Chile May Allow Divorce to Snip Those Ties That Bind

Conservative country missed social changes of the '70s; Congress will vote next year.

Carolina Ries thought when she married while living in Washington she was doing the right thing by registering the big event with her government at Chile's embassy.

It was a wrong move, the secretary from Santiago, Chile, now says.

The problems started when Ms. Ries wanted to end her marriage. Chile doesn't allow divorce.

To get around that prohibition, Chileans use a process that allows a marriage to be declared null and void after a lawyer and a few cooperating witnesses - often just picked off the street - tell a sympathetic judge that the couple in question never lived at the address listed on their marriage license.

Faulty license - marriage annulled. It's still not a divorce, as children who grow up knowing that legally their parents' union never existed can attest. But the separated partners can remarry.

But after moving back to Chile, Ries found that, as the holder of a foreign marriage license duly registered with the government, the annulment subterfuge is not open to her. "I can never marry again legally," she says. "Sometimes I feel like I'm living in Saudi Arabia or some place like that."

Ries's may not be an everyday separation case, but it does highlight just one of the difficulties that arise in a country that prohibits divorce.

Chile has debated the issue for years, but the topic is flaring again now that legislation that would legalize divorce sits in the lower house of Congress. The legislation enjoys bipartisan support. But proponents are less than sanguine about chances of passage because a newly elected conservative Senate offers little hope it will vote to allow divorce.

"We live with this mythology of Chile as a modern country, but the reality is one of very conservative social norms," says Christian Parker, a sociologist at the University of Santiago.

Much of the explanation for that social conservatism can be found in the military dictatorship that Chile lived under from 1973 to 1990, Mr. Parker says. That was just when much of South America and the rest of the world was experiencing significant social changes.

"From the mid-1970s on, the rest of the world was evolving toward a greater equality of men and women," says Teresa Rodriguez, cooperation director in Chile's National Service for Women. "But Chile was in a dictatorship."

During those years "everyday issues like divorce were ignored," Parker says. Even with the restoration of democracy in 1990, a decision was made to leave potentially divisive social issues untouched. The Roman Catholic Church hierarchy and its conservative upper-class allies said "yes" to democracy but "no" to changes in "moral and family matters," he says. Politicians more interested in rebuilding democratic institutions went along.

Today about 6,000 marriages are annulled each year, a number experts consider only the tip of an iceberg of separations. Though separation statistics are hard to come by, family experts note that courts for juvenile matters receive more than 40,000 cases involving child support, tuition, and visitation demands each year. That number suggests a high level of separation in a country of 13 million people.

Those figures also suggest why simply outlawing divorce is not a solution to the problem of troubled families, experts say. "Children end up in a very unprotected situation," says Ms. Rodriguez. With no divorce settlement, separated parents aren't required to financially support their offspring, and the annulment practice places children in a precarious legal status.

The annulment is also "elitist," Rodriguez says, because it is costly and requires access to lawyers, witnesses, and cooperative judges. And outlawing divorce has not made marriage any healthier, others argue. In Chile, more than 2 of every 5 children are born out of wedlock.

None of these arguments have moved Chile's antidivorce forces, primarily tied to the Catholic Church. "Pro-family" groups have sprung up to fight the proposed law, holding rallies drawing thousands of supporters.

At one such rally in November, Bishop Orozimbo Fuenzalida said, "They want to erase our eternal values, permanent values that have made the world happy during 2,000 years of Western culture." Calling "wrong" the argument that divorce laws are designed to support families, he said legalizing divorce leads to more divorce.

The bishop also said that Catholics who support a divorce law should be "separated" from the church. But that might leave his ranks a little thin. Chile is about 75 percent Catholic, but one recent poll showed that almost 80 percent of Chilean Catholics favor a divorce law.

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