How Spain's failed coup unrolled -- and then unraveled

It was 6:20 p.m. local time Monday Feb. 23. Spain's 350-seat lower house of parliament was packed. A vote of investiture for Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo was being called that would certainly have installed him as the country's new prime minister. All of Spain's deputies were present, as were Cabinet members and representatives of the foreign and local press. The sessions were being transmitted live by Radio Madrid.

Suddenly the newscaster announced the arrival of armed Civil Guards. "The deputies are standing up," he said. "The guards . . . [his voice sounded breathless]. . . . They are moving down the stairs. . . . They are pointing guns at the head of the president of the lower house. . . . One of them is shouting orders for everyone to lie down. . . . He is getting onto the podium. Now they are pointing guns at me."

Then there was a dramatic blast of gunfire and radio went dead. After this, for three-quarters of an hour the radio played classical music. Finally, at around 7:15 p.m. it was learned that no one had been hurt (the guards had fired shots over the heads of the deputies) and the journalists had been allowed to leave the building.

To an outsider, the filmed seizure of the Spanish parliament (the cameras of the national television were being remotely controlled from outside the building) must have seemed rather like a comic opera. There was Col. Antonio Tejero de Molina sporting a big mustache, standing on a podium, surrounded by brown-uniformed guards with old-fashioned three-cornered black leather hats on their heads.

But in reality, this was the first stage of an organized and determined attempt to overthrow a democratic government. It had powerful civilian support (a fund of $305.8 million was set up by civilians to finance it) and sympathy throughout the armed forces.

The plan essentially involved four stages:

1. The seizure of parliament by some 200 members of the paramilitary Guardia Civil led by Colonel Tejero de Molina.

2. The rallying of the regional military commanders led by Gen. Jaime Milans del Bosch, division commander of southeast Valencia, to support the dissolution of parliament and the creation of a military government of national salvation. The most immediate inspiration for this government came from the successful military coup launched in Turkey last September.

3. The occupation of all key strategic installation (including the national radio and television station, Radio Madrid, and the country's leading liberal newspapers, El Pais and Diario 16) by Madrid's crack armored division.

4. Acceptance by King Juan Carlos of a military-backed government headed by Gen. Alfonso Armada, the deputy commander of the Army chiefs of staff and for 26 years the King's closest military adviser.

The first point worked perfectly, the second almost worked, the third was imperfect, and the fourth failed utterly.

One of the plan's immediate weaknesses was that it was too cautious. The seizure of parliament was an isolated incident and not enough to block the government while the generals were making up their minds.

Its principal weakness, however, was the assumption that the King would accept an ultimatum and throw in his lot behind the military of whom he is commander-in-chief. Having assumed he would do this, in the erroneous belief that he shared their views on the direction of Spain, the plotters had no answer when he flatly refused -- and went even further by reportedly saying "I am not going to leave Spain, and the rebels will have to kill me before I let them take power."

all accounts agree the King was almost alone on Feb. 23. For nearly five hours he cajoled, ordered, and finally threatened the key commanders of the nine mainland military regions to fall into line. All but two (in Madrid and Barcelona) were reluctant to go against their fellow soldiers in arms.

Under these circumstances, the tensest moment was the news that the national radio and television station (RTVE) was occupied by a unit of Madrid's armored division. Radio and television directors were ordered to play military music. But this proved difficult. For almost half an hour the archives of RTVE were ransacked and all that could be found were 18th century military marches. Rebel officers flung these records aside, considering this music inappropriate.

The eventual control of RTVE by officers loyal to the King was crucial. The King considered a nationwide speech a top priority. He had to calm a deply frightened nation. He had to avert a possible general strike, called by the communist and socialist trade unions, that would have further provoked the generals.

And he had to ensure that all the regional commanders knew exactly where he stood: that he was not considering joining the insurgents -- as General Milans del Bosch and General Armada had been claiming. Nor was he considering abdicating. Shortly before midnight the King felt confident enough of his support to don his uniform as Captain General of Spain's armed forces and record a nationwide ultimatum to the rebels.

It then became obvious who was doing what to whom.

The involvement of General Milans del Bosch had been apparent since about 8: 00 p.m., when he declared a state of martial law in Valencia and talked to Colonel Tejero de molina in the Spanish parliament by telephone.

But the involvement of General Armada was clear only after the King's address. The King, the general chiefs of staff, and the secretaries and undersecretaries of state attempted to bring General Armade to heel after he said: "The King has made a mistake. He has compromised the Crown and divorced himself from the armed forces. He should never have made a nationwide address."

The relationship between the King and these two generals was the biggest puzzle on the night of the coup. Of all of Spain's generals, General Milans del Bosch and General Armada had been closest to the King. General Armada was the King's professor when he was a boy and had served in the royal household for a quarter of a century. The answer seems to be that they profoundly misread the King.

Don Juan Carlos is by nature a conservative man, at home or in the mess room, and he shared the military's concern for the deterioration of law and order in the northern Basque country and the lack of direction shown by the political parties in recent months. The generals assumed that sharing such views, he would endorse a military intervention.

But he would not buy this. He has committed himself to serving a democratic and constitutional Spain and realized that the military would be incapable of running the country.

By his action, and that rare gift in political leaders --common sense -- King Juan Carlos saved Spain's democracy. But the present uncertainty of the country rests on just this: The monarchy was the only institution that had the power to stop the coup. Everyone knows this is a situation that cannot be repeated. If there is ever another coup attempt, the first target, not the last, will be the King.

The King himself has said as much. In a statement to the leaders of Spain's five parliamentary parties a day after the coup attempt, he said: "Everyone must be made aware that the Crown cannot, and must not, continually involve itself, bearing direct responsibility, in incidents of such great seriousness and tension."

Making the present situation even more serious, the coup has revealed the complete failure of government measures aimed at depoliticizing the armed forces since Gen. Francisco Franco's death in November 1975. Furthermore it has shown the lack of real power by the parliament, the Cabinet, and the executive.

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