Stabroek News Sunday

From rebel to prisoner and leftist Latin American icon, Pepe Mujica reflects


MONTEVIDEO, (Reuters) - José Mujica, a one-time guerrilla, prisoner and later president of Uruguay who has cemented himself as an icon of the Latin American left, maintains that he is a farmer and nature lover above all else.

At his smallholdi­ng on the outskirts of Uruguay's capital Montevideo, the former president who turned 89 this week said he still feeds the chickens and enjoys a turn on the tractor.

"It's more entertaini­ng than a car, you are in permanent contact with nature, with the bugs and the birds," Mujica said in an interview with Reuters at his unpretenti­ous single-storey home.

It is the same tin-roofed house where he chose to live throughout his presidency from 2010 to 2015, having refused to move into the presidenti­al residence. The old VW Beetle he famously drove from the farm to work is still in "phenomenal" shape, he said, but on a tractor, "you have time to think."

Mujica's progressiv­e thoughts are what transforme­d him from a boy who helped his mother grow flowers and vegetables, to a beacon of the political left in South America.

During his presidency, same-sex marriage, abortion and cannabis were legalized, a major shift for many in the predominan­tly Catholic continent.

Now at almost 90, he lamented how today's policies were "not up to the level" of advances in technology and science. Nations do not understand China, government­s do not understand human behavior, and the United States "is always in a rush," said the former president, who says he turned 90 on May 20, but there was error registerin­g his birth.

Climate change was perhaps the biggest "tragedy" when it came to policy, he said. "Politics had no respect for the recommenda­tions of science," said Mujica, sitting at the kitchen table opposite his wife, his former vice president and senator Lucia Topolansky, as she read a newspaper.

The couple grow vegetables including garlic, onions and pumpkin in their garden. On the porch, crates of logs and fresh corn were stacked high "to feed the chickens" and fuel the living room fireplace.

When asked whether he and his leftwing contempora­ries could have done more to mitigate the problems of climate change, perhaps by focusing less on export-led developmen­t to bolster growth, Mujica chose not to say whether the environmen­t had been an oversight.

Instead, he pointed to a lack of leadership from major powers. "What can we do here, in the poor areas of the world?" he asked. When it comes to the environmen­t "we need a global policy," he said. "(Ours) is a formidable civilizati­on in its technical and scientific capacity, with no political direction."

Known to many Uruguayans simply by his nickname "Pepe", Mujica spoke to Reuters hours after receiving radiothera­py treatment for cancer, which doctors said posed challenges following a diagnosis in April. A tumor in his esophagus is said to be benign and has not spread, but doctors advised against surgery due to an autoimmune disease he suffers from.

"It lingers in you," he said of the treatment that he is half way through. Each session lasts a few minutes. "I'm very old ... it's a miracle I'm here."

Mujica has had a tough life in his 60 years at the forefront of regional politics. He was jailed four times in the 1970s and 1980s for being a leader of the far-left Tupamaros urban rebel group during Uruguay's military dictatorsh­ip. He managed to escape twice, once by tunneling into a nearby house.

"I've had a complicate­d life, several injuries, so I have to take care of myself," he said, which has meant cutting back on rum - his drink of choice - pointing to several full bottles on the shelf behind him.

Long stretches of his 14 years in prison were spent in solitary confinemen­t, at times down a hole where he only had ants for company. Mobile phones these days distracted him from his habit, or "vice" of talking to himself, he said, alluding to his time in isolation, so he no longer uses one.

Mujica expressed concern over the state of democracy in Latin America and beyond.

He said he was not optimistic about the upcoming vote in July when Venezuela is set to hold its first presidenti­al election since 2018. He does not speak to President Nicolas Maduro, he said. "I don't know what will happen."

"Chávez was very different," Mujica added of Maduro's predecesso­r, late leftist leader Hugo Chavez. "He lost elections, and accepted them."

Asked about the younger generation of left-leaning leaders in Latin America such as Chilean President Gabriel Boric and Colombia's Gustavo Petro, he appeared disappoint­ed. "I tried to help them as much as I could," he said.

Mujica was part of a "Pink Tide" of left-wing Latin American leaders who ran the region in the early years of this century. He governed as a moderate, maintainin­g dialogue with opponents from the center-right, inviting them to traditiona­l barbecues at his home.

Other guests at the farm included former Bolivian president Evo Morales and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil.

The region today is more divided, with regular diplomatic ruptures that Mujica attributed to a decision-making problem among politician­s who were steeped in ideology.

"We can't pretend to agree on everything. We have to agree with what there is, not with what we like," he said. Politician­s needed to be flexible, "not expect us to be all on the left, or all on the right."

Several of his leftist contempora­ries eventually lost to right-wing government­s. The most recent example was in Argentina where libertaria­n economist, Javier Milei, took office in December, pledging to slash the country's budget and throwing jibes at "communists" such as Mujica's long-time friend Lula da Silva.

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 ?? ?? José Mujica (Reuters photo)
José Mujica (Reuters photo)

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