The Long Shadow of Tejero

by Joel Hernandez

Adolfo Suárez was presiding over his final parliamentary session as Prime Minister of Spain on February 23, 1981, when a contingent of Civil Guards burst into the Parliament chambers, guns blazing, and took him and the assembled deputies hostage. Despite an exhausting five years steering Spain from autocracy to democracy, Suárez was one of only three men with the strength to remain upright. The coup flopped; its ringleader was detained, sentenced to thirty years in prison, and released after only fifteen in 1996.

This silence was shattered on March 17, 2014, when El País revealed that Tejero Molina’s son Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero Díez of the Civil Guard, hosted a celebration of the anniversary of the Tejerazo in the Civil Guard barracks of Valdemoro, near Madrid. Alongside his father, guests included Jesús Muñecas Aguilar, who served five years for his participation in the coup, and another dozen or so people—including several other perpetrators whose names remain unknown as of this writing.

On February 23, 1981, Antonio Tejero Molina hijacked the Spanish Parliament to uphold España: Una, Grande, y Libre, and defend a regime he credited with bringing stability to Spain—and whose authoritarianism and human rights abuses seemed not to bother him. In the summer of 1976, six months after the death of dictator Francisco Franco, King Juan Carlos had vaulted Adolfo Suárez, a junior member of Franco’s Council of Ministers, to the post of Prime Minister. By the end of the year, Suárez had wrung a Law of Political Reform from the regime’s rubber-stamp Parliament, artfully gutting the autocracy’s political system from within. Some of the old boogeymen of Franco’s order soon re-emerged: the Socialist and Communist parties were legalized; amnestied opposition leaders returned from exile; press censorship was lifted. Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Galicia recovered the self-government they had once enjoyed under the Spanish Republic.

An exhausted Suárez would finally step down in 1981. The Spanish economy had stagnated under his watch. Terrorist acts by neo-fascist, radical-leftist, and separatist groups had ravaged Spain. Regime holdovers nursed a growing sense of alarm over Suárez’s reforms. Ever fearful of a military coup, the prime minister vacillated, exasperating reformists and returned exiles with his hesitancy. Although Suárez’s greatest fear was a military coup, the greatest threat before him was actually a constitutional coup by his parliamentary opposition, or an internal coup within his own party. Suárez had abandoned the authoritarian regime from whence he came at the dawn of his administration. At its dusk, he found himself abandoned by the same democratic order he had created. In spite of all this, Prime Minister Suárez remained upright on February 23, 1981.

February 23, 2014, came and went with little fanfare in Spain. Rightly so, as Spanish newspapers commemorated the tragic anniversary of the Atocha terrorist attacks of March 11, 2004, much more vocally than the distant memory of the botchedTejerazo. Most Spanish are much more concerned with their country’s economic malaise. They worry not about February 23, but rather about September 11, Catalonia’s National Day—when, as in 2012 and in 2013, Catalans will demonstrate for independence from Spain—and about November 9, when Catalonia hopes to hold a referendum on sovereignty, which Spanish leaders have vowed to prevent. Echoes of Scotland, Crimea, and Québec only amplify the tension.

Spain’s leadership now faces perhaps the greatest challenge to the nation’s constituted order since Suárez faced down Tejero in 1981: the breakup of the country. A majority of Catalonia’s leadership—and at least a plurality of its population—fully support independence. Catalan economic, political, and cultural grievances, either sacrosanct or ludicrous, depending on whom you ask, are not abating. The stakes are high for both parties: Spain stands to lose fifteen percent of its population and twenty percent of its economy. Catalonia would face ejection from both the EU and the Eurozone. Standing at the edge of this cliff, however, political leaders in both Madrid and Barcelona have only proved willing and capable of speaking the language of nationalist and populist reduction, consistently falling short of objective analysis, and far short of offering solutions. Meanwhile, as Catalan separatism dominates the headlines, Spain’s other major problems—a moribund economy and systemic corruption, to name only two—metastasize for want of attention.

From the abstract perspective of history, the seditious celebration of a coup against Spain’s democratic order, convened by a Spanish public servant in a facility belonging to Spain’s democratic government, might raise troubling questions as to the completeness of Spain’s transition or the health of its democracy. Yet the ethic of democracy runs strong in Spain. This gathering, however revolting, should not be misread as an alarming prelude to revolt.

Yet Antonio Tejero Díez, son of the author of the Tejerazo and host of its latest reunion, was only stripped of his commission a month after the deed, when El País contacted Spain’s Ministry of Interior for comment before breaking the story andapparently catching it unawares. If the Ministry’s month-long ignorance proves genuine, this should inspire little confidence among Spain’s six million unemployed in their government’s competence to resolve their country’s severe economic crisis. If feigned, it will only further erode a fading trust, among Catalans, in the reconstructed, plural Spain they had hoped from the transition. In either case, the scenario is far from reassuring.

About the Author

Joel Hernàndez is a Spanish-American advocate for migrant and refugee rights. He studied at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and is currently working in Greece. You can follow him on twitter at @joelhdz.

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