Your NPR news source

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

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

Chileans affectionately refer to the Esmeralda as “The White Lady,” but human-rights advocates say the ship’s history is stained. Activists say for true reconciliation, the Chilean Navy must acknowledge the ship’s past.

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.”

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


The Latest
It’s election day, and hundreds of teens are serving as election judges. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments today in a case that could impact more than one million student people in Illinois with college debt. Local groups are stepping up to provide shelter for asylum seekers arriving in Chicago.