Former members of Spain’s armed forces have published an open letter accusing the country’s Socialist-led minority government of threatening national unity.
The letter signed by 271 officers, including two former lieutenant generals and an admiral, coincided Sunday with the country’s Constitution Day, which marked the 42nd anniversary of a 1978 referendum and was seen as an important step in Spain's transition to democracy following the end of the longtime rule of Gen. Francisco Franco, who died in 1975.
The letter’s publication came just days after dozens of retired air force officers were discovered to have discussed fomenting a coup. In a private chat forum on WhatsApp, they bemoaned the death of Franco, who they dubbed “the irreplaceable one.” The plotters agreed the only remedy for Spain would be “to shoot 26 million” people, but they decided eventually it was not viable.
Defense Minister Margarita Robles asked prosecutors to launch a criminal investigation into the WhatsApp group.
Officers who signed Sunday’s letter distanced themselves from the social media conspirators but echoed many of their complaints about the political direction being taken by Spain. They warned of the “deterioration of our democracy.”
They upbraided the government led by Pedro Sánchez for making concessions to jailed Catalan separatists, saying that the “unity of Spain is in danger.” They accused the government of “granting favors” to unnamed “terrorists,” showing “a lack of respect for the victims.”
The signatories, led by Lt. Gen. Emilio Pérez Alamán, emphasized their fealty to the monarchy and noted that despite being retired, the oath they took while on active duty to defend the territorial integrity of Spain remains alive for them.
Spanish politicians have been downplaying the dissent from retired military officers. Before Sunday’s letter, and in reference to the WhatsApp group, Deputy Prime Minister Pablo Iglesias dismissed their discussions as nostalgia for Franco’s dictatorship.
“What these already retired gentlemen of a certain age say doesn’t represent a threat of any kind,” he told Spanish TV. He added that the officers are failing to understand that they are “making more Spaniards feel republican.”
Iglesias is the leader of the leftist Podemos Party, a member of the Socialist-led government that has had to rely on the support of Basque and Catalan separatist lawmakers.
Many officers and those on Spain’s far right have been increasingly infuriated by the Sánchez government. They were angered by ministers’ decision last year to remove Franco’s body from the Valley of the Fallen, a Catholic basilica and monumental memorial built by the late dictator, to a nondescript cemetery. During a brief reburial ceremony, Franco's grandson draped his grandfather’s coffin in the nationalist flag, despite being barred from doing so by the government.
In September, the government announced plans to ban organizations that glorify the dictator’s legacy, saying the prohibition is necessary to help the country come to terms with its past and the Spanish civil war of the 1930s, that was triggered by a military coup.
Sunday’s letter is the third from military quarters criticizing the government. Two previous letters — the first signed by 39 retired air force officers, and the second by 73 former members of the army — were addressed to King Felipe and to the European Parliament, respectively. Two years ago, 1,000 retired members of Spain’s armed forces signed a document expressing their support for Franco and the 1936 coup he led.
Spain’s chief of the defense staff, Gen. Miguel Villarroya Vilalta, said last week that the WhatsApp group of conspirators and the frequent complaints of retired officers are “damaging the image of the armed forces.”
“The opinions of these individuals cannot be construed as representative of the community that they were once a part of but should be viewed as the opinions of private citizens who have the right to express their views, but not to award themselves representation rights that they do not possess,” he said in a press statement issued last week.
“As military personnel,” he added, “we take an oath promising to defend the constitution, which guides all our actions. One of the consequences of that commitment is the political neutrality of our armed forces.”
Legal experts say that the request by Spain’s defense minister for prosecutors to open an investigation into the WhatsApp group is unlikely to get far, as the remarks were part of private conversations, albeit online. If the officers were still on active duty, they could have been discharged for inappropriate conduct.
Lt. Col. José Ignacio Domínguez, one of the participants in the WhatsApp chat group, told a radio network last week that “there began to be talk (in the chat group) about the possibility of a military uprising supported by the king.” But the group members finally concluded it was not feasible.