Ship Brings Peace, And Chile's Grim History, To Port

Originally published on July 16, 2011 7:17 pm

A tall ship from Chile, the Esmeralda, is touring the West Coast of the United States this month. It's intended as a peaceful naval ambassador, but it's stirring dark feelings about Chile's history. The ship pulled into port in San Diego this week.

The Esmeralda is the second-longest and second-tallest in the world, with a pristine white hull, brass portholes and four masts topped with Chilean flags. Onboard, a sailor sells Chilean wine.

"[It] kind of reminds me of the Titanic," tourist Alex Rios says. "That old feeling to it, you know."

"We are promoting Chile to the world," sailor Marlon Alacron says. "Every city we reach, we have to promote Chile." The ship has called into 60 countries during the past 50 years.

The Chilean Navy uses the vessel for training and as a roving ambassador. But for some, the Esmeralda is a painful reminder of Chile's dark past. In 1973, Maria Comene was held as a political prisoner on the ship for 10 days.

"It is a bad boat," Comene says. "A boat where blood was spilled."

Back then, Gen. Augusto Pinochet had just overthrown Chile's president, Salvador Allende. Pinochet's forces swept through the country to detain all of Allende's supporters, and Comene was one of them.

She says when she arrived on the boat, sailors sexually assaulted her as they searched for weapons. The sailors hit the women and tortured the men.

"They'd come back really bad, vomiting blood, bruised all over," she says. "Their blood is still there on the Esmeralda. And our dreams were broken on the Esmeralda. It is a boat that doesn't deserve to be an ambassador," she says.

Chile's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Amnesty International have documented more than 100 cases of torture aboard the Esmeralda.

The victims recounted beatings, death threats and electric shocks to their genitals.

Alex Taylor, Amnesty International's Chile expert, says it is high time for the Navy to admit what it did.

"You cannot have reconciliation unless you take some steps to deal with it. You have to heal the wounds, but you cannot heal the wounds if you just tell people to forgive and forget," Taylor says.

But the ship's captain, William Corthorn Rodriguez, says no one was tortured.

"Our work isn't to go around worrying about what happened in Chile so many years ago. It is to look towards the future," he says.

Some of Chile's torture victims, and Amnesty International, say truly looking forward would mean teaching the world about the dark chapter in Chile's history, and showing how the country has moved on. They want the Navy to create a memorial aboard the Esmeralda.

Since 1974, protesters have come out to meet the Esmeralda at dozens of ports worldwide. Human-rights activists plan to gather onshore next weekend during the Esmeralda's stop in San Francisco.

Back aboard the ship in San Diego Harbor, Rios says she didn't know about the Esmeralda's past. "Wow," she says. "Now that you mention it, maybe I will go home and Google it."

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SCOTT SIMON: Further down the 405 in San Diego, a Chilean tall ship called the Esmeralda pulled into port earlier this week. The Chilean Navy uses the vessel for training and it's also become something of a floating ambassador - having visited over 300 ports across the world. But, for some, the Esmeralda is a painful reminder of Chile's dark past. Amy Isackson has more.

AMY ISACKSON: The ship is majestic. The Esmeralda has a pristine white steel hull. It's the second longest and second tallest ship in the world. Chilean flags wave gently from its four masts. The brass portholes gleam in San Diego's afternoon sun.

ALEX RIOS: It kind of reminds me of the Titanic.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RIOS: That old feeling to it, you know.

ISACKSON: Alex Rios toured the Esmeralda this week when the crew lowered the gangplank and invited San Diegans aboard. The ship has called in to in 60 countries during the last 50 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE TALKING)

ISACKSON: Onboard, Sailor Marlon Alacron, mans a table and sells Chilean wine.

MARLON ALACRON: We are promoting Chile to the world. And every city we reach, we have to promote Chile.

ISACKSON: But many think that rather than promote Chile, the Esmeralda represents the country's stained past.

MARIA COMENE: (Foreign language spoken)

TRANSLATOR: It is a bad boat. A boat where blood was spilled.

ISACKSON: In 1973, Maria Comene was held as a political prisoner on the ship for 10 days. General Augusto Pinochet had just overthrown Chile's president, Salvador Allende. Pinochet's forces swept through the country to detain all of Allende's supporters, Comene was one of them. She says when she arrived on the boat, sailors sexually assaulted her as they searched for weapons. She says the sailors hit the women and tortured the men.

COMENE: (Foreign language spoken)

RIOS: They'd come back really bad, vomiting blood, bruised all over. And their blood is still there on the Esmeralda. And our dreams were broken on the Esmeralda. It is a boat that doesn't deserve to be an ambassador.

ISACKSON: Chile's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Amnesty International have documented more than 100 cases of torture aboard the Esmeralda. The victims detailed beatings, death threats and electric shocks to their genitals. Alex Taylor is Amnesty International's Chile expert. He says it is high time for the navy to admit what it did.

ALEX TAYLOR: You cannot have reconciliation unless you take some steps to deal with it. You have to heal the wounds, but you cannot heal the wounds if you just tell people to forgive and forget.

ISACKSON: But the ship's captain, William Corthorn Rodriguez, denies that there is anything to admit.

WILLIAM CORTHORN RODRIGUEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

TRANSLATOR: On this boat, no one was tortured.

ISACKSON: Corthorn says those were difficult times for his country.

CORTHORN RODRIGUEZ: 2: Our work isn't to go around worrying about what happened in Chile so many years ago. It is to look towards the future.

ISACKSON: Some of Chile's torture victims, and Amnesty International, say truly looking forward would mean teaching the world about the dark chapter in Chile's history, and showing how the country has moved on. They want the Navy to create a memorial aboard the Esmeralda.

(SOUNDBITE OF VOICES)

ISACKSON: Back aboard the ship in San Diego Harbor, Alex Rios says she didn't know about the Esmeralda's past.

RIOS: Wow. Now that you mention it, maybe I will go home and Google it.

ISACKSON: Since 1974, protesters have come out to meet the Esmeralda at dozens of ports worldwide. Human-rights activists plan to gather onshore next weekend during the Esmeralda's stop in San Francisco. For NPR News, I'm Amy Isackson in San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.