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In Conservative Chile, a Push for Change

Gays gathered in September for a rights parade in downtown Santiago. The drive for social change in Chile is picking up speed on multiple fronts.
Gays gathered in September for a rights parade in downtown Santiago. The drive for social change in Chile is picking up speed on multiple fronts. (By Roberto Candia -- Associated Press)

Though it was a bitter fight in political circles, the morning-after pill issue didn't affect Bachelet's approval rating, which increased slightly after the controversy. One poll conducted about three weeks ago placed her approval rating at 59 percent, higher than the 53 percent of the total vote she was elected by in January.

"There's a difference in attitudes between those in the higher levels of society and the rest of the population, I think," said Daniela Ullrich, 23, a university student in Santiago. "Like with the morning-after pill -- powerful people from high society were against it, but they always could get the pills at any time, if they wanted them. But the rest of the people couldn't, and they were the ones who supported the proposal."

Macarena Saez, the attorney handling the Atala custody case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, said a growing recognition of the distances separating Chile's general population and its institutions make her hopeful that the government will reach an amicable agreement in the case.

"We're facing a society that is way more open than its institutions, and that's a good sign for us," Saez said.

Saez is part of a group of lawyers who first challenged Chile's justice system by disputing its strict censorship laws. In 2003, their efforts prompted a constitutional change of censorship laws after the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ruled that the Supreme Court was wrong in upholding the ban on films such as Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ."

Now Saez and her colleagues are hoping the commission, part of the Organization of American States, will issue a similar ruling about the Atala case, resulting in new anti-discrimination legislation that would specifically ban child custody decisions based on the sexual orientation of the parent. For Juan Ignacio Correa, who is working on the Atala case in Santiago, such a change would represent a victory for democracy.

"The group of society that wants to preserve the status quo is very powerful, but I believe that there exists a much more massive group beneath them in society that wants change," Correa said.

Felipe Rivas, who four years ago founded a student group for gay men and lesbians at the University of Chile, said the Atala case and the possibility of anti-discrimination legislation are viewed as important steps for gays, but said they also hold broader meaning here.

"In Chile, human rights has always meant torture and the crimes of the dictatorship," said Rivas, 23. "But now the definition is changing, and people are seeing that human rights abuses can extend to a lot of other areas, too."

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