Social Change Comes to Conservative Chile

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When Chilean screen actress Daniela Vega flew to Los Angeles for the Academy Awards ceremony last March, Hollywood glory wasn’t the only thing on her mind. In a matter of days Vega would become an international celebrity for her role in the Oscar-winning “A Fantastic Woman” (best foreign picture), a fraught love story about a transgender singer and the social barriers and obscurantism she confronts. But first she had to face a little obscurantism herself.

“I have a passport with a name that has nothing to do with me,” Vega recently explained to a packed auditorium at Andres Bello University in Santiago. Vega was referring to her Chilean passport's assignment of gender identity based on anatomy not choice. It’s a formality that can turn a simple security check — as her on-screen character learns — into a public iniquity. “Fortunately, the world is at a marvelous moment. The old ways are dying and a new one is emerging,” she said to hoots and applause.

Such is the moment in Chile, a land branded by its Roman Catholic tradition and phlegmatic social conservatism, but also one where cherished notions about family, faith, gender rights and sexual identity are under siege. Vega, a transgender hairdresser who studied lyric singing in her spare time before turning to acting, is both a symbol and catalyst of this cultural whiplash. Her story line says a lot about shifting convictions in Latin America’s most accomplished nation, where openness and innovation are revered but still very much a work in progress.

“Chile has long lagged the region in social justice,” Amherst College political scientist Javier Corrales told me. “The good thing about this movie is that Chileans can address the issues it raises, but out of celebration not embarrassment.”

In many ways the same social forces are at work across Latin America, which is now a broad stage for civil society groups pressuring to redefine the terms of social inclusion and political engagement. Their banners vary, but all aim to turn the tables in countries where alpha patriarchs have called the shots.

Women in Argentina, Brazil, Peru and beyond are driving much of the change, spreading knock-offs of the U.S. #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment and battling official indulgence of violence against women. Their latest win: Last week’s historic vote by Argentina’s lower house to decriminalize abortion.

True, not all countries are convinced. Latin American women are widely underpaid and underrepresented in leadership jobs. Abortion is still a crime in many Latin countries, with no legal exceptions permitted in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Suriname. Even in Paraguay, where abortions are permitted to save a woman’s life, a 14-year-old rape victim died in childbirth earlier this year after a court ruled she must carry her pregnancy to term.

Yet despite the traditional sway of the Catholic Church and the rise of ultraconservative evangelical Protestants, support for gender equality, empowering gays and the rights of transgender people is growing. Same-sex civil unions are now recognized in several Latin American countries, while homosexual marriage is legal in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay and parts of Mexico. The recent Inter-American Court of Human Rights decision in favor of gay marriage will likely broaden that trend.

Chile has resisted the liberal wave. It overturned an 1884 marriage code and legalized divorce in 2004, becoming the last country in the region to do so. A bill over recognition of the rights of children from same-sex marriages has been stalled in Congress since 2016.

Now, however, the causes of nondiscrimination and social justice are in full cry. Under pressure from demonstrators, President Sebastian Pinera has launched the Women’s Agenda to promote “full equality” between men and women. Universities have pledged to end discrimination and harassment of women, and to safeguard the rights of transgender students.

Arguably, Chileans were ripe for change. Well before Vega became a national diva, the country’s woolly attitudes toward identity and gender rights were already in retreat — thanks in large part to the impact of two landmark legal cases. Over a decade ago, lesbian judge Karen Atala Riffo brought suit in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights against Chile after its Supreme Court awarded her ex-husband custody of her three daughters on grounds that she was an unfit mother. Finally in 2012, the international court ruled that Riffo’s human rights had been violated. Then came the tragedy of Daniel Zamudio, a gay man who was bludgeoned to death in a public park in Santiago, an attack that shocked Chileans and led to South America’s first hate-crime law.

Recent scandals in Chile’s Catholic Church, where senior clergy have been accused of sexual abuse, have compounded the reckoning. Chile’s bishops denied the charges and offered their collective resignation — the Vatican has since accepted the resignations of three of them — but as police raids on church offices earlier this month suggested, the scandal is far from over. No wonder the Chileans’ faith is flagging.

In some ways, Chile’s unusual political culture has helped the country face up to its failings. While its neighbors still squabble over “neoliberalism,” “state capitalism” and other articles of faith, Chilean partisans mostly agree on the basics that have kept the country enviably stable, democratic and prosperous: free trade, more or less unfettered markets, a lean but not anemic state, and a functioning justice system. That consensus plus comparably low rates of crime and corruption have allowed Chileans to quarrel over other matters related to quality of life, such as high income inequality, higher education and, increasingly, social exclusion. “Chile has changed. Young people expect not just efficiency but equality, justice for women and other discriminated groups,” social psychologist Jaime Barrientos, who studies gender politics at the University of Santiago, Chile, told me.

What’s new is that even political conservatives, who are again in office, appear to be rethinking some of their central conceits. Yes, it was former President Michelle Bachelet, a socialist and outspoken champion of women and gays, who hailed Vega and the film crew as national heroes and, in the Oscar’s afterglow, fast-tracked a bill on transgender rights. Yet that initiative — along with the hate crimes and same sex unions laws — was introduced under her predecessor, the right-wing credit card mogul Sebastian Pinera (2010-2014), who is now back in office, tellingly with the support of conservative gay voters.

No one has ever accused Pinera of being a social liberal. His core constituency includes hidebound right-wingers and, more recently, followers of Chile’s ultraconservative Pentecostal sects. He’s been sharply criticized for sexist jokes dating back to 2011, and nearly saw his first administration crippled by student protests.

Apparently, Pinera has taken note. “Pinera is a conservative, but he’s first a pragmatist,” Barrientos said “Chile is in the spotlight and he wants to be seen as part of the enlightened right, with openness as part of his social agenda.”

That won’t win Pinera an Oscar, but it may be enough to keep Chile on the world stage.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.