The night that saved the king
When Juan Carlos abdicated the Spanish throne in June 2014, we looked back on the night which defined his reign – and the conspiracy theories which continue to circulate about it 33 years later
2nd June 2014 (Taken from: #15)
Juan Carlos Alfonso Víctor María de Borbón y Borbón-Dos Sicilias is having a bad day. The 76-year-old king has chosen to announce his intention to abdicate through a message on the royal family’s official Twitter account. Far from causing national mourning, the solemn announcement has been met with a barrage of tweeted impertinence from his subjects. They variously mock his awkward manner of speaking:
“The Christmas speech will never be the same again. It won’t need subtitles any more.”
His seeming indifference to his country’s financial woes:
“The only thing that will change is the face on the money. But we won’t notice because we don’t have any.”
And his penchant for shooting wild animals during extravagant and clandestine hunting trips:
“It’s a great day for elephants.”
This last jibe spawns its own mini-meme, as tens of thousands of Spaniards start tweeting each other pictures of happy-looking elephants. They are referring, of course, to his infamous trip to Botswana in 2012, at the height of Spain’s economic crisis, when he was photographed standing next to an African elephant he had just shot.
It was only after he subsequently fell over and injured himself and had to be airlifted back to Madrid that the story – and the photo – came out, along with allegations that he had been accompanied on the trip by Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, a German aristocrat 30 years younger than him, while Queen Sofía was left at home.
The story seemed to flip a switch in the national consciousness. Anger over the nosediving economy and record high levels of unemployment was refocused on the king. Protesters marched in the streets of Madrid, calling for an end to the monarchy. Shortly afterwards republican sentiment was further inflamed when a police investigation was launched into the alleged embezzlement of public funds by Juan Carlos’s son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarín (charges he denies) and questions were asked about how much Iñaki’s wife, Princess Cristina, knew about the affair. On top of all this the Spanish branch of the World Wildlife Fund – fairly understandably – sacked Juan Carlos as its president. His approval rating plummeted to 41 percent.
But this low standing in the country is a very recent phenomenon. For most of his reign, Juan Carlos was one of the most popular monarchs in Europe. His subjects overlooked his alleged affairs and his extravagance. They loved him for his undiplomatic outbursts (he famously barked “Why don’t you shut up!” to a loquacious Hugo Chávez at the Summit of the Americas in 2007) and his lack of pretension and referred to him affectionately as ‘el rey campechano’: the folksy king.
The king’s social media team are keen to remind his subjects of the good times and start tweeting an extensive series of pictures from Juan Carlos’s 39 years on the throne. There he is signing the Spanish constitution in 1978. Approving Spain’s entry into the EEC in 1985. Joking with Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush senior in 1991. Attending a funeral of some of the victims of the 11th March 2004 bombings in Madrid.
And then there’s the real money shot: the photo, taken in the early hours of 24th February 1981, of the moment at which Juan Carlos sealed his three decade-long love affair with the Spanish people.
A useful coup
6.30pm, 23rd February 1981. A somnolent air hangs over the Spanish parliament, the Cortes. One by one, the 350 assembled deputies stand to cast their vote on the confirmation of Calvo Sotelo as the new prime minister. They chat, yawn and daydream as the long administrative process drags on.
And then, suddenly, there is a disturbance at the front of the hall. A uniformed man sporting the saucepan-like hat of a senior officer of the Guardia Civil enters, flanked by soldiers. It is Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero, and he has a pistol in his hand.
One brave deputy, General Gutiérrez Mellado, gets up and starts remonstrating with the soldiers, who push him roughly to the side. Shots are fired and, as one body, the deputies throw themselves to the floor. Prime minister in waiting Calvo Sotelo goes so far as to crawl under his seat. Aside from General Mellado, only two other men refuse to cower. One is Santiago Carrillo, leader of the Communist Party, who, supremely unruffled, lights a cigarette and surveys the scene with interest. The other is Adolfo Suárez, the outgoing prime minister, who sits back in his seat and glares defiantly at the interlopers.
In total, 200 armed civil guards will hold the Spanish parliament captive at gunpoint for the next 17 and a half hours. Tejero’s coup is aimed at undermining the fledgling Spanish democracy and reinstalling Francoism. Many elements of the army and the country as a whole have watched in horror over the last six years as, aided by Juan Carlos, previously banned political movements including the Communist Party have been legalised, a new social liberality has started to take root and parliamentary democracy – with all its flaws and weaknesses – has attempted to tackle the nation’s problems.
Tejero’s gamble is that, with his parliament held hostage and the knowledge that much of his military will approve, the king will cancel the aborted six-year experiment with democracy and bring back the old certainties of the Franco era. After all, Juan Carlos was Franco’s chosen successor. He was groomed by Franco from a young age, trained under his direction in Spain’s finest military academies, and swore to uphold the old man’s legacy when he died in 1975. With a nudge in the right direction, Tejero believes, the King will see reason and back the coup.
In Valencia, Tejero’s fellow conspirator, Jaime Milans del Bosch, the captain general of the Third Military Region, ramps up the pressure by ordering tanks onto the streets – purely, he says, in the interests of maintaining public order while parliament is indisposed.
As the soldiers strut around the assembly shooting their automatic rifles into the ceiling and intimidating the deputies, it is all being captured on camera”
The coup itself is no major surprise. The political atmosphere in Spain is febrile and the economy is in freefall. Basque and Catalan separarists are making their voices heard. Society is floundering, trying to make sense of the new freedoms it has been granted, and – without a strong dictatorship to bury them with coercion and patriotic fervour – the deep and bitter divisions created by the vicious civil war have started to resurface. Tejero himself has form for this sort of operation – he had been imprisoned just three years earlier for plotting to mount another putsch.
But something does make this coup extraordinary. Unbeknownst to the plotters, when they entered the parliament building the session they invaded was being recorded by a TV crew hidden away at the top of the hall. As the soldiers strut around the assembly shooting their automatic rifles into the ceiling and intimidating the deputies, it is all being captured on camera.
The footage is mesmerising. It looks like a scene from a film: the fear and blind panic of the deputies; the brash strutting of the lieutenant colonel; the brave stand of the old general; the imperturbable calm of Suárez, who had long suspected such an event would take place.
The recording is not shown on television until the next day, but such is its power in the collective consciousness of the Spanish people that many of them believe they watched the coup take place live on air. Clips from the day (which becomes known by the shorthand of ‘23-F’) are regularly shown on television: it is as iconic and powerful to the Spanish as footage of the 9/11 attacks is to the Americans.
In the Zarzuela Palace, the king is faced with an awful choice. He can attempt to stare down the coup and risk being deposed and watching his country swallowed up by the military or he can accept the plotters’ demands, water down the gains made over the first six years of his rule, recant his brave dismantling of the Francoist state and try to negotiate a deal which will best protect his citizens and his own position.
At 1.14 am on 24th February, dressed in his commander-in-chief uniform, Juan Carlos makes a brief speech on live television and condemns the coup. “The crown is the symbol of permanence and unity of the country,” he says. “We cannot tolerate… people who seek to interrupt the democratic process by force.”
On hearing the news of the king’s speech, the plotters blink. Milans del Bosch pulls his troops back and is arrested at 5am. Tejero, isolated, calls off his siege and shortly before midday footage is taken of him and his men jumping unceremoniously from a small window in the parliament building and shaking hands before walking off to be arrested.
The king has stood firm. He has saved democracy. He has also made explicitly clear that he has thrown off his Francoist inheritance. His people adore him for it, some even going so far as to declare themselves juancarlistas, and he will hold their affection until the ‘Elephantgate’ incident in 2012.
Jordi Évole is one of Spain’s best-known print and TV journalists. He is respected for his in-depth investigations and his willingness to confront elements of Spain’s past that many others prefer to sweep under the carpet.
On the night of 23rd February 2014, Évole’s latest documentary, ‘Operación Palace’, was broadcast on La Sexta. It received the highest viewing figures of any non-sports programme ever shown on the channel.
The hour-long show made a series of extraordinary revelations. It claimed that 23-F was not a real coup, but a meticulously planned operation designed to shore up support for the king in the country, to disassociate him from his Francoist past and to reaffirm Spanish democracy. Some of the deputies who had been present on the day knew about the operation and testified to this fact in interviews.
Operación Palace struck at the heart of one of the founding myths of modern Spain, a moment of unity which had bound the people together around their king”
‘Operación Palace’ asserts that the invasion of the Cortes was staged. It was directed and filmed by a cinematographer, José Luis Garci (later an Academy Award winner), who confirmed that he had been hired to make sure that the supposedly accidental footage from inside the parliament would grip the public’s imagination. Even the shots of the plotters leaving the building had been choreographed, and a window had been specially chosen for their exit to add extra drama to the scene. As for Juan Carlos, he had been in on the act. His brave, defiant speech had been written for him six days earlier.
The public watched ‘Operación Palace’ in horror. It struck at the heart of one of the founding myths of modern Spain, a moment of unity which had bound the people together around their king.
And then, at the end of the broadcast, Évole admitted it was all a hoax. He had created the mockumentary, he claimed, because no one knows what really happened behind the scenes on 23-F, and this has allowed conspiracy theories to proliferate. His aim, he said, was to ask the question: “¿Puede una mentira explicar una verdad?” – can a lie explain a truth?
After the coup, Tejero and some of his fellow plotters were tried and sentenced to prison. But the court transcripts from the trials – which might shed light on whether a broader conspiracy was behind the coup – have never been made public. Évole believes they should be, and that until they are a question mark will hang over Juan Carlos’s actions on 23-F.
Was the folksy king tricksy enough to pull off a false flag operation as outrageous as that outlined in ‘Operación Palace’ – and to make sure no one leaked details over the course of 33 years? It seems unlikely. That said, dynasties like his – the Bourbons can trace their bloodline back 1,400 years and still claim the inherited crusader title of ‘King of Jerusalem’ – don’t survive for centuries without a hefty dose of cunning.
Even if the Tejero court transcripts do hold definitive answers for the conspiracy theorists, we are unlikely to see them for quite some time. Spain’s supreme court has ruled that the documents will remain classified until 25 years after the death of the last of the plotters or 50 years after the coup, whichever is latest. Which means that unless sufficient pressure is brought to bear by journalists like Évole, the public may not know the real details of what was happening behind the scenes on the night of 23-F until 2031 at the earliest. By which stage Juan Carlos, who is beset by health problems, is unlikely to be around.
The new king, Felipe VI, has been handed something of a poisoned chalice by his father. The economy is still in tatters, the Catalan independence movement is gaining momentum and republican calls for a vote on the monarchy grow louder by the day. It may not be long before Felipe – who has already been dubbed ‘Felipe the Brief’ by some of his subjects – starts to yearn for a very useful coup of his own.
We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #15 of Delayed Gratification
You can buy the issue from our shop or
Subscribe and receive the magazine through your letterbox every three months
Slow Journalism in your inbox, plus infographics, offers and more: sign up for the DG newsletter. Sign me up
Thanks for signing up.