40 years ago a group of soldiers rebelled against the Constitution. A member of that Chamber, I witnessed live how, in the midst of voting for the inauguration of the president Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo, a group of armed soldiers entered the meeting room, interrupted the voting and, using their firearms, threw us to the ground.
Not long after, we saw how an officer of the Civil Guard went up to the rostrum and announced that we were being held until the new authority of the country appeared; “Military, of course” he clarified. It was a coup.
I put aside the causes and circumstances that culminated in that rebellion. Historians have already dealt with it and will continue to deal with it. I think we know the most important thing about what happened that night. We also know their end: the surrender of the rebels, their prosecution and their conviction.
Both those of us who were kidnapped in Congress, those who followed him on television or those who saw the tanks deploy through the streets of Valencia, we do not forget those events and we continue to remember perfectly what each of us did throughout that afternoon and that night. .
But it’s worth keeping in mind. In the first place, for those who did not experience it, who are already the majority of citizens, among whom are our current leaders, some of whom were not even born. Secondly, because as a society we have problems with our memory and it happens to us, sometimes, that we better remember older events such as war and dictatorship, and we forget what happened to us yesterday; that is, 23-F.
Sometimes we better remember older events like war and dictatorship, and we forget what happened yesterday; on 23-F
But, above all, it is convenient to remember that coup d’etat because there are many who since then have insisted on convincing us that the Transition and the first years of democracy were nothing but a hoax, a fix or a fix.
Nothing of that. It is enough to dust off the press of those days to see the enormous fragility of the young democracy: a president who had resigned without clear explanations, a divided UCD, a gang of terrorists assassinating day after day and a suffocating noise of sabers in the flag rooms.
The assault on Congress by those rebels to replace the legitimate Government with a military authority shows to what extent Spain lived those years on the edge of the abyss and how that coup could have ended in a bloodbath and suffocation, at least for a time, of the young democracy. This one triumphed and we came out of that rebellion well. But that assault could have ended differently; that is, wrong; very bad. And it should be remembered.
Collective memory serves to endow social groups with identity, giving meaning to their past and assembling their aspirations for the future. With the wickers of memories is how we best assemble, he said Unamuno, our hopes. There are events and tragedies in our history that as a nation we have to feel ashamed and regretful, such as a civil war and its subsequent dictatorship.
But Spain has also been able not only to recover democracy but also to defeat ETA terrorism and, at the same time, put an end to the intervention of the Armed Forces in politics. And this has been a feat that we should be proud of and that should help us rebuild our national identity.
We should look at how we then make decisions that have been transcendental for the history of Spain
The rebel military had broken public space; for long hours the constitutional system was torn and hanging by a thread. Returned to normality with the capital help of His Majesty King Juan Carlos I, now those broken ones had to be put back together. Who stumbles and does not fall, advances. And this is what was finally done.
In the first place, the guilty were punished; nothing more than the direct perpetrators, without attempting to prosecute the hundreds of military personnel who may have incurred responsibility for their actions, their omissions or their reckless actions.
A few days after that event at a traffic control on a Cuenca highway, for which I was a deputy, a number of the Civil Guard asked me for my documentation. He recognized me and I recognized him: he was the one who had accompanied me with the submachine gun to the congressional toilets that night. I think it was smart in those circumstances to focus the punishment on those most responsible.
Second, measures were adopted to guarantee non-repetition; capital reforms that have eradicated the possibility of this type of military invasion of the legitimate powers. Perhaps on this 40th anniversary of the coup we should put aside the painful and pessimistic attitude to which, as a nation, we are so prone, and look at how we were able to learn from this misfortune and how we made decisions that have been momentous for the history of Spain. And that is how the UCD Government and later the PSOE Government carried out the great transformation of our Armed Forces.
First, the ambiguities of interpretation that the constitutional text could have (Article 8 in relation to 62.h) were eliminated and it was made clear that the Armed Forces were not, as some claimed, an institution with its own autonomy, directly connected with the King, but were part of the public administration directed exclusively by the Government.
The 23-F coup was not, as is sometimes said, a failed coup, but a defeated one
Later, it had to be made clear that the Joint Chiefs of Staff or JUJEM was not a corporate representation of the Armed Forces but an organ of the Ministry that would act not as the last link in the chain of command but as an advisory body of the Government.
Third, the domain reservations of the Armed Forces, especially in everything related to Military Justice, which was integrated into the only existing Judicial Power after the Constitution and was endowed with a new Penal Code, a new Disciplinary Code and new procedural laws.
And fourthly, the armed forces had to be synchronized in the new context that arose from our insertion in Europe and NATO. And this is what was done with a whole legislative program that put the Armed Forces where they belonged; on your site.
The 23-F coup was not, as is sometimes said, a failed coup, but a defeated one. The result, therefore, was not only the punishment of the direct perpetrators but also the decision of all the political forces to undertake the necessary reforms so that we would not experience a situation as dramatic as that of those days. We already know that neither ETA nor coup leaders have the capacity to destabilize democracy. And this is what we can and must celebrate on this 40th anniversary of that coup.
The memory of that anguished afternoon and night leads me to one last reflection.
We learned that without leaders who believe in the legitimacy of the constitutional order, our system would be much more fragile
The problem of the stability of political systems has been studied for a long time; that is, asking about the conditions and circumstances that make its continuity and permanence possible.
There is a broad consensus on the idea that the stability of any system depends, at least, on two conditions, both necessary and sometimes sufficient. The first is that the top leaders of the country adopt the internal point of view; that is, that they consider legitimate the political system and (Constitution and developments) and source of obligations and act with their deeds and words in accordance.
The second condition is that they have the ability to enforce compliance with those who deviate from it and have the commitment of citizens. When these conditions are met in practice, as happened 40 years ago on 23-F, the system can normally deal with the “difficult cases” that may arise.
Looking at 23-F in the rearview mirror, it is clear that our democracy defeated the coup and made the integration of the Armed Forces into our constitutional system irreversible with profound reforms. A historical fact.
And looking at our present, perhaps it is not idle to insist on another lesson: that without leaders who adopt the internal point of view, that is, who firmly believe in the legitimacy of the constitutional order, our system would be much more fragile and could gradually weaken. become unrecognizable.
*** Virgilio Zapatero is professor emeritus and former rector of the University of Alcalá.