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The Knot Is Eternal in Chile

With divorce illegal, thousands of couples live double lives until death parts them, or else engage in a legal farce to annul their union.

December 29, 2003|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

SANTIAGO, Chile — 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.

"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."

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.

"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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