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The elephant at the cocktail party

NOW and again, a story comes along that lets a council reporter step away for a moment from the usual business of local government - development proposals, tree bylaws, dog licences, et cetera.

NOW and again, a story comes along that lets a council reporter step away for a moment from the usual business of local government - development proposals, tree bylaws, dog licences, et cetera.

The arrival of the Chilean navy ship Esmeralda in North Vancouver was one of those stories for me.

The basics of what happened on board that ship in the early 1970s aren't really a matter of debate. More than 100 political prisoners, real or perceived enemies of Chile's new military dictatorship, were dragged onto the ship without trial. Most if not all were beaten, raped, electrocuted or otherwise tortured. Exactly who administered the torture is a question that a Chilean court is still working on, although I think it's absurd to suggest such a thing could happen aboard a military vessel following a military coup without the direct involvement of the military.

The City of North Vancouver's council twice wrestled with whether or not to formally welcome the ship. Lead by Coun. Craig Keating, the anti-greeters argued that the Chilean navy has not formally admitted the atrocities committed aboard the Esmeralda. Only a week or so earlier, said Keating, the ship's skipper, Captain William Corthorn, denied in an interview on National Public Radio that any torture took place.

The greeters shot back that the Chilean government has documented what happened and that it's splitting hairs to separate the navy's position from the government's. Lastly, they said, who the hell are we to wring our hands over decades-old human rights abuses? Canadian history is littered with institutionalized racism, kidnapping, physical and sexual abuse, and full-blown genocide. Today, Chile is a democratic ally of Canada.

The greeters won a narrow vote.

Later, I listened to the NPR piece on the Internet, and I must say it wasn't the smoking gun Keating suggested it was. Corthorn's comment was a very brief quote fragment - in Spanish with an English translation dubbed over it. I'm left basically having to trust that the journalists at NPR translated the captain's remarks accurately and used them in their proper context.

The best thing to do, I decided, would be to ask the man myself.

Unfortunately, the Chilean navy wasn't granting interviews and the consulate wasn't returning my calls. But by employing some - ahem - unconventional means, I talked my way into the Chilean ambassador's reception, held onboard the Esmeralda a few hours after protestors had departed from the pier.

It was obvious from the moment I set foot on the gangplank that the ship's voyages are as much an exercise in public relations as they are in naval training.

In port, the Esmeralda is a party boat. The crew of attractive young people in resplendent white uniforms is clearly just as well-drilled at tending bar, hustling hors d'oeuvres and dancing with the guests as they are hauling sheets and polishing brasswork. Pins and even navy caps were offered as souvenirs. Chile's famous wines flowed.

After circulating around for a while, I introduced myself to Captain Corthorn. We talked about how beautiful his ship was, the romance of sailing, and the character-building effects of training officers on an antique vessel. I'll be honest: I love sailing ships.

I asked him if it was upsetting to see protesters greet his ship with banners with words like torture and rape and murder on them.

"Everyone has an opinion," he replied cautiously.

OK then, straight question: Was anyone ever tortured aboard this ship?

"I couldn't tell you," he said. "It's not my business. Sailing the ship is my business."

Another naval captain, the Chilean defence attaché in fact, came over to assist his comrade. Military officers have very strictly defined roles, he said, and neither he nor Corthorn had any opinions they weren't ordered to have.

I pressed them some more, tried questions blunt and oblique, but they wouldn't shift a millimetre from their know-no-evil position. I got the sense this was a dance they were very, very familiar with.

I was disappointed but not really surprised at the captains' refusal to say anything. Perhaps, I thought, I might have more luck with some younger sailors.

When I approached them, they were all very willing to strike up a conversation with me, but as soon as I brought the topic to the protests and the torture, every one of them either suddenly forgot a large chunk of their English or remembered they had something vitally important to do in another part of the ship.

"I just can't talk about it," said one young woman, obviously annoyed with me.

Had they been ordered not to talk about it?

"It's just not why we're here," she said testily.

Keating was right. The navy won't talk about it. But on my last lap around the deck, I got to talking with a member of the ship's band. He was 25, recently married, and very homesick. We had a jocular chat about soccer, women, seasickness, and life on board the Esmeralda.

When I swung once again to the protests, his shoulders sagged and he nodded glumly.

Did he think the ship had been used for torture after the coup? He looked me in the eye and kept nodding.

"We all know," he said, and pointed his chin toward the ongoing gaiety in the stern.

"Everybody knows, but . . ." He shrugged eloquently.

I felt bad for him. He had to live and work in what he knew had once been a house of horrors. But there was no way for him to undo that; he hadn't even been alive when these horrors happened. Far easier to put it out of his mind, especially when that's clearly what his superiors expected.

But there's something else I took away from the ship's visit. Loitering around the protests earlier that day, I watched the two young female officers guarding the access to the pier.

As the signs came out and the chanting started, they watched intently.

Uncomfortable expressions played across their faces. Maybe something was registering.

I recalled Corthorn telling me of his trips aboard the Esmeralda as a young ensign during the Pinochet era.

Maybe among one of the young people who visited North Vancouver is a future captain or admiral, an officer brave enough to speak plainly about the past and exorcise the ghosts of the Esmeralda.

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