of Spain and of Juan Carlos I as its maximum guarantor to a source of conspiracy theories. The Spanish government's inexhaustible opacities are fodder for conspiracy theories. This is so, to a large extent, because the image of the king emeritus in recent times has opened the door to a review of his past actions in a negative light. Although in essence, as Javier Cercas, the author of Anatomy of a moment (Bloomsbury) stated, "the enigma of 23 Feb [coup] is that there is no enigma", but rather "shadows".

In 1980 Spain was going through a major economic crisis, ETA had committed almost a hundred murders and two years after the Constitution had been approved, the territorial model was undefined. Adolfo Suárez had lost the King's confidence, UCD was collapsing and the PSOE was being very tough in opposition. To get out of the situation, a conservative civilian elite achieved a certain consensus among the political, military and business elite (a shadow) so that General Alfonso Armada, ex-Francoist military officer and Secretary General of the King's Household (1975-1977), could head a government of national concentration as a "Spanish De Gaulle" without going through the ballot box.

Spanish Intelligence services would have contributed to this process and Juan Carlos I would have been aware of it. "I need it to be done for me", he said according to Jesús Palacios in 23-F, el rey y su secreto (Libroslibres). The interest in undertaking it was a secret of public domain among the country's elites, as Francesc de Carreras explained in relation to his father Narcís and Josep Tarradellas in "Un grano de arena al 23-F" (La Vanguardia, 2011). Suárez also knew it. He was seen as an enemy by Armada and was against military presence in the government, and moved first: he resigned by surprise on January 29, 1981 and appointed Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo as his successor.

Not having enough, the day of the investiture, Armada was in charge a controlled self-coup that would justify his ascent to power. The operation had a parallel with France in 1958, when the Algerian crisis had achieved the return of Charles de Gaulle, as Xavier Casals explained in La transición española. El voto ignorado de las armas (Pasado y Presente). Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero was the main actor in his own narrative and secondary in that of Armada.

During the night of Feb 23, 1981, the latter informed the king - "Alfonso... not that way, not that way"- and, as he had foreseen, went to Congress to save the situation. Tejero went too far when he fired shots and when the project of a unity government was explained to him -with everyone except the Catalan and Basque nationalists- he refused to hand over the command of the situation (another shadow) to Armada. The general wanted a stabilisation of Spain with a limited monarchical democracy; Tejero wanted a return to 1939. The king, not initially involved, waited. When the operation failed, he aborted the coup.

The lehendakari Juan Carlos Garaikoetxea kept in touch with the Zarzuela, in hiding. Jordi Pujol, whose figure today, like the Juan Carlos's, is being revised, stayed at the Palau de la Generalitat. "Somehow everyone is responsible," he says in his memoirs. Roberto Muñoz Bolaños gives all the keys in 23-F y otros golpes de estado de la Transición (Espasa) and places 1981 in the framework of successive attempts of military uprisings since the death of Franco.

In the context of the long-term historiographical vision, the conception of the conspiracy loses its force. In the aftermath, however, the episode was explained as purely to do with the military. Nobody knew anything. There was a great forgetting, as Pilar Urbano said, but not of the king or Suárez, but of all those who were behind the scenes. Many of these remain forgotten today due to the lack of access to intelligence services documents, to the tapes of the conversations and to the private archives (further shadows).

In contemporary Europe, the most similar situation to the government of unity that the De Gaulle operation initially sought is an appointment "from above" as in Italy: the technical government of Mario Monti (2011-2013) to implement the austerity measures demanded by the European Union, and the current Mario Draghi executive, with a mix of technicians and politicians to distribute European funds.

The current situation

With Spanish cities on fire, the party the establishment wanted to bring the country back to centrist policies -Cs- in free fall, the far right thriving, the PP leaving its HQ eaten away by corruption, Vice President Iglesias criticising the democracy he represents and Podemos initially not condemning violence on the streets, the PSOE covering up Juan Carlos's embarrassments so as not to further erode the State, pro-independence parties (in the hands of the CUP) with difficulties to stabilise Catalonia, with a society impoverished and exhausted by the pandemic crisis and the Next Generation funds calling at the door, surely there is someone dreaming of an Armada solution.