Chile must apologize for tall ship tortures

July 07, 2000|By William A. Yankes

PORT HUENEME, Calif. -- The Esmeralda a torture ship? Never!

I always have respected the Esmeralda for her objectives. She is a floating embassy gloriously clad in white, known to Chileans as La Dama Blanca (The White Lady). The fondest memories of my youth are of the time I spent aboard her.

While I was a cadet in the Chilean Naval Academy, I and everyone I knew viewed the Esmeralda as the symbol of all that was bright and good about my country. I was eagerly looking forward to sailing with my graduating class as a midshipman in 1973.

But before that happened, my family fled to the United States to avoid President Salvador Allende's Marxist regime. At 17, I was forced to leave with them.

I first heard about torture on the Esmeralda from protesters while visiting the ship in San Diego, Calif., in 1997. I dismissed the charges as absurd. I was sure it was just another attack by extremists determined to besmirch her unimpeachable reputation.

When I asked a Chilean naval officer, a former classmate of mine at the naval academy, whether civilians had been tortured on the Esmeralda, he looked straight at me and said, "We were at war." My heart sank, but even then I couldn't bring myself to believe it.

But while traveling in Chile in March, I interviewed several Chilean writers, some of whom told me they had been tortured. They said that it was well known that people had been tortured on several ships, including the Esmeralda, during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Finally, I had to accept that it was true.

After speaking with some who were tortured, I now understand why protesters have expressed outrage against the presence of the Esmeralda at various foreign ports and why she was turned away from San Francisco in 1974.

I question whether the current cadets of the naval academy sailing on the Esmeralda -- which is visiting New York after having stopped in Baltimore as part of OpSail 2000 -- have been fully informed of this chapter in Chilean history. They shouldn't be held accountable or blamed for what happened before their time.

I feel a heavy sorrow for those Chilean officers and crew who endured unbearable moral conflict while fulfilling their orders to torture people. Would I have carried out such orders the year I was supposed to be assigned to the ship? I hope not.

I have been watching General Pinochet's public disgrace and waiting for some contrition and apology from the Chilean authorities. Sadly, there has been none.

As a Chilean naval cadet, I was required to have moral character and the courage to take responsibility, particularly during a crisis. The officer in charge of my division told me something I have never forgotten: "It is not he of the lower rank who salutes first, but he who is the gentleman."

It is time to salute first, to be gentlemen and to admit our collective wrong. It is time that we apologize publicly before we sail again and expect the elegant and friendly receptions we have always received throughout the world.

Until Chile's authorities publicly admit to having committed egregious torture and violence against civilians, I, as a former Chilean naval cadet, salute first.

I apologize.

To the British-Chilean priest, Michael Woodward, who allegedly was tortured on the Esmeralda, and to all the others who were tortured, I ask for their families' and the world's forgiveness.

I hope that Chile's leadership will apologize and, by doing so, truly take its place as a moral protagonist in South America, leading its countries, not by rhetoric but by example, to becoming lasting democracies.

An apology and a determination to set a course for governing with reverence for the individual would leave in its wake the war-like attitude as expressed in the country's motto, "By Reason or Force" that became our legacy during the Spanish conquest.

It would propel us into an era when all peoples, their lives and beliefs, are honored. Then the Esmeralda could once more take its place as the embodiment of Chile's most cherished values and proudly enter any port in the world.

William A. Yankes, a U.S. citizen and a writer living in California, was Cadet No. 489 in Chile's Naval Academy in 1969.

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