Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Torture Tours, Part 3? The Esmeralda Anchors at San Francisco

According to many reliable sources, the handsome Chilean barquentine Esmeralda - the world’s second tallest and second longest sailing ship – became a floating torture center in the aftermath of the 1973 coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende. Internationally, the most notorious case was the disappearance of Anglo-Chilean priest Michael Woodward, whose remains have never been located despite a signed death certificate by a naval hospital physician.

Nearly a score of officers are presently under arrest in the case, which is moving slowly through the Chilean courts, but the navy has never acknowledged responsibility. Like its Argentine counterpart, it was the most hardline of Chile’s armed forces, even if no single individual had the high profile of army General Augusto Pinochet. Its motto continues to be vencer o morir (conquer or die).

Because of that history, the Esmeralda, which serves as a training vessel for naval cadets, often gets an unpleasant reception when it at ports around the world. In fact, on its current tour six-month voyage, its initial North American stop at San Diego drew a small protest. When I went with my Argentine wife (whose sister-in-law was a possible victim of their navy) to see the ship last Saturday at San Francisco’s Pier 27, though, there were long lines but no demonstrators.

There were, of course, security checks in which my small backpack had to stay behind but my wife’s large purse did not. The Chilean crew was courteous and hospitable (only a handful of its more than 350 personnel were present), but the visit itself had two shortcomings: it was limited to the tall ship’s main deck – the interior was off-limits - and there was no historical information whatsoever. There was nothing even about the ship’s origins in Spanish shipyards in 1946, nor its acquisition by the Chileans to offset debts dating from the Spanish Civil War. Unless you already know, you wouldn’t appreciate that the condor on the bowsprit is one symbol, along with the huemul (Andean deer) of Chile‘s coat of arms.

Nobody, of course, expected to find anything about the Esmeralda’s unsavory past under the dictatorship, especially given the judicial investigations currently underway. At the same time, there are indicators that the navy has moved, however slowly, from its traditional conservatism – one of 28 women on board, 22-year-old Francisca Lema is the first female officer to serve on board a Chilean vessel. Until recently, women in the navy were limited to shore duty.

Most visitors to the Esmeralda used their time snapping photos of themselves and their families, along with the crew. At the same time, the crew commercialized the visit by selling bottles of Chilean wine (from the decent but unexceptional Misiones de Rengo label) and bottled pisco sours (definitely inferior to fresh mixed).

The Esmeralda’s next stops are Victoria, British Columbia (August 1-5); Vancouver, British Columbia (August 6-10); and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (August 30-September 3). In Canada, according to the CBC, there are likely to be protests.

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