June 29, marked the 50th anniversary of El Tanquetazo, or Tank Putsch. On that day in 1973, Colonel Roberto Souper laid siege on La Moneda with his tank regiment. He was stopped by pro-Allende forces, but this lesser known coup attempt paved the road for Augusto Pinochet’s military take-over on September 11.
Mid-1973, three years after assuming office as the world’s first democratically chosen Marxist head of state, the government led by President Salvador Allende had hit rock bottom.
The political support for his Marxist reforms had been declining since 1971. Main cause was the deteriorated relationship with the Christian Democrat Party (PDC), the party that allowed him to implement most of his reforms during his first years in office.
With their support, he initially had been able to put an end to the inflation and economic instability that had plagued the country over the last decade. However, tensions between Allende’s Unidad Popular party and the PDC grew in June 1971.
That month saw the assassination of Edmundo Pérez Zujovic, a PDC member and the Interior Minister in the government of Allende’s predecessor Eduardo Frei. Zujovic was murdered by the far-left militia the People’s Organized Vanguard for his alleged involvement in the massacre of Puerto Montt, during which 11 people were killed by Chilean police during an eviction procedure.
The PDC subsequently accused Allende of not being able to control the country’s many leftist revolutionary groups, many of which did not shy away from violence.
A month later, Allende overplayed his hand with the nationalization of the copper industry.
This nationalization was welcomed by many and was unanimously approved in Chile’s congress in July 1971. So far so good. It was during his announcement speech in Rancagua that he committed a mistake. Content with his achievement, Allende did not credit his predecessor, PDC member Eduardo Frei, for his important share in the initiating nationalization process during his presidency. This angered the PDC, and meant an end to the alliance.
Without the PDC’s support, Allende had lost most of his political clout. He now had a minority in the national Congress, meaning that he would have to fight an uphill battle if he wanted to pass new legislation.
At the same time, there were foreign powers at play to undermine his government. It was the height of the Cold War, and the U.S, not happy with an elected Marxist president in their “backyard.” The Nixon Administration spent millions of taxpayer money to spread anti-communist propaganda via Chile’s largest newspapers, and to finance the right-wing paramilitary group Patria y Libertad.
By the end of 1972, Chile’s economic growth was stagnating. People had to wait in queues to buy scarce life essentials, riot’s between leftists groups and right insurgents were everyday’s business, and Allende’s dream of a prosperous Marxist state seemed to have come to an end.
The anti-communist propaganda had taken a toll, both in La Moneda and on the streets, and Unidad Popular had lost most support in the country. Anti-Allende protests, sometimes violent, became a common sight in Santiago’s streets, contributing to a sense of insecurity. Voices in favor of a coup began to grow, especially within the army.
In 1969, the Chilean army had learned that it could achieve changes within the military if it exerted enough pressure on the government. During a short-lived revolt, the Tacnazo, high-ranking army officers succeeded in raising the military budget by 50 percent, in expanding the number of officers and in securing a more important role in the case of civil unrest.
Encouraged by their more prominent role, some army officers started to plan a coup against Allende. However, the plan was discovered by pro-Allende officers before it could be put into action. The nine people involved in the conspiracy were arrested, and the Minister of Defense, José Tohá decided to go public with this information on the afternoon of 28 June.
Upon hearing he could be relieved from his command for his part in the planned coup, Lieutenant Colonel Roberto Souper decided to take action immediately. On the early morning of June 29, 1973, he led his tank regiment to Santiago’s center. At 9 A.M., his soldiers laid siege on the presidential palace at La Moneda and the building of the Ministry of Defense.
Chaos quickly ensued in Santiago. Citizens on their way to their jobs were caught in the crossfire, and several bystanders were wounded or killed. Among them was the Swedish-Argentine journalist Leonardo Henrichsen. They were shot at by Souper’s men while attempting to film a report about the coup attempt. Henrischsen was fatally hit, and died instantly.
In the meantime, Chile’s army commanders were informed about the ongoing situation. The Commander-in-Chief, General Carlos Prats, came up with a plan to neutralize Souper’s forces. In order to suppress the coup attempt he needed as many loyal soldiers as possible. Not knowing how deep the conspiracy to overthrow Allende’s government went, he decided to visit all the nearby military regiments around Santiago to secure their support.
By 10.30 A.M, several combat-ready units led by Prats headed towards La Moneda. He wanted to prevent a direct confrontation in Santiago’s center, and the many military and civilian casualties it would demand. The Commander-in-Chief therefore attempted to convince the rebelling soldiers to lay down their weapons and surrender.
Prats managed to individually convince most of the tank-commanders involved to stand down. Others fled the scene after the arrival of a back-up infantry regiment, led by then general Augusto Pinochet.
By 11.30 A.M, the gunfire had subsided and the coup attempt seemed to have been prevented. Lieutenant Colonel Souper surrendered later that day. In the aftermath, it became clear that the CIA-backed militant group Patria y Libertad had been the instigator of what later became known as the Tank Putsch, or El Tanquetazo. It’s leaders thereafter fled the country.
Although El Tanquetazo failed, it enabled the coup plotters to assess the army’s loyalties, the government’s response, and to test the theory that armed citizens would prevent a military takeover.
To restore political stability, the PDC demanded Allende form a coalition cabinet with the military involved. Allende rejected the proposal.
In August 1973, Allende appointed Carlos Prats, the hero of June 29, as the new Minister of Defense. However, this move triggered opposition from civilians and the armed forces. Prats had to resign, leaving Augusto Pinochet in charge.
By September, Chile was in economic ruins and internationally isolated. The USSR had seceded support of Allende, and continuous effort by the U.S. to destabilize Allende’s government greatly amplified the economic turmoil. Unidad Popular never managed to rebuild a stable coalition, and right-wing sentiment within Chilean society kept growing.
Realizing how dire the situation was, Allende planned to hold a referendum on the continuity of his presidency. During a staff meeting on September 10, he told his close friends about his plan for a plebiscite. “If I lose I’ll leave,” Allende allegedly said.
It would never come that far. A day later, Allende’s Unidad Popular government was overthrown by Commander-in-Chief Pinochet. Allende himself never saw the end of that day. Unwilling to surrender, he died in La Moneda, presumably by suicide.
Matthijs is a newly graduated journalism student from Groningen, the Netherlands. As a starting journalist and aspiring foreign correspondent, he decided to extend his 6-month university exchange in Chile to do an internship at Chile Today. He enjoys writing about a broad range of topics, but international relations, politics and conflicts are his key interests.