In Conservative Chile, What You See Isn't What You Get

In this 'country of appearances,' reality doesn't always go by the rules

Despite the fact that she lives in a country where children born out of wedlock are legally denied certain rights as they mature, Alejandra Martnez says life for her three-year-old "natural" daughter is just fine.

"Most of the girls around my age in my [housing] complex have a baby without being married, and it doesn't seem to bother anyone," says the young worker in a Santiago women's center. "It's another example among many we have in Chile where the people have changed despite certain laws that stay the same. People just ignore them."

With its laws prohibiting divorce and abortion, a movie rating and censoring commission that includes representatives of the military, and a birth certificate that separates "legitimate" from "natural," Chile is considered by many to be a bastion of social conservatism. While the rest of Latin America has been swept by waves of liberalization as the region has democratized and opened its economy, the theory goes, a resistant Chile has stemmed the tide.

Controversy this month over whether to allow the eight-year-old Martin Scorcese movie, "The Last Temptation of Christ," to finally be seen in Chile, led to a fresh round of commentary on Chile's social conservatism.

Popular theory cites the country's geographical isolation and the conservatism of immigrant groups such as the Germans, who settled parts of the rural south as at least partial explanation for a resistance to social change.

But other Chileans say Chile's social fabric is cut from the same cloth as the rest of Latin America and that the effects of the country's conservatism are largely exaggerated. Various studies indicate that such is the case. Despite the law prohibiting divorce, the number of state-granted annulments is high. Despite a prohibition on abortion, a 1994 study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York estimates an average of 437 clandestine abortions take place each day.

And "Last Temptation" has never been screened in neighboring Argentina either, even though Argentina is considered a more liberal society. (Chile's film commission this month approved the controversial movie for the 18-year-old-plus viewing audience, although the movie's distributors say they will probably wait to screen it until after Christmas to avoid unduly provoking sensibilities.)

What goes on behind the faade

More important, some Chileans say, is figuring out why Chile lives a two-tier existence, one of image and one of reality. "What has to be understood is that Chile is a country of appearances," says Fanny Gomez, a worker for Chile's Socialist Party. "There is what appears on the surface, and then what appears behind the faade."

Observers offer at least two explanations for this disconnect between image and reality. First, the country's major media are socially conservative powers that project the conservative image while warning against the threats of social change - many of which they say are coming from outside the country. And second, a brutal and frightening military dictatorship that only ended seven years ago resulted in a population that silently goes about the business of social change without demanding that the government acknowledge the changes in any way.

"The older generations especially are still profoundly haunted by the authoritarian period," says Marta Lagos, general director of the MORI opinion research organization here. So even though she characterizes the last decade as years of significant change, very few in Chile seek to flaunt that change, she says.

In that context it was possible for Chilean Communist Party leader Gladys Marn to be pulled from her car and briefly jailed earlier this month for publicly defaming former military dictator and now Army Commander Augusto Pinochet. That event embarrassed Chilean political leaders but reflects the fact that, although freedom of speech is a constitutional right, it isn't customary to probe its limits.

On the other hand, the powers that are drawing attention to the threats of social change in Chile are the conservative press and its allies, particularly a small but highly influential entrepreneurial elite and the Roman Catholic Church. "That's really who is making the fuss," says Ms. Lagos. "Rather than reflecting things as they are, the mass media offer a picture of what the conservative right would like the country to be."

Conservative media fight change

The flagship of this media armada is the Santiago daily El Mercurio, lead publication of a family publishing empire. The newspaper's reporters give ample coverage to the city's conservative, often military-oriented think tanks and institutes, while editorials and guest columns reflect the emphasis on Chile's social evolution.

Recently, articles and columns took up the "Last Temptation" controversy and an upcoming choice between "progressive" TV programming and something more reflective of Chile's traditional conservatism. Others included the divorce and abortion issues, and a front-page story on the threat posed by discos opening in small towns around the country. In one interview, a conservative philosopher warned against the threat such influences as US-style feminism pose for Chilean society.

Chile's traditionalists say their desire is to prevent the country from becoming the kind of secular and materialistic society that an emphasis on individual rights has created in Western Europe and the US. And they add there is nothing hypocritical, as some critics claim, in seeking to stop the legalization of practices, such as divorce or abortion, that may already be common. "It's like being against drugs," says Sergio Garca Valds, a Catholic lawyer with Chile's Future, a conservative activist group. "You don't have to have tried them" to oppose their use.

The irony for some observers here is that the same powers warning against social change are also those most in favor of the economic opening and globalization that have pushed Chile's door wider to international social influences. A little like China trying to implement capitalism without embracing democracy, Chile's elites want the country to choose economic globalization while stifling the international social and cultural influences that go with it.

Some social observers such as Lagos doubt this is possible. "It's an illusion to think we can globalize the economy and extend education, for example," she says, "and stay with these traditional values."

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