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The Spanish military's makeover

Spain's military makes a dramatic turnaround from its days as the enforcer of Franco's dictatorship.

Spain's soldiers take part in a military parade during Spain's National Day in Madrid, Oct. 12, 2008. (Juan Medina/Reuters)

MADRID — All Spaniards older than 40 remember what they were doing the day General Francisco Franco died in November 1975. Then for years after that day, a pack of generals and officers instilled an air of uncertainty in the country — one of the dictator's many legacies.

Yet today the armed forces are Spain's most highly valued institution, well above the courts, Congress and Senate, according to a recent Center for Sociological Studies survey. The military's democratization and modernization in the last three decades have created a complete reversal in public perception.

“The armed forces have gone from being feared to being admired in only one generation,” declared Defense Minister Carme Chacon to the Spanish daily ABC.

Large piles of pending cases in Spanish courts and some controversial judicial decisions have eroded Spaniards' trust in their justice system. Relentless unemployment and a constant tension between political parties that accuse each other of not knowing how to solve the economic crisis feed citizens' disengagement with their political class.

Now that they are no longer enforcers of Franco's oppressive regime, the armed forces play the part of international peacekeepers. It is not a role they simply fell into though, but rather one they carved out for themselves by refusing to take the part in potential coups and helping ensure a transition to democracy.

It was in 1936 that Franco led a military uprising against Spain’s democratically elected government. He won the Spanish Civil War three years later and then for 36 years led a right-wing dictatorship that executed and imprisonned thousands before he died from illness.

Franco designated King Juan Carlos as his successor, a move many in Spain feared would mean a continuation of the dictatorship. The king embraced democracy, but he — and the military commanders who had been loyal to Franco — had to prove he meant it.

“The armed forces were a pillar of Franco’s regime, they were used to having an important political role. Accepting democracy takes some time,” said Jose Luis Rodriguez Jimenez, a professor of contemporary history at King Juan Carlos University.

Yet the military was willing to accept King Juan Carlos as the head of the armed forces, and to follow his decisions, Rodriguez said.

Tension in the Spanish military rose as the group ETA intensified its bloody fight for the independence of the Basque region, killing more than 200 armed forces members and civilians in three years in the late 1970s.

There were frequent rumors of military coups in the first years of democracy — rumors that turned out to be true in 1981 when men in uniform stormed Congress in a right-wing coup attempt. The image of General Gutierrez Mellado, a government member at the time, standing his ground against the seditious men is indelible in the minds of many Spaniards.

The majority of the armed forces did not support the rebellion. Thirty people — 29 military plus one civilian — were tried and sentenced to prison. The attempt’s failure served as a vaccine against military coups, analysts say. “Rumors of military takeovers stopped in the mid-1980s,” Rodriguez said.