My First Attempted Coup d’Etat – James Nolan – Spain 1979 & 1989

My First Attempted Coup d’Etat – James Nolan – Spain 1979 & 1989

Photo Above: Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and James Nolan in his Barrio Gotico apartment, Barcelona, 1991.

This past January 6, I sat glued to the television watching as state representatives in the nation’s Capitol cowered on the floor while a mob of shouting louts invaded their congressional chamber, interrupting the Electoral College’s certification of the presidential vote.

James Nolan, Patio de Letras, Universidad Central de Barcelona, 2005 (photo from newspaper La Vanguardia)

This spectacle jolted me back to a similar moment in Spain thirty years ago, one that rattled me at the time and unnerved the Spanish for a generation. On that occasion, a drunken army colonel stood at the speaker’s podium during a presidential election in the Palacio de las Cortes in Madrid and fired shots into the air, shouting todos al suelo, or “everyone on the ground.” Whether incited by a crazed colonel or a defeated President who refuses to leave office, how fragile the stately marble pillars of democracy suddenly can appear.

During my first attempted coup d’état, I didn’t even have a radio, much less a television.  From 1979 through 1981, I was a Fulbright professor of North American Studies at the Universidad Central in Barcelona. On the evening of February 23, 1981, while I was teaching a class on Whitman, uniformed janitors burst into the room, insisting that we leave immediately.

            “Everything is normal again. The Fascists are back in power,” they announced, faces flushed with booze. “Everyone go home until further notice.”

  I was shocked that these taciturn watchmen, usually perched inside of glass security booths in the university patios, were invading my classroom. But my philology students knew what it meant. They’d grown up under iron fist of Franco, dead for only seven years, and realized how shaky the present transition to democracy was. They communicated the gravity of the situation to me in English as we marched out under the stern glares of the gloating bedeles.

            Walking the few blocks home, as I shouldered past stunned pedestrians scampering down Las Ramblas, I couldn’t believe what was happening. My American girlfriend, still in stage makeup, soon rushed back to our apartment. Maureen was a dancer performing in a musical comedy in a theater on the Avenida de Paralelo, Barcelona’s answer to Broadway. Armed civil guards had interrupted the show, emptying the theater with the same explanation.

In the blink of an eye, everything had changed. 

            Shaking out heads in disbelief, we stood at the railing of one of our seven balconies over the Calle Elisabets, watching the street empty. Would we have to pack our bags and leave the country?

            We’d made friends with the grandfatherly proprietor of a milk shop on the building’s first floor, so we went down to ask the lechero what was going on. Head bowed, he sat slumped next to his radio, muttering under his breath.

            He told us that a lieutenant colonel named Antonio Tejero had taken over the speaker’s podium in the Spanish parliament in Madrid, interrupting a congressional vote to elect a new president, the Democratic candidate Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo. Waving a pistol, Tejero commanded that the now kidnapped representatives get down on the floor, shouting that the election was cancelled and the Fascist Party again in power. At that moment, tanks commandeered by two thousand soldiers were rumbling through the streets of Valencia, and a national military coup d’état had been declared. 

            The Catalan milkman explained that he’d been a Republican during the Civil War, fighting the fascists. Even though a bomb had blown off his leg—he rolled up a pant cuff to show us the prosthetic limb—he kept a wooden club under the counter that he was now brandishing at the stentorian voice on the state-run radio station, announcing the coup as definitive. He was preparing to limp two blocks to Las Ramblas to fight the bastards again. He was reliving the horror of the war, when one half of Spain invaded the other half, both sides mercilessly slaughtering each other.

             During my two years in Barcelona I’d heard a lot about the four decades of Franco’s rule and the Civil War, but had no idea what was happening at the moment. We were renting the apartment of a Catalan poet, who suddenly showed up at the front door. Once part of the youthful resistance to Franco, he explained to us the seriousness of the coup d’état while packing a suitcase of papers related to the anti-fascist underground. He planned to cross the border into France in the morning. He assured me that, as a Fulbright professor, I’d probably be all right, since Franco had always counted on the staunch support of the American State Department. Yet I certainly didn’t want to play along with the Fascists.

            Maureen and I stayed up most of that fretful night, pacing the tile floors from balcony to balcony to stare out over the eerily deserted street. We had no telephone, so couldn’t call friends either in Barcelona or abroad to confirm what was happening. Then the light in the milkman’s shop went out, breaking our news connection to the world.

            At dawn that morning, we later heard, King Juan Carlos I appeared on television to denounce Tejero, the military insurrectionists, and the attempted coup, reaffirming his support for the constitution drawn up three years earlier. In a short, forceful speech, he decreed from the Palacio Real that Spain would continue its transition to democracy. This was followed by the national anthem and an image of the Spanish flag.


The coup d’état was over.

Later that day the front pages of El País and La Vanguardia stacked in the newspaper kiosks along Las Ramblas recounted the unsettling story of the drunken soldiers and their botched takeover of the government. Life appeared to return to normal, but the Spaniards’ faith in the authority and continuity of a new-born democracy was badly shaken after witnessing in one stressful night how easily the flickering candle of their freedom could be blown out. The sun rose on a new day in Spain, but only we foreigners believed it.


James Nolan – Fulbright to Spain 1979 & 1989

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: