Chileans get ready to celebrate first same-sex civil unions

SANTIAGO/VINA DEL MAR (Reuters) - Hundreds of same-sex couples in Chile will head to registry offices this week to celebrate civil unions, which become legal for the first time in the country on Thursday. Although the Catholic Church is a powerful influence in the region, Latin America has been relatively quick to embrace the recognition of same-sex unions. Same-sex marriage has been legalized in recent years in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and some parts of Mexico. Chile does not yet allow full marriage but securing same-sex civil unions in one of the region's more conservative countries was a victory for activists, and a joy to people like Roxana Ortiz. She will be one of the first to take advantage of the new law when she celebrates a civil union with her Spanish partner Virgina Gomez. "I'm really proud that we can obtain something in my country ... that we acquired in Spain more than six years ago. Because it was really sad to arrive in Chile and see that we were nothing," said Ortiz at the home she shares with Gomez in the coastal city of Vina del Mar. It was a relief to have a legal status both for themselves and their daughter, said Gomez. Chile, which returned to democracy in 1990 after a brutal 17-year military dictatorship, is one of Latin America's most economically developed countries, but is less socially progressive than many of its neighbors. In 2004, it became the last country in the Western hemisphere to legalize divorce, and it is one of the few that still outlaws abortion in all cases - something that center-left President Michelle Bachelet is trying to change, against strong opposition. Polls show only around a quarter of Chileans support same-sex marriage. However, there was broad cross-party support in Congress for allowing civil unions. The path to legalizing unions began under Bachelet's predecessor, moderate conservative Sebastian Pinera. "Independent of political colors and the governments in power, these are issues that are important for the country," said Cecilia Perez, a minister in the Pinera administration, at the signing ceremony for the new law on Tuesday. (Reporting by Reuters TV; Writing by Rosalba O'Brien; Editing by Frances Kerry)