Liberty Weekend's most controversial guest is a sailing ship. Chile's Esmeralda sails, despite charges ship was `torture center'

To some, she is magnificent. To others, a mockery of ``Liberty Weekend.'' As Chile's Esmeralda arrives today in New York, controversy engulfs one of the most beautiful sailing vessels in the world.

Should she or should she not be permitted to participate in the 4th of July's tall ships parade, the largest such gathering of tall ships in history?

There have been a number of moves to disinvite her. Thus far, they have failed. And, according to Operation Sail's organizers, there is no longer any question: The Esmeralda will sail.

At the root of the controversy is the testimony of a number of former Chilean political prisoners that they were tortured aboard the ship following the 1973 coup of Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, which overthrew the country's last elected government and in which thousands were arrested and hundreds disappeared.

At least 40 men and 70 women were beaten, subjected to electric shock, raped, or threatened with mock execution aboard the Esmeralda in the last months of 1973, according to Amnesty International, Americas Watch, and the Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States. General Pinochet's military government categorically denies the charges.

The Esmeralda is now used as a training vessel for the Chilean Navy.

But she has sailed into a number of controversies in the last 13 years. It swirled around her when she participated in the United States' bicentennial celebrations in 1976 and when she made port visits to Philadelphia and Newport, R.I., in 1982. The ship's participation in Liberty Weekend will be her ninth visit to the US -- the sixth since she was allegedly converted into a floating torture center in 1973.

``Although she was used as a torture center for only a brief period,'' Kathleen Smith of Amnesty International said, ``she will come to New York representing a regime which has engaged in torture as a constant feature of the security forces' practices over the last 13 years.''

Capt. Hector Lindermann, Chile's naval attach'e in Washington, countered: ``The charges are totally untrue. You will see it when the Esmeralda arrives in New York. According to this nasty propaganda, people were tortured in the Esmeralda's hold. The Esmeralda is a sailing ship. It has no hold.''

Captain Lindermann, who served as a midshipman aboard the Esmeralda in 1961, also claimed that the full crew of 332 was aboard the ship in September 1973, when it docked in Chile after an extended Latin American tour. ``The ship has a very limited capacity for people. With 332 crew members, another 110 people would not have fit aboard.''

The besieged organizers of the tall ships parade, a private group assembled for the festival called Operation Sail, believe the controversy has been blown out of proportion and that they are being unjustly accused.

``We are not pretending to be political,'' Operation Sail's chairman, Emil Mosbacher said. ``This is a magnificent ship and people should see her. The celebration transcends politics and should not become political. . . . Every nation with whom the US has diplomatic relations was invited to come, without regard to any country's current policies or government.''

One participant in the 1976 bicentennial tall ships parade, who asked not to be identified, agrees.

``Assuming that Amnesty's information is correct,'' he said, ``the incidents took place 13 years ago. Every member of the crew at that time has long since gone. We are blaming wood and canvas for something which people did. The oldest cadet aboard the Esmeralda is now 18. He would have been five years old in 1973.''

A four-masted barkentine, 353-feet long, the Esmeralda was completed in 1952, and has since been regarded as Chile's ambassador around the world.

``It was a crime to have so misused her,'' said a Chilean physician now resident in the US who requested that he not be identified by name. He has treated a number of Chilean torture victims and worked with human rights groups.

``The Esmeralda was once a symbol of magnificence and national pride,'' said the physician. ``Then she was abused, as was the country when Pinochet seized control. She is now an ugly, menacing symbol of General Pinochet's style. To permit her to sail in a liberty celebration is to mock all Chileans who have fought for liberty.'' His feelings were reflected in a US Senate resolution which urged that the invitation to the Esmeralda be withdrawn. Last week, the House refused to back the Senate.

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