4 June 2008

Chile's Torture Ship On Goodwill Tour

The U.S. Navy is certainly not the first to torture prisoners aboard its ships. It was beaten to that moral wasteland by Pinochet’s Chile and the obscenity is that the graceful tall ship, La Esmeralda, known affectionately as the White Lady, once a torture centre in Valparaiso, is now the country’s floating ambassador. Having just set out on its 54th round the world voyage this year, it will call at ports like Haifa (Israel), Alexandria (Egypt) and Cochin (India) with a crew that for the first time includes Bolivian personnel.

The Chilean Navy was the advance guard of Pinochet’s coup. Soon after the overthrow of the Allende government, naval patrols began scouring the streets of Pablo Neruda’s beloved Valparaiso, asking people, whose names were read over loudspeakers or on the radio, to hand in themselves. Among them was the Anglo-Chilean worker priest, Father Michael Woodward. At first Woodward fled to a friend’s house but returned to his own – which he had himself built – in the working class district of Cerro Placeres after a few days, saying he had nothing to hide. He dismissed the idea of taking help from the British authorities.

Father Woodward was arrested at his home by a naval patrol and taken to the headquarters of the local Carabineros, Chile’s notoriously brutal armed police, where he was badly assaulted. He was transferred to a cargo ship, Lebu, commandeered by the Navy as a holding vessel for the prisoners at Valparaiso and then to La Esmeralda where he was tortured. Close to death, he was taken in an ambulance to the Navy hospital but died en route. The hospital doctors made the risible claim he had died of a heart attack on public highway.

The Navy refused the church’s request that Father Woodward be given a burial. His body was dumped at a mass grave on the edge of the Playa Ancha cemetery in the city. Later that part of the cemetery was built over, allegedly as part of a road building programme, and many bodies were tipped over to the Pacific at that time or burnt by acid by the Carabineros. His remains have never been located.

Michael Woodward, the son of a British father and Chilean mother, was born in Valparaiso but had his education in England, where he qualified as a civil engineer. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 1968 and returning to Chile became drawn to liberation theology. He joined MAPU, a political party formed by Christians who had split from the Christian Democrats in 1969. A staunch defender of the Popular Front government, he headed his neighbourhood committee against food shortages induced by the Right preparatory to the eventual coup (food was pioneered as a political weapon in Chile and the same tactic was played out in Venezuela during the 2002 oil strike, with echoes of it now in Argentina).

Michael Woodward was the most prominent of those tortured on La Esmeralda but certainly not the only one. Several hundred detainees passed through it and the quest for justice has moved only a few clumsy steps. One of Father Woodward’s sisters and some of the other former prisoners have been navigating Chile’s judicial system. Their case should have been speeded up after the 1991 (Rettig) Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, which recognised torture aboard La Esmeralda “by state agents”, but successive governments have been obstructive.

Only six relatively junior naval officers charged with playing a part in Father Woodward’s death were charged, arrested and granted bail. The torture on the ship could not have been carried out without complicity or express orders from the very top but no high-ranking navy officer has been investigated which the Chilean state was legally obliged to do. The Chilean Navy has shown no remorse, or even acknowledgement of its part in these and other crimes. Post-Pinochet Centrist governments have chosen the path of wilfully-induced amnesia. Every time La Esmeralda sets sail, Chilean Presidents and the Navy brass deny that the training ship is stained by torture.

This year there were scuffles between rival demonstrators the day La Esmeralda set sail. The ultra-Right in the Chilean parliament, instigated by a former admiral in their ranks, raised the bogey of the Navy being defamed, provoking the President of the Chamber of Deputies, Juan Bustos, to say that the Right has still not internalised respect for human rights. The magistrate investigating the Woodwards case has received death threats and faces a campaign of innuendoes from Pinochet’s parliamentary gang.

Senator Edward Kennedy had said in the past "the Statue of Liberty would weep at the sight of La Esmeralda entering the gateway of freedom at New York Harbor." Given the more recent reports of crimes on high seas by Pinochet’s coup sponsors, the U.S. military-intelligence complex, Chile needs reminding that without acknowledgement of what happened and justice for its many victims La Esmeralda will remain a ship of shame. Is she the best brand ambassador Chile can muster?

There are two documentaries on La Esmeralda and Father Woodward in English and Spanish respectively: The Dark Side of the White Lady’ by Patricio Henríquez and ‘Una Vida Verdadera: El Sacrificio de Miguel Woodward’ by Andrés Brignardello and José Acevedo.

No comments: