Spain's Looming Military

Madrid—The Spanish armed forces, no longer a military monolith, may become the arbiter of Spain’s political future in the crisis following Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s latest serious illness and probable disappearance from the national scene. Until recently, it was generally assumed that the military, acting together, would guarantee a reasonably smooth transition from Franco to Prince Juan Carlos, his 37- year-old designated successor, under the provisions of the Succession Law, which calls for the restoration of a monarchy upon Franco’s death or retirement.

However as I discovered here the week of Franco’s first heart attack—these old assumptions may have already been overwhelmed by events, leaving the role of the Spanish military a major question. One important factor is the rapidly growing strength of the clandestine Democratic Military Union (UMD), an organization of young anti-regime officers who want Spain to become a Western democracy after 36 years of uncontested dictatorial rule.

From contacts with the UMD, I obtained copies of the Union’s internal documents—including the statement of its political and military objectives—that reflect the thinking of the young officers, and suggest their probable course of action.

UMD’s existence has been known for some time and at least 13 officers have been under detention since late July because they are linked to the Union. The regime has not mentioned the UMD in connection with the arrests—the last three were made in Barcelona in midOctober (an Air Force captain defected in Paris the same week and held a news conference denouncing Franco)—confining official announcements to charges of seditious activities by the Union’s officers.

This is, then, the first time that the UMD’s secret documents have been publicly detailed. The best available estimate is that about 600 officers are involved with the UMD. This is only slightly more than one percent of the Spanish officer corps, but UMD members are placed in strategic staff and command positions. The Union’s influence, therefore, transcends its numbers.

When the UMD was secretly constituted last January, it did not plan to carry out a coup d’etat, as the Portuguese “Movement of Captains” (later transformed into the Armed Forces Movement) had done in April, ’74. Instead the Union, believing that the death or resignation of the 82-year-old Franco was not far off, chose to concentrate on preparations for the transition period. Its activities were concealed behind a network of “study groups” which, ostensibly, centered on the professional problems of the military. The Union’s real aim, however, was to create conditions that would prevent the military establishment from assuring the perpetuation of a dictatorial regime in Spain under Juan Carlos as king. When Juan Carlos was designated Franco’s successor in 1969, he swore allegiance to the “principles” of the National Movement, Spain’s only legal political organization, controlled by the Francoist bureaucracy, indicating that basically the old system would be continued under the protection of the military and the powerful police forces.

But the UMD has a different vision of a new Spain. The Union’s political objectives are listed in its Ideario (statement of ideas) circulated throughout the officer corps since January. The Ideario states that a “complete divorce exists between the real Spain and the totalitarian system,” which seeks to use the armed forces as the “guardian of the interests of the present regime, and not of the Spanish people.” It emphasizes the UMD’s belief that the armed forces should be placed “exclusively at the service of the people, recovering its prestige and dignity.” The document affirms that the UMD, based on “all the professional cadres of the armed forces,” rules out the participation of politicians linked either to the governmg/it or to the opposition. Professionally, the document says, membership in the Union requires the rejection of “comfortable” assignments; its officers should seek to be attached tO; operational units and the command of troops. On the national level, it adds, UMD officers “will assume the responsibility of acquiring a profound political conscience, aware of the risks presently implicit in it.” The document then lists the UMD’s five political objectives:

“1. Full restoration of human rights and democratic freedoms and, consequently, the proclamation of a total amnesty for all citizens (civilian and military) who have been punished for defending these rights.

2. Social-economic reforms leading to an equitable distribution of (national) wealth, recognizing the right of workers to all their freedoms such as the freedom to strike and direct and freely organize their own unions.

3. Recognition, on all territorial and institutional levels, of the right to democratically elect the leaders and create the form of government … that is judged the most adequate, but without undermining the integrity of the Spanish state.

4. To combat, with the greatest energy, prevailing corruption established by the regime, until its total … eradication.

5. The convening of a democratically elected Constituent Assembly to draft a Constitution for Spain that would allow us to become integrated again in Western Europe.” J.

THE IDÉARIO ALSO CALLS for a reorganization of the armed forces under a unified defense ministry and a new system of military justice.

The UMD has a generally leftist orientation, to judge from its original manifesto, entitled “Where Are the Captains?” The manifesto charges that the regime “misled us in our young years with [its] imperialist ideas … [it] delivered the country to the power of multinational companies and to the North American capitalist empire.” However the Union claims to believe in political pluralism. It takes the view that free political parties should replace the present system to decide Spain’s future “along the path of freedom.” At that time, it says, the army will return to its barracks “to fulfill the mission that corresponds to it in a society in an advanced phase of development.”

With the impending end of the Franco regime, the UMD may soon find itself in direct conflict with the old military establishment over how the succession will work out. Under the law, the hand-picked Cortes (parliament) and the Council of the Realm, a figurehead group, has eight days from Franco’s death or resignation to confirm Juan Carlos as chief of state and name him king. Franco’s assumption had always been that the armed forces and the police would assure a peaceful transition in cooperation with the premier, a post now held by Carlos Arias Navarro. Those eight days could prove to be critical for Spain—and are unpredictable.


THE ARMED FORCES are headed by generals and admirals, most of them of extreme rightist persuasion, who were picked by Franco for their loyalty to him and his regime. Most of them were his Civil war companions. On October 11, Franco reshuffled the top commands in an apparent effort to bolster the military establishment following the tensions that had arisen in the wake of the execution, late in September, of five men charged with killing members of the Guardia Civil, the 40,000-man national paramilitary police. Lt. Gen. Angel Campano, an ultra rightist who signed the death warrants, was transferred from his post as commander of the Madrid military region to become head of the Guardia Civil, regarded by many as the mainstay of the regime. Lt. Gen. Jose Vega Rodriguez was relieved of the command of the Guardia Civil because of his alleged liberal sympathies. Lt. Gen. Felix Alvarez Arenas, another top Franco loyalist, was brought from the southern military region in Sevilla to take over the Madrid region, the most important in the country. Three days later, a group of top military commanders issued a public statement assuring Franco and the regime of the armed forces’ loyalties.

Some political observers in Madrid believe that this was done to counter the UMD’s growing influence and the spreading unhappiness in the armed forces. It is no secret that many army officers resented the fact that Franco had ordered the military to hold courts-martial of Basque separatist and leftist revolutionaries charged with the killing of Guardia Civil and regular police officials. The trials wholly lacked due process, with the defense unable to present its case adequately. As one officer remarked privately, “these people were terrorists and should have been tried, but the army doesn’t want to do Franco’s dirty work at this stage in the political situation.” Another element in the dissatisfaction of many young officers was that in the latest round of appointments Franco failed to promote to lieutenant general one of the most promising senior officers of the new generation, Maj. Gen. Manuel Gutierrez Mellado, who is known to have friends among liberals and has been pushing for reforms in the armed forces. One of the UMD’s complaints is that Franco had been consistently bypassing highly educated and modern-minded officers in favor of his political friends in the armed forces.

Conditions, therefore, exist for a confrontation within the military over succession. If Juan Carlos and Premier Arias decide to cast their lot with the old Francoist commanders, the confrontation could become serious, polarizing the armed forces and much of the nation. Some officers believe, however, that Juan Carlos, who is aware of the UMD, may seek a compromise during the transition period, perhaps bringing to the fore Lt. Gen. Manuel Diez Alegria whom Franco dismissed last year as chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces because of his liberal views. Premier Arias, whose efforts earlier this year to grant Spain a modicum of political liberalization were sabotaged by Franco, might likewise choose a compromise that would defuse a confrontation.

But a compromise with the UMD and other liberals would require the acceptance of their demands that, in effect, the Franco state be dismantled altogether as part of the succession, that free elections be called, and that the one-party state be ended. This, in turn, would pose grave difficulties for Juan Carlos and Arias because of the inevitable pressures from still powerful ultra conservative elements, including the Guardia Civil. The political conflict, then, would deepen, presumably bringing into the picture such opposition elements as the clandestine labor unions, in which Communists and Socialists are extremely strong.

Even if the succession crisis is further delayed— Spaniards remember that last year Franco resumed power after handing it over briefly to Juan Carlos as the result of illness—tensions in Spain are certain to keep rising. Anti-police terrorism by the Basques and militants of the FRAP (Revolutionary anti-Fascist Popular Front) has already claimed 10 more lives of policemen and Civil Guards since the September executions—there have been 28 such murders this year—and the regime appears determined to proceed with new trials and possibly new executions. There is no question that, despite mounting opposition. Franco, if not the regime, still commands considerable popular support. Polarization, therefore, tends to grow.

From the military viewpoint. King Hassan’s decision to send 350,000 unarmed Moroccans into the sands of the Spanish Sahara to prevent an independence referendum—Morocco has claims on this phosphate’srich territory—may restore some cohesion to the armed forces. Spain maintains about 25,000 troops in the Sahara; a war with the Moroccans might help to coalesce patriotic sentiments around Franco and Juan Carlos. Much will depend on whether the Sahara crisis is resolved in some manner before the succession struggle breaks wide open.

All things considered, there seems to be little doubt that the Spanish armed forces—and the Democratic Military Union—will, in the end, play a decisive role in determining where Spain goes after Franco.

This article originally ran in the November 1, 1975 issue of the magazine.