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A coup-monger or just an old soldier speaking his mind?

21 February 2008

MADRID – "If the situation arises, it will have to be [the king], firmly supported by the armed forces, who safeguards the unity of Spain if the politicians put it at risk and the judicial system does not intervene." José Mena, then one of Spain’s most senior generals, made that statement before the army’s top brass in October 2005, three months before he was moved into the reserve for making similar comments supportive of a military coup.

The statement and the failure of the army chiefs or the Defence Ministry to immediately reprimand the lieutenant general was revealed this week by Mena himself in his book Militares. Los límites del silencio (Soldiers. The limits of silence.) In the work, Mena, who is now retired from the military, offers his opinion on a wide range of topics, but concentrates particularly on Spanish politics and the issue that triggered his controversial comments: the devolution of more powers to Catalonia by Spain’s Socialist government.

Referring to Catalonia’s efforts to enact a new autonomy statute and wrest greater autonomy from Madrid, Mena told the army chiefs that if "it happens with the acquiescence of the government, someone will have to say something. But who is that someone?"

Mena suggested that the king should be counted on, with the support of the military, to override Congress, the prime minister and, in effect, the will of the Spanish people. The army chiefs’ only response was to remind Mena that they it was not their place to comment on political questions, although he notes that several of them privately expressed their support for his stance.

Of the 12 lieutenant generals then in active service, Mena says that one offered to publicly second his statement, four said they were in agreement and four simply wished him well. The only three who he did not hear from, Mena says, were serving in the Defence Ministry, at that time headed by José Bono, a politician Mena brands a "populist." When Mena made similar coup-inclined comments in public in January 2006, it was Bono who placed him under house arrest and ordered his transfer to the reserve.

In the book, Mena derides the current Socialist government, arguing that Spaniards should end the "political drift that has occurred this legislature."

Military associations noted yesterday that because he is no longer in active service, Mena is now free to speak his mind. "He has regained his freedom and is now just another citizen able to say whatever he wants," the AME association of service men and women said in a statement. It argued that his book, presented little more than two weeks before the general election, is "timely" because "it clearly explains the political situation in Spain."

[Copyright EL PAÍS / MIGUEL GONZÁLEZ 2008]

Subject: Spanish news