Earlier this month, Uruguay passed legislation that decriminalizes the sale, use and cultivation of marijuana.
It is the first country in the world to so broadly legalize this drug – a change largely credited to President José Mújica, who is clearly not a timid man.
While it’s likely that many former presidents of Latin American countries privately support liberalization of drug policy, they do not dare push for such policies while in office. It is only after they are safely out of politics that they discuss legalization. But Mújica is quite different from the usual brand of politician – he’s more of a philosopher. A character. A true progressive.
When I met with him recently in New York, before I could ask my first question, he asked me to remove my tie. The necktie, Mújica explained, “no longer fulfills the function that brought it about,” which was to tie men’s shirts together at the neck. Since ties no longer have a practical use, Mújica eschews them. ” When I learned the story of the tie, it seemed to me a sign of male coquetry.”
Mújica, who is fondly referred to as “President Pepe” by his supporters, has an aversion to excess as well as frivolity. He does not live in the presidential palace in Montevideo, but in his own modest house, and he and his wife have no household staff. Mújica is one of poorest presidents in the world, keeping only about $1,000 a month from his salary and donating the rest to charity.
“I have a sober way of life, although I don’t try to impose it on anyone else,” he told me when I asked about his lifestyle. His philosophy is simple: “You’re supposed to travel light through life, and not be so invested in
material things, in order to give yourself the largest margin of individual freedom.”
Some people in Uruguay refer to Mújica as South America’s Nelson Mandela, pointing to the similarity in Mújica’s path to political office. In the 1970s Mújica was a guerilla fighter, battling Uruguay’s military dictatorship; he was eventually arrested and spent 14 years in prison. At the time, he thought that true political change could only come through violence. He has come a long way since then. Earlier this year, Mújica opposed an American plan to launch airstrikes against Syria. “I told them that it would be better to bomb them with powdered milk, food and medical care,” he told me.
While Mújica’s policies reflect his support for furthering freedom and democracy in Uruguay, he refuses to criticize the Castro brothers’ authoritarian regime in Cuba. “I support all Latin American governments,” he said. But, I
asked him, isn’t it past time that Fidel and Raúl Castro relinquished their power? “They will leave, don’t worry,” Mújica said. “They will.”
Uruguay is one of the most liberal nations in the world, and has a history of implementing progressive laws. Abortion is legal there, as is same-sex marriage. For Mújica, the legalization of marijuana is a continuation of the country’s reformist approach to social issues – an “experiment” that may finally bring about the defeat of the drug cartels. If the government regulates and taxes the traffickers’ product, the thinking goes, it will wrest power from them.
Mújica said that he has never tried marijuana, and is not eager to: “I’m convinced it is a plague, as much as tobacco and alcohol.” However, he continued, if the government can regulate alcohol and cigarettes, why shouldn’t it regulate marijuana?
Under the new law, which will take effect in a few months, residents of Uruguay who are over the age of 18 will be able to buy marijuana each month from licensed pharmacies. There is one big problem: According to polls, six out of 10 Uruguayans oppose legalization. But that has not discouraged Mújica from pressing on. “They are afraid,” he explained. “But we are even more afraid of drug trafficking. Drug dealers are much worse than the drug itself. But drugs can be controlled.”
Many people also fear that Uruguay could become a destination for drug tourism, like Amsterdam. But Mújica is not worried because the legislation bars visitors from buying marijuana in Uruguay.
At the end of our discussion, I said to Mújica that, even though he is 78 years old, his views and energetic demeanor are those of someone much younger. What is his secret? “It must be some genetic thing,” he said, laughing. Then he
tapped his chest. “I feel young in here. My small body feels the years, the rheumatism, all that. But in here I feel strong.”
Mújica is proving that he did not run for office because of a love of power or money. He seems to be carrying through with his ideas in the hope that things can be changed for the better in his country. “I’m a fighter,” he said, “full of dreams.”
By Jorge Ramos Avalos.
(December 20, 2013)