Chilean torture ship visit ignites protest in North Vancouver

Pinochet-era floating prison to dock here Friday

WHEN the Chilean naval training ship Esmeralda ties up at the City of North Vancouver's pier Aug. 5, it will bring with it painful memories and complicated emotions for the North Shore's Chilean community.

Known as the White Lady, the four-masted barquentine is the second-largest sailing vessel in the world and an undeniably beautiful ship, but it carries with it a horrific past. Following the military coup in Chile in 1973, the Esmeralda was used as a floating prison and torture chamber by the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Amnesty International, the U.S. Senate and Chile's own investigations have concluded there were more than 100 cases of imprisonment without trial, beatings, torture and sexual assault on board. A priest, Michael Woodward, is believed to have been tortured to death on the Esmeralda.

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Protests have dogged the ship on its training voyages over the years, most recently in Victoria, where the city council called on senior government to deny the ship entry to the harbour.

On July 18, with several councillors absent, the City of North Vancouver's council passed a motion to deny the Esmeralda the formal welcome usually extended to foreign naval vessels. Sponsoring the resolution, Coun. Craig Keating argued that while the Chilean government acknowledges what happened aboard the ship, its navy has not. Furthermore, said Keating, the current captain denied any torture took place onboard during a recent interview in San Diego.

A week later, the full City of North Vancouver council reversed the decision. Coun. Bob Fearnley said none of the cadets aboard were even alive in the early '70s and argued the Chilean navy had come to terms with the Esmeralda's history. Other councillors noted that Canada has yet to fully grapple with shameful passages in its own history, and pointed out that the mayor and several councillors - including Keating - have made official visits to China, a country with a long record of human rights abuses.

Mayor Darrell Mussatto, who opposed the formal greeting, said he would perform his duties as mayor but added he would raise his concerns with the Esmeralda's captain in private.

The change of city policy shocked Juan Carlos Paez, who fled the Pinochet regime in the 1980s and is now the owner of Lonsdale Avenue restaurant La Zuppa.

"I had to do something," he said. "I am getting some people together to go and demonstrate against what happened. I don't know how many people I'll get but I will be there. They shouldn't have reversed it. They should have kept it the way it was before. You have to put those people in jail; then there can be reconciliation. Those people on the boat, their names come out as victims of torture, but the people who tortured them are still free."

Paez's close friend Claudio Vidal was director of Chile's national archives in 1973. As it happened, he was in London on business when the coup occurred and wasn't allowed to return to his homeland. Vidal's mother was a prominent member of parliament and an ally of deposed President Salvador Allende, who was killed during the coup. As a result, many of Vidal's family members were imprisoned and tortured. His uncle was killed by the Chilean police.

"The past is not gone," Vidal insisted. "The past is here. I think that by not condemning what happened, we are condoning it."

Vidal, now a sociology professor at Kwantlen University, has made frequent trips back to Chile since it returned to democracy in 1990.

"A lot of navy people have denied people were tortured aboard the boat, despite all the evidence," he said. "I was in Chile recently and there is still a mindset, a culture, that has not really changed."

Chile's efforts to confront its history, including the creation of the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, haven't gone far enough for Vidal.

"It is a charade," he said, "because it is allowing people to get away with murder in the name of reconciliation. I want to see justice, not the appearance of justice or half-cooked justice. The real recognition would be to try all these (military officers) and then send them to a real jail, not a spa."

To Vidal, the gleaming white Esmeralda stands for both Chile's harrowing past and what he feels is the military's attempt to gloss it over.

"This is a symbol of something that is fundamentally a lie. It's clean, it's beautiful, now there are women on the boat which is a 'sign of progress' - I don't buy it."

But for Alvaro Peralta, a North Vancouver resident who also fled the Pinochet regime, the ship's arrival is also an opportunity.

"For me, as a Chilean Canadian, it is challenging to walk aboard that ship," he said. "But on the other hand, do I turn away and pretend it's not here? Is a boycott going to send a strong message? I don't think so.

"My interest is in Canadians, and Chilean Canadians, having an opportunity for dialogue. If we don't receive the ship, we don't have that opportunity. Ideally, I would love to see people go on board and talk to the sailors and talk to that captain and say in a peaceful manner 'Were you there? How do you know no atrocities happened?' Wouldn't it be wonderful if that captain was to leave North Vancouver admitting, finally, that atrocities had been committed on that ship? It would be mind-blowing."

Peralta agrees with Vidal that some members of Chilean society still don't see the Pinochet era in a negative light. "It takes time," he said, and engagement is a better way to encourage that process.

"I'm not proud of what happened on that ship," he said. "I'm in Canada because of what happened in that country. I've been here since 1974 and this is the first opportunity I've had, on Canadian soil, without fear of being tear-gassed or jailed, to have dialogue in that atmosphere.

"That is something that is very important for Chilean Canadians to have."

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