The Spanish military's makeover

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.

The armed forces had played an instrumental role in maintaining domestic order under Franco. As democracy took root, they began contributing to stability abroad. The country joined NATO, and Spanish officials worked together with military officials from the United States and European countries.

In the last 20 years, Spain has participated, with more than 100,000 troops, in more than 50 international peace missions. Data provided by the Ministry of Defense show it currently has units in Somalian waters (395 troops), Bosnia-Herzegovina (580), Kosovo (1250), Afghanistan (1087), Chad (100) and Lebanon (1100), as well as observers in various U.N. missions.

Congressional authorization of Spanish troop participation in international missions became law in 2005 in a move to prevent involvement of the armed forces in unpopular operations like the Iraq War. In December 2008, the government announced that it would no longer cap the number of Spanish troops abroad at any given time at 3,000.

The end of compulsory service for men in 2001 improved the image of the military, particularly among youth. Professional troops would from then on join the Armed Forces following a calling, not an obligation. But this also resulted in recruitment difficulties, as most young people found soldiers’ low salaries and short professional careers unappealing.

The Ministry of Defense launched ad campaigns focusing on the armed forces’ humanitarian work. Images on TV showed soldiers abroad distributing food, helping a little girl in school or a military doctor tending a patient.

The objective was to draw recruits, although critics complained the spots projected an erroneous, “non-governmental-organization” image of the military. Mariano Casado, secretary general of AUME, an association of military personnel, thinks such campaigns sometimes portray an idyllic, non-belligerent image that does not correspond with reality. Soldiers work in a complicated, unsafe environment where they carry weapons and are killed, he said.

But the number of applicants has significantly increased, with 78,575 in 2008, up from 43,036 in 2007. This was partly due to the economic crisis, which resulted in a dramatic rise in unemployment in Spain.

Some of these soldiers are foreigners. Citizens from Spanish Latin American countries and Equatorial Guinea, because of their historical relationship with Spain, can join the Spanish troops. They currently represent close to 7 percent of the Armed Forces. Foreigners cannot hold positions of command.

There are no restrictions on military participation for women. They have been in the Spanish military for more than 20 years, and now make up 12.3 percent of the forces. They can hold any assignment or position. In last year’s class of combat aircraft pilots, the best-performing pilot was a woman. Presently, women represent 5.6 percent of military officials, with major the highest rank.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero aimed to inject innovation into the miliary when he picked Carme Chacon, a woman who was 7-months pregnant at the time, as his minister of defense. At 37, she was also the youngest defense minister ever.

AUME would like to see more transformations. They demand changes such as the elimination of military courts and a law of rights and duties of military personnel that would articulate, among other things, freedom of association and freedom of speech.

"We have come very far very fast," Defense Minister Chacon said to ABC, adding, "Statistics show six out of 10 Spaniards identify with the Armed Forces. My job is that they are 10 out of 10."

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