The Chilean Navy has docked in Cozumel, Mexico, this week with its training ship Esmeralda. Housing about 300 members of the Chilean Navy as well as some of their guests, the Esmeralda is not a fighting ship but a ship dedicated to training new naval recruits and acting as a floating Chilean embassy. The ship was originally meant to be Spain’s national training ship, but after the boatyard in Cadiz, Spain, suffered extensive damage from on-site accidents, the unfinished ship was gifted to Chile. This was Spain’s way of paying back the Chileans for their help during the Spanish Civil War, as well as saving money on completing the ship’s construction. When the Esmeralda was launched in 1953, it was to the Canary Islands under the command of the Chilean Navy.
The Esmeralda is a beautiful ship, one of the largest of its kind in the world, with a controversial history. In September 1973, the Chilean government was overthrown by the Army General Augusto Pinochet. This coup was backed by the United States, who were idealistically against President Salvador Allende’s plans for social democracy.
Allende had been democratically elected three years earlier in an election that was immediately attacked by the US government. President Richard Nixon refused to accept a Socialist Chilean President, as he believed Socialism to be the equivalent of Communism; the ostracized ideology of Russia. The US Ambassador to Santiago, Edward Korry, remarked: “Once Allende comes to power we shall do all within our power to condemn Chile and the Chileans to utmost deprivation and poverty.”
When Pinochet took power, Allende was killed and a 17-year Dictatorship was begun by the former. During his rule, Pinochet banned leftist political groups and took prisoner or killed anyone that challenged his rule. The Esmeralda has been called a “floating jail” for the prisoners of Pinochet, many of whom were tortured and killed aboard the ship by Pinochet’s men.
In 1990, Pinochet gave up power to a democratically-elected Chilean government, headed by Patricio Aylwin, a Christian Democrat. The Esmeralda’s torturous past has been the catalyst for many protests at the ship’s appearance abroad, even now, more than 10 years after Pinochet has left power in Chile.
As the Esmeralda and its crew docked in Cozumel earlier this week, the young men and women aboard were likely relieved at the warm welcome they received by their Mexican friends. Full of smiles and eager to show off their training vessel, the white-clad members of the Chilean Navy are welcoming tourists aboard all week for free, between the hours of 2 and 6 pm.
Cozumel is a relatively well-off Mexican island off the coast of Playa del Carmen in Quintana Roo. Despite the high percentage of long-term international tourists on the island, none seem angered by the presence of the Esmeralda. In fact, lines of Mexicans, Americans, Canadians and Germans have formed outside the Cozumel Naval gates, excited to take a look at the impressive ship.
The Esmeralda is docked in Cozumel until Saturday, and its crew will be acting as members of the Chilean embassy to Mexico during that time. When questioned about the small cannons positioned throughout the upper deck of the ship, crew members explain that these guns are only used in salute to a high Official on board – of course they can also serve the traditional job of a cannon in an emergency. The motto emblazoned on the main cabin of the ship proclaims in Spanish “Conquer or Die;” but these young trainees just want to make friends and perhaps go see the ruins of Chichen Itza while they’re in town.
By Mandy Gardner