The Miami Herald
October 21, 2001

Law legalizing divorce still far away in Chile

 Associated Press

 SANTIAGO, Chile -- As he wrapped up his performance at a Chilean campaign rally, the comedian had just one request for senatorial hopeful Enrique Krauss: "Please, sir, work for a divorce law so I can get married.''

 The comedian, known as El Indio, is separated from his first wife, but can't remarry because Chile is one of the few countries in the world that still bans divorce.

 The candidate made no promises. That's no surprise. Over the past 90 years, 12 attempts to break the ban have foundered on the rocks of the Roman Catholic church and the conservative political establishment.

 In 1997, Congress finally passed a law to permit divorce, but among the thousands of Chileans trapped in broken marriages, few are holding their breath. The law must be approved by the Senate, which has set no date for voting. And when it finally happens, the outcome will hang on one or two votes, says Congresswoman Antonieta Saa.

 If enacted, the Civil Marriage Law will make divorce a costly and protracted affair.

 Couples will have to show a judge that they underwent counseling. Stringent rules will protect the rights of children and guarantee their schooling is paid for and that
 alimony and child support are provided.

 So far so good, say supporters and opponents. But proponents of the right to divorce are unhappy with the clause requiring husband and wife to show that they have lived apart for four years -- three if the divorce is uncontested.

 ``That's an eternity when things are not working out for a couple,'' said Saa.

 The intent, explained Justice Minister José Antonio Gómez is ``to protect the families and give couples a time to reflect.''

 Some think the law makes things worse. ``It's better being the only Western country without a divorce law than the Western country with the worst divorce law,'' said Jimena Valdés, who runs a think tank specializing in women's studies.

 At present the only way out of a Chilean marriage is by legal separation, obtainable by proving there was a procedural error in the marriage process.

 The favored bureaucratic subterfuge is to show a judge that one of the spouses was not living at the address listed at the time of the marriage. It's easy enough -- and
 generally acceptable -- to pull a few ``witnesses'' off the street to give the needed testimony.

 The result is that the marriage is declared to have never legally existed. But that leaves everyone's rights in limbo.

 ``In this aspect the [proposed] law is very good,'' said lawyer Paulina Veloso. It sets out ``clear rules on protection of the children and the weaker party of the couple, including alimony, visitation rights and others.''

 Various opinion polls show strong support for a divorce law, but the issue remains highly sensitive, especially because of church opposition in a country where 84 percent of the population is Catholic.

 Priests have denounced the law from their pulpits, with some urging worshipers to punish pro-divorce members of Congress in the December elections.

 ``It's divorce now, it will be abortion next and then probably marriages among homosexuals,'' said Pablo Lizama, a Catholic military chaplain.

                                    © 2001