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Is the Spanish military really under control?



General Felix Sanz Roldan, head of Spanish armed forces

The head of the Spanish Armed Forces called for loyalty from the military in an extensive interview with the Spanish daily El Pais.

It was his first interview since the sacking of the head of the army, Lieutenant General Jose Mena Auguado, for threatening military intervention over the bid by Catalonia for greater autonomy.

General Felix Sanz Roldan, head of the joint chiefs of staff,  told the paper: “The message to the armed forces is clear: first confidence in the command, second, loyalty and third, discipline. They are the pillars of the armed forces.”

There is little doubt the interview was an attempt by the Spanish military to draw an end to the extraordinary episode which focused unwelcome attention from around the world on the sensitive role of the Spanish armed forces.

Lt Gen Mena had told officers in Seville of “serious consequences” for the armed forces if Madrid granted Catalonia, one of the richest parts of Spain, greater tax-raising and legal powers.

*quote1*He said that if limits set by the Spanish constitution to stop any region overreaching its set powers were exceeded by Catalonia the army would have to act.

It brought back memories of the military meddling in politics, as it did frequently through the 19th and 20th centuries.

Ironically, just as the Lt Gen was making his threat, José Bono, the Defence Minister, was making a speech alongside King Juan Carlos, during which he said the “times of the military rattling its swords have ended”.



Lieutenant General Jose Mena Aguado

Bono was referring to the transition from the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco to democracy, during which the king helped stop the last attempted coup in 1981 by a Civil Guard officers who stormed parliament and fired a volley of shots.

The Lt Gen’s speech unleashed pent-up frustrations within senior ranks of Spanish military, showing his was not a lone outburst.

In October last year, at a private meeting of senior officers, seven serving lieutenant-generals told of their concerns about the Catalan question.

And in an open letter published in the Spanish daily La Razon, 50 retired senior officers said they supported what Lt Gen Mena had said.

So, though Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero insisted Lt Gen Mena was an “isolated” figure, the reality appeared different.

Indeed, it raised the spectre of serious unrest in the Spanish military, something which led in 1936 to Gen Franco’s military uprising and the fall of the Republican Government after the civil war.

*quote2*It also emerged the present Government may not have been aware of the political alliances of the senior ranks.

The Spanish daily El Pais reported how confidential reports, compiled by the National Intelligence Centre (CNI), Spain’s secret service, into the political allegiances of senior officers were suppressed by the previous government.

A special CNI unit employed in this work was also later disbanded.

The unrest continued over two weeks after Lt Gen Mena’s speech.

A captain who publicly supported Lt Gen Mena was disciplined, as was a colonel who criticised the disgraced head of the army.

General Roldan said that Lt Gen Mena’s mistake had been to quote article 8 of the Spanish Constitution but then to take it out of context.

This article allows the army to intervene if national security is threatened.



Colonel Antonio Tejero lead last failed coup attempt in 1981

But General Roldan insisted it is not up to the armed forces to decide if they should roll out of the barracks. Instead, it is up to  the elected government.

Whatever Spain’s most senior soldier says, it seems unlikely that these rumblings within the armed forces will simply be forgotten.

The issue created too much debate in Spain and revived too many bad memories as the country prepares to mark the 25th a