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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

LA ESMERALDA: A Beautiful Lady of Dubious Repute

She is known as the White Lady,  La Esmeralda, a stately four-masted barquentine, pride of the Chilean Navy. But a shady past has marked her with a blemish she can’t seem to live down.

She was built in Cadiz, Spain in 1946 and was to become Spain’s national training ship but due to several explosions at the shipyards, work was halted and eventually she was sold to Chile to help pay off debts incurred as a result of the Spanish Civil War.  She was officially launched in 1953, making her maiden voyage to the Canary Islands, then New Orleans, proceeding through the Panama Canal to a welcoming fanfare at the Chilean port of Valparaiso, on September 1, 1954.  Esmeralda is now a training ship for the Chilean Navy, visiting ports worldwide as a floating embassy for Chile.

Unfortunately Esmeralda’s reputation was sullied during the infamous Augusto Pinochet regime from 1973 to 1980 when she was used as a floating jail and torture chamber for political prisoners. Consequently these days when she sails into port, crowds of protesters – political groups and Chilean exiles –gather demanding retribution in the form of a formal apology from the Chilean government.

I was invited aboard La Esmeralda for a reception ,”Flavours of Chile”, presented by the Chilean Trade Commissioner.  At the time I had no idea of the ship’s dark history but it made my visit somewhat more meaningful, because I wanted to learn more and see the ship for myself.  I expected to find the wharf crowded with protesters but when I arrived there were none.  I was greeted aboard by a couple of handsome young officers and from there directed to the reception area on the deck where tables of various Chilean wines were offered as samples as well as the plates of delicious Chilean appetizers brought around by the stewards.

The ship itself truly is a beauty, a four-masted tall ship, one of the tallest and longest ships in the world. She has a crew of 300 sailors and 90 midshipmen, 46 of them women.   Marcia, one of the lovely young female officers, took my friend and I around on a tour of the deck area, and explained the functions of the various pieces of equipment on board.  The ship is spotless, the wooden decks polished and unmarred, the brass fittings shining in the afternoon sun.  She pointed out the 21 sails and explained how every morning at 6 a.m. the trainees must climb to the top of the centre mast. If they falter or make a mistake they must do it again at noon. And if they make a bad error they must climb it again and again to get it right.  She showed us the tasks she is responsible for every day as well as climbing up to secure the sails, although being a tall girl she only has to go part way up to do that.  The shorter crew members are the ones who climb to the very top,  a daunting job that not many people would have the courage to participate in.

None of these young trainees and likely many of the senior crew would not have been born at the time of Pinochet’s brutal regime when the atrocities were carried out on board the ship.  In fact, there were no ‘bad vibes’ aboard, only the friendly smiling crew who mingled with the guests and greeted us all with Chilean warmth.  I wonder if the Chilean navy placed a memorial plaque on board, recognizing what had happened in Esmeralda’s past, if it would be atonement enough.   But for those who had suffered torture or had loved ones die aboard her, the stigma will remain, and it’s a staunch reminder that political prisoner abuse and torture are not things of the past.

Author's note:  I was informed of the tragedies that happened during the junta in Chile by a Chilean friend who managed to survive it and came to Canada as an exile.  I was thinking of him as I toured La Esmeralda.  In his memory, and for all the others who were victims of Pinochet's cruel regime, here is a poem I wrote dedicated to my friend Anibal, who died of cancer October 28, 2005

a poem for Anibal

I sat at your feet
a disciple at the feet of the Master
I listened to your stories
of shanty towns, poverty
President Allende dying in his bombed-out palace
Victor Jara, the musician/poet,
his hands crushed,
beaten to death in the Stadium
because he sang for the people.
I learned about social injustice
from you.
You taught me well.
Urged by your political passion
I joined marches,
raised my voice with the populace:
Peace, not War!
You captivated me,
I was your willing audience.
Your smile lit up my world
like a blaze of Chilean sun.
I absorbed every story you told.
Hundreds of Chileans died, you said,
tortured, beaten,
some dropped from helicopters into the sea.
Thousands disappeared.
You were imprisoned,
Ran for your life across the mountains
into Argentina
disguised as a priest.
Over glasses of Chilean wine
red as blood
you told how you had to flee again,
this time on a plane bound for Canada.
I shared your anguish
though I could never truly experience your pain.
Exiled, torn from your roots
like a tree blown down in a fierce storm
this tempestuous life of yours
enveloped me,
I was swept into the vortex of your melancholy,
submerged under the waves of your nostalgia,
drowned in the sea of your despair.

Memorial Wall to the Disappeared of the Pinochet regime,  Grand Cemetary, Santiago, Chile

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