Forgetting the Esmeralda

In my Internet sleuthing before the Globalist’s annual reporting trip, I thought I had discovered the perfect story: the Esmeralda. Six Chilean ships have borne the name Esmeralda, and the current one has been in operation since May 12, 1953. Functioning as a floating embassy, a symbol of prestige and national pride, the ship docks in port cities around the world, inviting residents on board to wine  and dine in the Chilean way.

Some residents, though, prefer to protest at the docks. The ship seems benign, but historical guests were not always treated as graciously as today’s. Father Michael Woodward was a British priest, community leader, and member of a Christian-Democratic political party that supported Allende. In the years before the Pinochet coup, he worked with the poor in Valparaiso, distributing food and supplies throughout the city.

On September 16, 1973, just five days after the Pinochet coup, the Navy forced Woodward to board the Esmeralda. Blood flowed instead of wine: he was tortured to death. The Navy officially denies that torture has occurred and has ignored requests from Amnesty International to place a memorial plaque on the ship. Patricia Bennetts, sister of Woodward, has filed a case against the Chilean Navy in 2002 charging it with torture and murder. The Esmeralda captured the sordid tale of Pinochet’s dictatorial legacy in one ship. As a journalist, I was thrilled.

I arrived in Chile to find, after conducting ten interviews, that the Esmeralda wasn’t part of the national consciousness. In my first few days in Chile, I spoke with lawyers, journalists, UNICEF, students. Few seemed to know about the torture on the Esmeralda. The few who did seemed to regard it as irrelevant. “It was in the past, and such a small thing,” was the refrain I often heard. Even Walter Roblero, the highly knowledgeable curator of the Museo de la Memoria, the Santiago-based museum honoring victims of human rights violations in Chile, knew little of the ship beyond the contents of Amnesty’s report. If the curator of a human rights memorial museum didn’t entirely recall the Esmeralda, I wasn’t sure who would. I ran around Santiago, asking about the Esmeralda, my questions evoking vague memories at best.

The story appeared to be a dead end. Then, I interviewed Claudio Nash, a professor of human rights at the Universidad de Chile who told me, “Those who say they do not know [about the Esmeralda] do not want to know.” This one sentence out of the many lingered.

I didn’t want my story to become a non-story, so I latched onto it. Instead of investigating what had happened on the Esmeralda, I began to wonder why no one seemed to know or care about it.

In Valparaiso, a port city in Chile where Pinochet’s coup began and where the Esmeralda docks between world tours, I was sure I would find someone who still found the ship symbolic. But from Eduardo Silva, a curator at the Museo Naval y Maritimo, I received a response similar to those of the others. He said, apologetically, “There are lots of other memorials.” The torture on board the Esmeralda was too small a piece of history to allow it to stain the pride attached to the ship, he said.

A day later, I spoke with Mónica Pilquil Lizana, a human rights advocate, at a student protest. She spoke quickly, distantly, of the Esmeralda, and only when I brought it up, soon returning her focus to the violence against protesters. This jarred me—maybe, I thought, the torture on the Esmeralda simply wasn’t relevant anymore in light of the violence at the protests.

Still, when I returned home from Chile, I tried my last resource: Patricia Bennetts, sister of Father Woodward, who currently lives in Spain. In the ten years since she filed her case, it has moved slowly through courts and many charged have been released. I thought the lack of consciousness both Bennetts and I encountered was a product of a denial of Chile’s dictatorial past. I was sure it was—and I was looking for evidence to support my claim. “Isn’t it bad that the Esmeralda doesn’t even have a memorial to those who died?,” I would ask. Later, while trying to write my story, I re-read my notes and found that in my investigation, I had asked leading questions, trying to tease the “right” answer out of my sources. I was, in short, trying to create a national drama that did not exist.

While the lack of remembrance for the victims who died on the Esmeralda is tragic, I can’t assert truthfully that any malignance lies under that amnesia. It might be that Chileans are trying to move on from a complicated past to sort out a present complicated by pervasive student protests, or that they want the boat to remain a symbol of national pride. I am not sure why it is not the perfect story I was convinced it was, but asking about it of everyone I met in Chile was like asking someone from Dallas about the JFK assassination: Yes, it happened there, but it does not define Dallas, nor does it serve as a lens to pass any judgment on the city today.

As much as I wanted my story about the Esmeralda to be incredible, an exposé on Chile’s past and its “inability” to reconcile that past with a changing future, it wasn’t. And good journalism isn’t in the business of creating a fiction out of facts that don’t quite add up, even when that fiction would make a compelling tale.

ANISHA SUTERWALA ’14 is an English major in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at