The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 30, 2004; Page C01

Separate Ways: Divorce to Become Legal

By Jen Ross
Special to The Washington Post


Magaly Castillo has a nervous look on her face as she walks down Paseo Ahumada, one of Santiago's busy downtown pedestrian malls. One of her children in tow, she glances around at every street corner, hoping her husband is not following her -- again.

Magaly is among the hundreds of thousands of Chileans eager for divorce to become legal.

She says she's been separated from her husband for a year, and describes him as alcoholic and obsessive. Only a divorce, she says, will give her the protection she seeks.

"I would be more at ease, because right now, simply because we're still married, he feels he has the right to come and bother me," she says. "He says I'm still his wife."

Castillo will soon get her wish. After nine years of legislative wrangling, the Chilean Congress this month approved a bill to legalize divorce. President Ricardo Lagos has said he will sign it this week, and the measure -- the first significant change in Chile's family laws since 1884 -- would take effect six months later.

Chile was the only country in all of the Americas -- and one of only a handful left in the world, including Malta and the Philippines -- where couples cannot end a marriage through divorce.

Centrist and center-left governments have been trying to liberalize Chile's family laws for nearly 15 years, since the demise of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's authoritarian regime. Eighteen bills died in Congress before the lower house managed to pass the one approved last week. Chile is known as one of the most conservative countries in Latin America and the Catholic Church has long wielded great influence, particularly regarding the family.

"The family has always been seen as the intimate space where man can find happiness," says the Rev. Jaime Fernandez, a church spokesman in Santiago. "But it's also seen as a solid social structure that allows the development of the state. As a result, everything that touches the family is seen with suspicion."

With recent opinion polls showing 73 percent of Chileans approve of divorce, the church had to change its strategy of opposition. It began a television ad campaign last October urging Chileans to keep the ban on divorce. The ads cited U.S. statistics on drug abuse and delinquency among kids from broken marriages. But they had to be pulled amid public outcry.

That's because many marriages here are already broken. Although you can't get a divorce in Chile, 15 percent of marriages end in separation and another 10 percent in annulment. The problem is, though, that annulments are tricky, costly, and require mutual consent.

As a result, many Chileans have chosen to simply forgo marriage in recent years.

Figures released by the civil registry this week reveal a startling 45 percent drop in the number of Chileans marrying over the past decade. While there were 104,700 marriages in 1990, only 57,500 couples tied the knot in 2003.

Losing the public opinion war, the church even threatened wayward Catholic senators with excommunication. But that effort, too, backfired.

One right-wing lawmaker says he was shocked by the effect.

"The campaign wasn't a very good one because it made people react against the church," laments Hernan Larrain, a conservative senator who says he found the threats shocking. "You had senators, Catholics who have a history related to the Catholic Church, to Christianity, and they voted pro-divorce."

Cecilia Pérez, a Socialist who serves the government as minister for women's issues, says the new divorce law is a victory over traditional conservatism and will liberate women who find themselves trapped and stymied.

A woman who is separated can't make a commercial transaction -- open a business, buy a house, apply for a mortgage -- without the signature of her husband.

Nor does she have a right to alimony or other support.

"I'll be the first in line" when the divorce bill becomes law in September, says Alicia Quiñonez Bustamante, a soft-spoken 50-year-old.

Quiñonez tells how she was idling in traffic at a red light on Christmas Day 1999 when her estranged husband suddenly appeared in front of her car, crowbar in hand.

In an instant, he had smashed the windshield and was screaming death threats. Quiñonez ran away while a bystander restrained her raving husband. She found refuge in a nearby home and later filed charges with police; her story is supported by court documents.

That was the last time she saw her husband, Italo Medina Cuevas, more than four years ago. But she's still married under Chilean law.

"To be honest, it was always bad, from the day we married," she says. "But here, they teach you to accept the lot you were given. Unfortunately we are a generation of repressed women. I was the first in my family to have a professional degree . . . . They teach you that marriage is for life and I was ashamed to admit that I had made a bad choice. And so I tried to maintain the relationship, hoping it would improve with time. But it only got worse."

She says her husband stopped working, continued drinking and became explosive. The final straw, she says, was when his jealousy led him to start calling at her workplace. She found a lawyer, and after spending $825 for court filings won a separation and an order for him to vacate their home.

When last she heard from him, some time after the Christmas Day attack, he was in the United States. She fears he will return to Chile someday. As her husband, he could still theoretically lay claim to half her assets.

"Separated women, in our country, are not very accepted," she says. "People categorize you as someone who failed. Friendships change once you're separated. Women, especially, start to protect their husbands from you, as if you're after them. . . . But with divorce, I don't think there will be such stigmatization. It will be legal. This right has been accepted."

María Antioneta Saa, a congresswoman from the ruling center-left coalition, introduced the divorce bill in 1995 and says its success is due to the enormous social changes since democratization.

"I would say that our society is one that is rapidly opening up," she says. "The effects of globalization are huge. Today the problems of this conservative society are being exposed. People want to be happy and they fight for their rights."

Like Quiñonez, Magaly Castillo is waiting with bated breath for divorce to become law.

She says divorce beats separation because it gives you the chance to start over, and remarry one day. It's a chance she says she'd like to take, if she were to meet the right person.

She says coyly: "I'd at least like the opportunity to make the mistake again."

© 2004