Covering coups in Europe & the Pacific

Coups, revolts and political skullduggery are in the news today.

Two weeks ago, a military-led coup failed in Turkey. This week, supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton squared off against one another in Philadelphia at the Democrats’ national convention, fomenting revolts and crying “treason” and “deceit.” Clinton came out the winner and will be her party’s presidential candidate in the November general election.

These revolutions remind me of coups I covered as a newspaperman overseas. There were two of them, and they both were successful. Unlike the ones in Turkey and Philadelphia, however, they were carried out in small, remote nations that have no importance or consequence in the world.

Coup No. One began and ended in late October, 1957, when I was writing from Western and Eastern Europe. I had recently purchased an Italian-made Benelli motorcycle from a U.S. Army sergeant stationed at Camp Darby, a NATO base in western Italy, and I raced to the Republic of San Marino near the eastern Italian coast, where a coup was beginning in the independent, 24-square-mile microstate that had a population of 20,000 and was founded in the fourth century A.D. by a Christian named Marinus who had fled there to escape persecution by the Roman Emperor Diocletian.

I had been in San Marino before, and knew it had the only communist government in Western Europe and that its main sources of income were tourism, the selling of postage stamps, and the peddling of titles to rich foreigners who desired to become instant barons, counts, or dukes.

When I arrived in San Marino, I interviewed the communist leaders and the anti-communist opposition, which had been trying to oust the communists for at least a year.

A quaint, medieval relic of mountain-top castles and forts that had been the backdrop of several motion pictures including the 1959 film “The Mouse That Roared” which starred Peter Fonda and Jean Seberg, San Marino was seething with plots and unrest, and I arrived in the capital city, San Marino Town, in time to witness the farcical “Battle of San Marino” between the communists and non-communists. No one was killed, and the sole injury was to an innocent bystander who was struck by an errant bullet that grazed his buttocks.

The communists soon surrendered, and opponents from both sides shook hands and joined in celebrations at local wine bars. A democratic, centrist government was eventually established, and it remains in place today.

Exhausted, I went to bed early, only to be awakened about 2 a.m. by two policemen who hustled me to the police station where I was charged with pouring water from a bucket upon revelers cheering the anti-communists in the square below my hotel room window. Because the jail was full, I was handcuffed to a wooden bench at police headquarters. The next morning, a U.S. consular official convinced the police chief that I was a legitimate newspaperman and someone else was responsible for wetting down the folks in the square. I was released, wrote and sent off my story, and spent two or three days enjoying the sights in this comic-opera backwater.

Coup No. Two began in early December, 2006, in the Pacific island-nation of Fiji, when I was writing from several area nations and my stories were appearing in this newspaper and its sister paper, the Nevada Appeal in Carson City. Again, I was fortunate to arrive when a coup was ramping into high gear, and I hastened to Suva, Fiji’s capital and largest city, where the coup’s leader, a fellow named Bainimarama who headed the armed forces, was arresting government leaders on charges of corruption and graft. Two or three days later, in the midst of street demonstrations against his seizure of power, he named himself the nation’s new president and closed down the newspapers and radio and TV stations which had supported the former government.

I wanted to interview Bainimarama, and learned that he and his bodyguards were holed up in a long-closed beachfront hotel that in better days had hosted Queen Elizabeth II, her husband Prince Phillip, diplomats, film stars, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Michener. I walked over to the hotel, the Grand Pacific, but its front door was locked and guarded by a dozen soldiers high on booze and kava, a mixture of water and the root of the pepper tree that, when imbibed, causes intoxication and wild mood swings. They cursed me, presented me with their middle fingers, and ordered me to leave at once.

But I went around to the hotel’s rear that fronted the beach, and entered the decrepit building built in 1914 via a back door that was held open by a folding metal chair. Once inside, I found about 25 or 30 soldiers and policemen slumped on couches in the ballroom watching a New Zealand-Australian soccer match on television.

The men, also drunk, were friendly, though, and posed for photos. But in a minute or two, their leader, an army major also reeling from drink and kava, appeared and screamed at me, “I am arresting you on charges of being a British spy!” (Great Britain ruled Fiji from 1874 until it achieved independence in 1970, and many Fijiians still hate the British, their former colonial masters.)

He placed one hand on his pistol and, with the other, grabbed the collar of my shirt. I managed to shake the drunken officer off and flee outside and run to my hotel, the nearby Holiday Inn, where I changed into a bathing suit and joined a half-dozen other newspapermen who were covering the coup in the swimming pool in the company of several attractive bikini-clad German and French tourists.

Two or three days later, after Commodore Bainimarama had moved into plush quarters in Government House, I ran into the major in downtown Suva as we both were waiting for a traffic light to change on the main boulevard. He was stone sober, we shook hands and laughed uproariously about our earlier confrontation.

Today, 10 years after Fiji’s successful coup, Bainimarama remains in charge, and I have heard he is doing a commendable job running his nation. But, still, I have never seen him in person. I hope that someday, I will.

David. C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the LVN.


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