Ship’s dark past taints ground-breaking mission

Chilean navy’s torture ship greeted by protesters in Victoria

Ensigns Jose Palma and Francisca Lerma sits in the bow of the Esmeralda

A Chilean navy ship is making history, but not because of protesters who dogged the vessel for five days while it was moored at Ogden Point.

Several people held up signs and blasted a siren on their megaphone at the Victoria pier this week until the tall ship left this morning (Friday). But some crew members on the Esmeralda training ship said they were immune to the protest staged by human rights advocates, union members, Chilean ex-pats and Catholics.

“I really don’t care,” said officer trainee Francisca Lema of the protesters.

For the first time, women are being trained as officers and sailors in the Chilean navy, and the Esmeralda is serving as their floating classroom for six months.

Lema is one of 27 women training to become naval officers. In the lower ranks, 44 women aboard the ship are being schooled as sailors.

“I think this is the best part of my career,” Lema said of travelling around the world. The vessel will visit 12 ports in six countries between Chile and Canada.

But the tall ship’s bloody past is tarnishing its diplomatic visits.

Protesters in Victoria and San Francisco say the Chilean navy has never acknowledged using the ship as a prison in 1973 and 1974, when civilians were tortured and 112 of them killed, according to human-rights watchdog Amnesty International.

“Our complaint is not with the crew but with the institution of the Chilean navy, that basically hasn’t made reparations to the families of the people killed,” said Victoria resident John Hillier, an organizer with the No Esmeralda protest committee.

“If they have a protest, no problem,” commanding officer, Capt. William Corthorn said Tuesday during a press conference below decks. “My work, I say again, is the … leadership to my crew.”

Esquimalt resident Sebastien Robles said while he can’t imagine the suffering of torture victims, some protesters are taking their efforts too far.

“You have the right to protest, but don’t make a threat,” Robles said after witnessing a protester threaten the life of a Chilean naval officer at the pier Monday.

But organizers say the protest has mostly been peaceful.

“I don’t know if I would have been that restrained if I had gone through that,” said lead protester and Saanich resident Carlos Flores.

Protests will be held in North Vancouver when the Esmeralda arrives on Saturday. The ship will return to Chile in November.

 

 

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