- The Washington Times - Friday, January 27, 2006

MADRID — A lieutenant general warns the army might intervene if the government grants too much home rule to a wealthy northeastern region. Days later, a captain publicly warns the prime minister of widespread unease at how the country is being “dismembered.”

Nearly three decades after Spain returned to democracy with the death of dictator Francisco Franco, outbursts by senior military officers are still a part of the political landscape.

“I cannot imagine a similar situation in a European country other than one like Spain, where the army was in power for so long,” said Paul Preston, an expert on Spanish history at the London School of Economics.

The recent scandal has embarrassed Spain’s Socialist government, though it has played down the officers’ comments as isolated incidents.

A ruling party spokesman blamed the controversy on the opposition Popular Party, saying the motive was political gain. The right-wing party has said the general’s comments were out of line but the logical result of government policies that have raised doubts about Spain’s future as a nation.

“There is absolutely no problem with the military,” Defense Ministry spokesman Luis Cuadrado said. “What is a problem and what wouldn’t happen elsewhere in Europe is that a political party, like the Popular Party, instead of condemning the general’s remarks, tries to use them for political gain.”

The polemic comes amid a bitter debate over the Socialists’ willingness to agree on a new charter for Catalonia, one of the country’s 17 regions, that would grant the powerful region greater self-rule.

The Spanish and Catalan governments insist the charter would help modernize Spain and is not a step toward separatism.

But speaking to fellow officers earlier this month, Lt. Gen. Jose Mena Aguado warned of “serious consequences for the armed forces” if the charter is approved, and hinted at military intervention.

The government arrested the general, then quickly fired him.

Soon another officer, army Capt. Roberto Gonzalez Calderon, warned in an open letter to Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero that the government was ignoring the issue at its peril.

“There is unease both within and outside the armed forces, as could only be the case. Unease over seeing how our Spain is being dismembered,” he wrote in the letter published in the Melilla Hoy newspaper.

Military intervention was not uncommon in Spain during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The most notable case in recent times was Franco’s rebellion in 1936 against the democratic republican government, which touched off the three-year Spanish Civil War. He then ruled Spain, often ruthlessly, between 1939 and his death in 1975.

In 1981, three years after the return to democracy, paramilitary Civil Guards attempted a coup, which was quashed after King Juan Carlos ordered troops back to their barracks.

But Spain’s military has come a long way since then. Today Spain it is a member of NATO, shares bases with U.S. troops and has some 3,000 soldiers on U.N. peace missions abroad.

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