<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Uruguay Elections: "We Will Be Able to Begin to Make Changes in Drug Policy"

Congresswoman Margarita Percovich on the Center-Left Coalition that Is Expected to Triumph on Sunday

By Manuela Aldabe
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

October 27, 2004

On October 31, Uruguayans will go to the polls in that country’s presidential elections. Tabaré Vázquez, of the center-left Broad Front coalition (often called the Encuentro Progresista, or Progressive Conference, and closely allied to the Brazilian Workers Party) is widely expected to win. He would be Uruguay’s first left-wing president, and join the growing ranks of anti-neoliberal Latin American presidents. Margarita Percovich, a congresswoman from the Broad Front and a longtime champion of harm reduction and drug policy reform, spoke to 2004 Narco News Authentic Journalism Scholar and Uruguayan journalist Manuela Aldabe on the implications of the elections on social issues in Uruguay.

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Duration: 7:43 Format: MP3 Size: 3.5mb

English Transcript

Manuela Aldabe: Uruguay’s presidential election is this October 31. This small South American country, which has never received much international attention beyond its soccer team, is suddenly in the news. A center-left coalition may be about to take power in the government – a dream for some, a nightmare for others. After eleven years of dictatorship and nearly fifteen of democratic transition, the country believes in democracy once again. This belief may only last a few more days, but in that time we may see big changes.

Margarita Percovich at last year’s drug legalization summit in Mérida, Mexico
Photo: Jeremy Bigwood D.R. 2003
How will the Encuentro Progresista confront issues like drug legalization and abortion? We spoke to Margarita Percovich, congresswoman from the Broad Front’s Vertiente Artiguista faction, and author of the abortion decriminalization bill recently proposed in Parliament.

Margarita Percovich: First of all, I think that there are some good perspectives here in terms of a harm reduction strategy, because until now the government has worked on this issue with very little political support. This has been, in part, because of the leadership of the National Drug Council. A real strategy for harm reduction was never solidified. I think our policy will be to deepen and support these ideas, through the National Drug Council, and through the public health administration, which today won’t touch this issue. We must coordinate with non-governmental organizations on the issue. We have to demystify the whole issue of drugs and consumption; it is quite a challenge. But in that sense I think the government will be able to provide a good starting point for the promotion of cultural chance among the public. At the moment, the culture has been manipulated by the media and other politicians.

So, in terms of harm reduction, I think we will be able to begin to make changes. Now, with drug decriminalization, that seems to me to be a much more difficult issue. What I think will be possible is to put the issue on the table at a regional level, that is, at the level of Mercosur. This is an interesting issue to me because marijuana is in fact already being discussed. Various youth associations, including one from my own party, have been making proposals for marijuana policy reform over the last four or five years, and it has even been an issue in the party’s political campaigns. In the last few weeks, we have seen debates on the use of medical marijuana – much of this based on recent discussions and decisions in Europe.

So, I hope there will be more leadership on this issue, so that we can at least begin to discuss it. Actually changing the laws will be more complicated. But I plan to continue my work as a legislator, in whatever post I receive after the election, and think of ways to challenge the current repressive legislation, and to demonstrate the necessity of taking a new approach to the United Nations and international drug conventions. We must start talking about drug policy and health-care policy as the same issue.

That’s a discussion I think we will be able to have. I don’t know if we’ll see results in the five years of this upcoming administration, but we will be able to debate, to discuss.

Manuela Aldabe: The question is also really about prisons, about the number of people in prison because of drug prohibition, so…

Margarita Percovich: Yes, the number of men and women in jail because of this… there are a disproportionate number in prison for crimes that don’t merit jail-time at all. And that’s another issue we will need to bring up for debate.

These will not be easy issues to address, but it seems to me we are already beginning to talk about them. We are already beginning to change people’s perspectives – especially people involved in politics. I think that the younger generations are going to be an important base of support in these discussions.

Manuela Aldabe: There is another issue out there that has been taboo, but this year was examined even more than drug policy: the question of legalizing abortion. At this point, I’d like to ask you what the Encuentro Progresista’s ideas are on the possibility of legalizing abortions in Uruguay.

Margarita Percovich: Well, I’m the author of the law that was debated in the legislature in 2003. We passed it in the House of Representatives, but unfortunately we lost by a few votes in the Senate. I would say that within the Encuentro Progresista there is 95 percent support for decriminalization. This would take the form of regulations stating that for the first twelve weeks, a woman can chose to terminate her pregnancy. This gives freedom of choice to the woman – and to her partner if he is present – but it does not represent a complete elimination of abortion laws. Rather, we would impose regulations that allow for abortion during the first twelve weeks and under other specific conditions.

The problem is who is going to be in the new legislative session. Basically, the negative votes that sank the bill came from a different faction of the Encuentro Progresista, the Popular Participation Movement, which is has a majority now but has a very conservative vision when it comes to questions of daily life. So, we don’t know exactly what will happen in Parliament after the election, but obviously the question will come up again. The women legislators that come back will make a point of it. It is an important demand because, well, the polls say that 63 or 64 percent of the population supports the law we tried to pass. So we need to come through on this.

In fact, I just returned from Strasbourg, where I attended a gathering of lawmakers from around the world working to carry out the resolutions of the Cairo Conference on reproductive rights. What we said in our resolution was that anyone who tries to use public policy to achieve the goals of the new millennium – ending world hunger, etc. – without implementing the Cairo platform, without implementing reproductive rights… well, these goals will be very difficult to achieve without that. Many lawmakers have made a strong commitment to these ideals, and I think the Encuentro Progresista has taken a positive stand on this.

Manuela Aldabe: We’ve been listening to Margarita Percovich, congresswoman from the Uruguayan Broad Front Party. I’m Manuela Aldabe.

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America