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The Knot Is Eternal in Chile

Times Staff Writer

The man in the suit lingered near the back of the church like a dapper ghost. A few of the older people at Vicenta Salas’ funeral recognized him, though they could hardly believe it was really him.

Hugo Vera had come to say goodbye to the woman he had married and abandoned 40 years earlier. Why, her family and friends wondered. Out of a sense of guilt? Did he feel a twinge of long-lost love?

Near the end of the service, Vera approached the family. “I’ve come to claim what is mine by rights,” he said. In Chile, there is no divorce. Separated since 1963, Hugo Vera and Vicenta Salas remained married in the eyes of the law. Because he was still her husband, her property belonged to him.

Vicenta Salas’ family knows that any legal challenge to Vera’s claim is futile. That’s how it goes in Chile, where “till death do us part” is the law. Thousands here live a double life: one in a real world where they have grown apart and are separated, and another in a legal world where they are still husband and wife.

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“It’s surprising to me that they still try to force people to accept relationships that don’t exist,” said Mario Soler, Salas’ adopted son, referring to the main opponent of a century-long campaign to legalize divorce here: the Roman Catholic Church. “Because sometimes you can’t help the fact that people stop loving each other and they separate.”

Chile is the only country in the Western Hemisphere where divorce remains illegal. As in years past, a bill that would allow couples to divorce is slowly wending its way through the Chilean Congress. The first such proposal was put forward in 1910. All have failed.

The new proposal has both “divorce-rights” and “pro-marriage” camps up in arms. It would allow a couple to be divorced only after a three- to five-year cooling-off period. That’s too long for those calling for the legalization of divorce, who say they will not back the bill.

For the time being, then, Chile’s strange status quo will continue.

Thousands of working mothers remain married to spouses who long ago abandoned them. But the famous and affluent dissolve their marriages through a Chilean legal farce known as la nulidad, or annulment, which requires the couple and eight witnesses to lie in open court.

Some, meanwhile, spend small fortunes in attorney fees to resolve disputes over children and property with people to whom they remain married only in the strictest legal sense. These proceedings can require many visits to civil court, because a husband can be sued to provide for his wife and children, even if his wife is living with someone else.

Even though his wife has refused to grant him an annulment, Mario Baeza, 33, has paid his lawyers more than $1,600 since the couple separated two years ago, an amount equivalent to three months of a typical white-collar salary here.

“At one point she told me, ‘I’m not going to give you my signature,’ which is a common expression here,” Baeza said. Those dreaded words mean you stay hitched, because la nulidad requires mutual consent. “It’s impossible to do anything else, so we’re still married.”

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On paper, the union of the onetime college sweethearts lives on. But everything that’s happened between Baeza and his wife in the last two years has the look of a mean-spirited, messy U.S.-style divorce.

They stopped talking a year ago after she accused him of child abuse during one of their sons’ weekend visits, which required Baeza to make several visits to a judge. Now he’s presenting a countercharge of false accusation.

Baeza also petitioned the court to be allowed to see his children. The couple reached a separate agreement in civil court on child support, but Baeza said he spent so much money defending himself against the child abuse charges that he’s fallen behind on the mortgage for the home in which his wife and children still live.

Soon he will be back in court to sort out the financial mess.

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“I tell my single friends what’s happening, and they say, ‘No way I am getting married,’ ” said Baeza, an engineer. Now he lives with another woman, who is separated from a man who has children with another woman.

“I would get married again if I could,” Baeza said. “Marriage is a good system. The problem is that when it fails, there’s no way to regulate it.”

Divorce remains illegal only in two other countries: Malta and the Philippines. In Chile, opponents of divorce have countered with arguments similar to those of social conservatives in other corners of the globe: Divorce spurs juvenile delinquency and drug abuse, they claim.

“Indivisible matrimony is the fundamental base of the stability and happiness of the family, and of the greater social well-being,” Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz of the Santiago archdiocese said when the most recent divorce proposal was first made in August.

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But marriage rates in Chile have fallen by half since 1988, and the church and its conservative allies have offered new proposals to make annulments easier to get -- suffering from emotional “immaturity” on your wedding day would be sufficient grounds to have your marriage dissolved.

“The church doesn’t care if there are thousands of annulments,” said Patsili Toledo of La Morada, a women’s legal aid organization. “It’s divorce they’re against.”

There are important philosophical and legal distinctions between annulment and divorce. Divorce recognizes that a failed union once existed and that the former spouses retain certain responsibilities and rights: to pay or receive alimony, for example. Under an annulment, however, the marriage never took place.

A woman who agrees to an annulment gives up her rights,” Toledo said. That’s why many women say “I won’t sign,” or try to pressure their husbands into separate economic arrangements before agreeing to la nulidad, she said.

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Even Chile’s recently approved domestic violence statute allows a battered wife to kick her husband out only for six months, at which point she must allow him back into the house.

For those with few resources, there is what is known as “the poor person’s divorce” -- getting a legal-aid attorney to have your absent spouse declared “presumed dead” if he or she isn’t around to object.

For those with the money to hire attorneys and pay off spouses, annulment can be an easy option.

In the port city of Valparaiso, where Chile’s Congress meets, it’s an open secret that several legislators who have spoken out fervently against the legalization of divorce have been married two or three times, having exercised the escape clause of la nulidad.

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“There is a double morality in our country,” said Sen. Carlos Ominami, a supporter of a liberal divorce law. “We have this conservative discourse that dominates our society, but in practice people do things differently.”

Even though they aren’t called divorces, the separations of the rich and famous are a daily staple in Chile’s tabloids.

President Ricardo Lagos has been married twice and supports legalizing divorce. Former dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who remains a hero to Chile’s conservative establishment, has a daughter who has been married four times, having gotten three of the marriages annulled.

“I’m not really interested in legality. It’s meaningless to me,” said Maria Lenina Del Canto of the Movement for the Emancipation of Chilean Women, explaining why she has remained married 30 years to a man she hasn’t lived with since the 1970s.

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Del Canto is now on her second convivencia, or cohabitation. In her first convivencia, Del Canto had no children, but in her second she does. The last she heard, her husband was on his second convivencia too.

“We talked about getting an annulment once,” Del Canto said, recalling a conversation with her estranged husband. “But we never got around to it.”

Getting la nulidad is a simple legal procedure, costing an average of $600. For all but a few couples, it is based on a blatant fiction.

In the most commonly used tactic, husband and wife go to court and claim that a horrible bureaucratic “mistake” has occurred. Although their marriage certificate says they were residents of one municipality, they were “in fact” residents of another. Therefore the certificate is null and void.

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In addition to the couple, eight witnesses step forward and tell the judge this is true. The judge knows they are probably lying but grants the annulment anyway.

Legal scholars here consider la nulidad a kind of national embarrassment to Chile’s otherwise respectable institutions of jurisprudence.

“It’s not something I like to talk about,” attorney Cesar Pinochet Elorza said. According to a recent report in the Santiago daily newspaper El Mercurio, he ranks second in Chile in the number of annulments he handles annually.

Although divorce lawyers are unknown here, hundreds of attorneys such as Pinochet Elorza process annulments, charging a few hundred to several hundred dollars. Ads promising “quick and easy annulments” can be found in many newspapers.

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“I’m a professor of law,” Pinochet Elorza said in a brief and curt telephone interview. “What happens in an annulment is not the kind of proceeding a law professor should discuss.”

This seemingly easy escape clause has one big catch, however.

In countries where divorce is legal, it doesn’t matter how much a couple hate each other: A judge will decide who gets what. In Chile, however, getting la nulidad requires the warring parties to agree on everything.

Maria Palacios was just 16 in 1971 when she married her husband, a policeman who, she said, soon developed a violent streak. Six years later, she took their two boys and moved out.

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Her husband asked for an annulment. She was more than willing but thought it prudent to ask that he sign over the apartment to their two sons.

“I wanted to have something for them, for their security,” she said. He refused, so they remained married.

A few years later she met Daniel Diaz, who was separated from his wife, who also refused to grant him an annulment. They commiserated. And eventually they became a couple.

Palacios decided to approach her estranged husband about an annulment. “He told me he would sign if I paid him a sum of money,” she said. “I don’t remember how much. Whatever it was, I didn’t have it.”

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Today, Palacios and Diaz live together in a house in suburban Santiago. They keep their property in the name of relatives to escape the complications of Chile’s inheritance laws. They have been together for 23 years, and if Chile’s Congress ever passes a divorce law, they probably will tie the knot. Like remarried people elsewhere, they find themselves embracing new definitions of the word “family.”

Palacios’ first two children, Jose Luis and Rodrigo, call Diaz their “papa.” Palacios and Diaz have one son together, Francisco, who is in college. The three boys have always called themselves brothers.

Once, however, Francisco was denied entry to a Catholic school. The reason: His parents weren’t married.


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