Catalans hold independence flags (Estelada) on Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes during celebrations of Catalonia National Day (Diada) in Barcelona, Sept. 11, 2014, (QUIQUE GARCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

Spain's army chief has waded into the growing storm over Catalonia's secession bid from Madrid. Chief of the General Staff Jaime Domínguez Buj likened the current state of affairs in the country to Spain's losses more than a century ago during the Spanish-American War.

"When the metropolis is weak," Dominguez said, "the collapse happens."

By metropolis, he is using a term popular among academics for the center of political and colonial power in an empire. When the conflict with the U.S. ended in 1898, Spain had lost its hold over Cuba, the Philippines, and Guam, some of its last prized imperial possessions. The defeat was a traumatic blow to Spanish prestige.

Dominguez went on, insisting his army "is prepared to intervene at home or abroad, to go to Afghanistan or Valencia" to uphold the Spanish Constitution. Valencia is a city and region along Spain's Mediterranean coast, south of Catalonia.

The army chief's comments have furrowed brows, with even a spokesman from the ruling Popular Party calling them "difficult to understand." Catalonia, a northeastern region with its own distinct language and identity, has never been a Spanish colony. Its secessionist movement has gained momentum in recent years, culminating in the region's attempt to stage a referendum on the question of independence earlier this month.

More than two million Catalonians voted in the plebiscite on Nov. 9 in what was a symbolic, non-binding poll that Madrid refused to recognize. The overwhelming majority opted for independence.

The Spanish government insists that the people in the region do not have a right to self-determination. It has also dismissed overtures from Catalan leader Artur Mas to have a constructive dialogue about figuring out a path by which Catalonia, home to one-fifth of the Spanish economy, can determine its own political destiny.

On Tuesday, Spain's state prosecutor even filed a suit against Mas for helping stage the symbolic plebiscite.

The Spanish army, of course, has a troubled past in Catalonia. Under the dictatorship of military strongman Francisco Franco, the Catalan language was barred from schools, the use of Catalan names was prohibited, and local Catalan traditions were suppressed.

Times, of course, have changed greatly since Franco's death and the advent of Spanish democracy. But the army chief's remarks likely won't help patch up the divide between Barcelona and Madrid.