October 16, 2001

Chilean Senate may finally vote on divorce

                            SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) --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, according to the daily La Segunda, made no promises. That's no surprise. Over the past 90 years, repeated attempts to break the ban have foundered on the
rocks of the Roman Catholic church and the conservative political establishment.

However, the issue may finally be coming up for a Senate vote.

After 12 failed attempts, the lower house of Congress passed the bill in 1997, but it languished there for four years -- until last week, when a Senate committee took it up. The
government, which supports the bill, had recently proposed several changes in an attempt to make it more acceptable to the senators. The committee must file a report to the
full Senate within 30 days.

Among the thousands of Chileans trapped in broken marriages, few are holding their breath. The Senate 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, guarantee their schooling is paid for, and that alimony and
child support are provided.

So far so good, say both 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 Jose Antonio Gomez 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
Valdes, who runs a think tank specializing in women's studies.

Agronomist Gustavo Rojas would welcome the law. Separated from his wife a decade ago, he said she has at times denied him the right to see their daughter, leading to
frequent and costly disputes in court.

"I now have a new girlfriend and we want to get married, but we can't because my marriage is still valid," he said.

At present the only way out of a Chilean marriage is by legal separation, obtainable if either side can prove 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 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 84 percent of whose
population calls itself Catholic.

Priests have denounced the law from their pulpits, with some urging worshippers 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.

               Copyright 2001 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.