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MARRIAGE : With No Divorce, Chile Vows Last ‘Until Deceit Do Us Part’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Divorce, Chilean-style, is a fraudulent affair in which the couple, their lawyers and witnesses lie to a judge who knows they are lying but pretends to believe them. Everyone agrees that the municipal registrar who officiated the marriage ceremony acted without authority because (wink) the bride and groom resided outside his jurisdiction. Thus the marriage is annulled, perhaps many years and many children after the fact.

Thousands of such bogus annulments are decreed each year in Chile, one of the few countries in the world that have no law allowing for divorce. But this year, the issue has become a topic of national debate, and many Chileans are determined that a divorce law will be enacted--while others are staunchly opposed.

The arguments from both sides touch on the moral fibers of this predominantly Roman Catholic nation, whose conservative cultural traditions are rapidly changing with economic and social development.

Members of the Socialist Party and the Party for Democracy, which share power in President Eduardo Frei’s coalition government, are drafting a divorce bill to be submitted to Congress. Their plans have been heralded by blaring fanfare in the press.

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At the same time, opponents of divorce are conducting their own media campaign, strongly backed by most of the country’s Catholic bishops. Bishop Orozimbo Fuenzalida of San Bernardo has called on Catholics to join a prayer crusade of “500,000 rosaries” for the unity and sanctity of marriage.

“In our fatherland, the sinister shadow of a divorce law threatens to weaken the sacred matrimonial bond,” Fuenzalida declared.

Some church leaders have directed their message to the Congress, urging legislators to reject divorce. Some members of Congress have bridled at such lobbying. “The church can’t impose what it thinks on the whole society,” objected Congresswoman Maria Antonieta Saa.

In the past, the church’s position has prevailed. The first divorce bill to be presented in Chile was overwhelmingly defeated in 1914. Since then, at least 10 other such bills have died. Most recently, several bills presented since the return of democracy after Chile’s 1973-1990 military dictatorship failed to come to a vote.

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But divorce legislation appears to have unprecedented support in the new Congress seated last March. Politicians are aware of public opinion surveys showing that about 70% of those polled favor a divorce law.

The issue puts Frei’s Catholic-oriented Christian Democratic Party (CD), formerly a bulwark against divorce legislation, in an especially uncomfortable position. After numerous internal debates, Christian Democratic conclaves have failed to reach agreement either for or against a divorce bill. “Divorce Torments the CD Family,” said a recent headline in the government newspaper La Nacion.

Frei said in his presidential campaign last year that a divorce law should be passed if that is what the country asks for. He has stayed out of the debate this year, but Josefina Bilbao, director of the National Women’s Service, has said a divorce law “is necessary.”

Advocates of a divorce law say it is unjust to deny legal divorce to couples whose marriages have failed, and it is scandalous to substitute divorce with annulments based on obvious perjury.

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Another subterfuge used by separated Chileans who want to remarry is to complete legal requirements, including publication of public notices, to have their first spouses declared missing and presumed dead. As a result of that practice, many Chileans have found at election time that they could not vote because they were legally deceased.

Chileans on Divorce

A 1992 poll of Chileans found that 73.5% of those surveyed said they were Roman Catholic, and 17.2% of those Catholics said they attended church regularly--once a week or more.

Of the Catholics surveyed who attended church regularly:

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* 73% believed divorce should be legal in some cases.

* 24.5% believed it should never be legal.

Source: Cep-Adimark poll.


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