It Was 40 Years Ago Today…

Do I remember it like it was yesterday?
Or have I just talked about it so much it feels recent?

Here’s my account of Spain’s 23-F, part of the chapter C is for Corona, in The A to Z of Spanish Culture.

On the 23rd February 1981, Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo was ready to become the second president of Spain’s new democracy. All Spanish eyes (or most of them) were glued to the television to witness another event with democracy at its core. 

And then it happened. 

Under the counting of the votes, a commotion.

A bit of noise outside. 

The President of the Congress asking softly, “¿Qué pasa?” (“What’s going on?”)

And then a lieutenant, in full guardia civil gear, wearing the classic tricornio (a three-pointed hat worn by the civil guard) entered the Congress, with a gun in his hand. 

“Quieto todo el mundo.” (“Everyone, stand still.”)

Followed by:

“Al suelo, al suelo todo el mundo.” (“Everyone, down on the floor.”)

Then more military, this time with machine guns. A few shots and most of the politicians were forced to crouch down in their seats. Most except Suárez and Gutierrez Mellado, a military man who was Minister of Defence at the time and who directly challenged the intruders. Luckily for him, he was just pushed around a bit and not shot. I was watching this on television and I remember Suárez shouting at the military, “I’m the president, I’m the president,” as if thinking that his resignation had caused the mess and wanted to take it back. 

Looking for footage of the event on YouTube, I found a video with commentary from a radio journalist. You don’t need to speak Spanish to hear the panic in his voice as he realised what was happening. Meanwhile, the camera darts everywhere following the bullets from the machine guns and finally it stops, pointing at the ceiling. A male voice is then heard saying:

“No intentes apuntar la cámara que te mato.” 

(“Don’t try to point the camera or I’ll kill you.”)

You can imagine every Spanish heart sinking very low as they watched this coup. People who’d fought for freedom of speech; politicians who had been involved in the transition to democracy (la Transición), young people like me (I was 9 years old) who knew they had narrowly escaped repression and oppression and could see clearly in their parents’ faces the words “No, please, not again…” Everyone stared at the TV, waiting to see if this event would affect their lives. 

The phone rang in my house. It was the Danish mother of a friend of mine, calling to ask for advice. What was going on?What should she do? Send the kids to school the following day? Keep them home?

Luckily, all this happened at a time when TV was already a part of most Spanish households. Calvo Sotelo (who was being elected president on the 23rd February) points out in his book Memoria viva de la transición, that watching the drama unfold on T.V. stripped the coup of any mystery and therefore, of some of its impact. There wouldn’t be time for rumours or urban myths to emerge, as everyone had had the chance to witness the event live on T.V. Just as the Spanish population saw the event live, they also witnessed how it was knocked on the head by a simple, straightforward speech. 

Extracted from the chapter C is for Corona, The A to Z of Spanish Culture.

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