Divorce in Latin America

The majority of the population in Latin America identify themselves as Catholics.  The position of the Roman Catholic church on divorce and remarriage can be summed up in a few sentences:

Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
“What did Moses command you?” he replied.
They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”
“It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied.  “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’  ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’  So they are no longer two, but one.  Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”
When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this.  He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her.  And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”

And according to the (Gospel of Matthew 19:3-9): "What therefore God has joined together let no man put asunder."

We will now look at some survey data from the 2002 TGI Latina Study.  Within this study, there were 34,398 persons between the ages of 20 and 64 living in the countries of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela.  According to the survey, 3.3% of them listed themselves as being divorced (which would include the situation of formal annulment) at the time of the survey.  Another 4.9% indicated that they were separated but not yet divorced.

In the next table, we show the incidences for the regionally defined socio-economic levels.  The patterns run in opposite directions --- divorce rate increases while separation rates decreases as one moves up from the lower to the upper socio-economic levels.  This is a simple economic calculation, since the formal procedure of obtaining an annulment or divorce entails considerable amounts of time, money and documentation, whereas separation occurs by mutual agreement.

In the next two tables, we show the divorce and separation rates by age/sex groups.  For each age group, the incidence is always higher among females than males.  Perhaps the reader has heard the expression "May-September marriage" - where a man in the autumn of his years marries a woman in the spring of hers.  When a lecherous man holds the economic power, he can divorce his current spouse and find a new and younger model.  But that does occasionally come with some risk for blowback (see Alberto Fujimori's story).

In the next chart, we show the divorce and separate rates by country.

The noteworthy feature in the comparison of national rates is that Chile stands out with that tiny divorce/annulment rate, but it also has the highest separation rate.  In Isabel Allende's My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile:

Chile is possibly the one country in the galaxy where there is no divorce, and that's because no one dares defy the priests, even though 71 percent of the population has been demanding it for a long time.  No legislator, not even those who have been separated from their wives and partnered a series of other women in quick succession, is willing to stand up to the priests, and the result is that divorce law sleeps year after year in the "pending" file, and when finally it is approved it will be with so much red tape and so many conditions that it will be easier to murder your spouse than to divorce him or her.  My best friend, tired of waiting for her marriage to be annulled, read the newspapers every day with the hope that she would see her husband's name.  She never dared pray that the man would be dealt the death he deserved, but if she had asked Padre Hurtado sweetly, I have no doubt that he would have complied.  For more than a hundred years legal loopholes have allowed thousands of couples to annul their marriages.  And that is what my parents did.  All it took was my grandfather's determination and connections to have my father disappear by magic and my mother declared an unmarried woman with three illegitimate children, which our law calls "putative" offspring.  My father signed the papers without a word, once he'd been assured that he wouldn't have to support his children.  The process consists of having a series of witnesses present false testimony before a judge who pretends to believe what he's told.  To obtain an annulment you must at least have a lawyer: not exactly cheap since he charges by the hour; his time is golden and he's in no hurry to shorten the negotiations.  The necessary requirement, if the lawyer is to "iron out" the annulment, is that the couple must be in agreement because if one of the two refuses to participate in the farce, as my stepfather's first wife did, there's no deal.  The result is that men and women pair and separate without papers of any kind, which is what nearly all the people I know have done.  As I am writing these reflections, in the third millennium, the divorce law is still pending, even though the president of the republic annulled his first marriage and married a second time.  At the rate we're going, my mother and Tío Ramón, who are already in their eighties and have lived together more than half a century, will die without being able to legalize their situation.  It no longer matters to either of them, and even if they could marry they wouldn't; they prefer to be remembered as legendary lovers.


(posted by Roland Soong, 7/29/2003)

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