This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
On the morning of October 8, 1969, José Mujica woke up and got dressed for a funeral. He and nine other young men — nephews of the deceased — piled into a Volkswagen van and waited on the side of a two-lane road that led from Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, to the small city of Pando, about 14 miles east. Six other cars and a hearse — rented from the fanciest funeral home in the country — drove past, and the VW joined the cavalcade, rumbling through the flat green cattle pastures that hug the South American nation’s coastline. The journey was somber and quiet, until about three miles from Pando, when the mourners subdued the hired drivers of the cars and stuffed them into the back of the Volkswagen.
In reality, there was no funeral to attend, no corpse, and no mourners. The Pando-bound people were members of the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional — also known as the Tupamaros — a Marxist guerrilla group that wished to install a Cuban-style dictator in Uruguay and rid the country of its supposedly kleptocratic government. Mujica, who at 35 years old was one of the group’s earliest and most charismatic members, got into the backseat of one of the cars and clutched the wooden handle of his Spanish-made Z-45 submachine gun. When he arrived in Pando, a sleepy industrial city of 12,000, he and his small battalion robbed its banks and tried to take over the local government, killing a police officer and one civilian in a brazen, chaotic shoot-out in broad daylight.
Four decades later, at 74, José Mujica donned Uruguay’s blue-and-white executive sash and became its president after his left-wing coalition party won the country’s 2009 election. Although his hair had grayed and his belly had expanded, Mujica looked over the crowds gathered at the capital’s central square for his inauguration with the same olive-pit eyes that had scanned the road to Pando back in 1969. The crowd looked back at him admiringly, as he delivered a fiery oration in front of a Jumbotron screen bearing his image.
If a man’s character is his fate, as Heraclitus wrote, then Mujica’s has brought him on an exceptional ride, one that occasionally creeps into the headlines of newspapers and websites but rarely gets a treatment beyond his life’s major plot points. Mujica is a former revolutionary (some might call him a terrorist) who was shot six times, imprisoned for 14 years, tortured, and kept in solitary confinement for upward of three years, only to be released, renounce violence, enter politics, win election to the nation’s highest office, and lead Uruguay as it rose out of recession, all the while legalizing gay marriage and abortion, which is noteworthy for a country that counts Catholicism as its dominant religion. He donates 90 percent of his income to charity, lives at his small farm rather than the country’s lavish presidential palace, drives a Volkswagen Beetle, almost never wears a suit, and rails against the excesses of consumerism and the West’s reliance on it as economic ballast.
But Mujica’s most piquant achievement as a head of state, the one that has made him a cult hero to droves of young progressives around the world, is his government’s decision to fully legalize and regulate marijuana across the country, which became law on December 13, 2013, but won’t take effect until late 2014—making Uruguay the first nation to do so countrywide. Mujica himself is no stoner—he prefers whiskey and cigars and claims to have never smoked the stuff—but as he stated in an address to the United Nations General Assembly in 2012, “What we want is to take the market from drug traffickers.” Rather than continue to fight the war on drugs and perpetuate its cycle of violence — which in South America alone has cost upward of a trillion dollars and taken the lives of tens of thousands of people, by some estimates — Mujica is presenting otro camino, another path. If Uruguay’s legalization succeeds in wresting marijuana sales from cartels, Mujica’s model could reverberate around the world. Drug-policy-reform advocates hope that he will win the Nobel Peace Prize.
José Mujica Cordano was born in 1935 on the outskirts of Montevideo. As a child he would help his single mother sell flowers in their neighborhood, riding a bike piled high with bundles of orange, white, and pink chrysanthemums to the farmer’s market. It was their main source of income. “We endured a dignified poverty,” he later recalled.
Poverty was his gateway drug to political activism. According to The Robin Hood Guerrillas, Pablo Brum’s forthcoming biography, after dropping out of a prestigious high school, Mujica began to “link up with small time criminals in Montevideo’s shadier neighborhoods,” where he met a socialist named Enrique Erro. Erro led a youth branch of a left-wing political party and offered Mujica a leadership role because of the teenager’s charisma. With financing from the party, Mujica — who went by the nickname Pepe — traveled the communist world, visiting, among other places, Moscow, Beijing, and Havana, where he met Che Guevara and Fidel Castro in 1959, just months after they took Havana.
When Pepe returned to Montevideo, he abandoned Erro’s party and became a guerrilla. Very little is known about how exactly Pepe went from a young democratic socialist to full-on gun-toting guerrilla fighter. But according to Mujica: El Florista Presidente, a biography by Uruguayan journalist Sergio Israel, the Cuban Revolution pushed Mujica to imagine a similar South American upheaval.
It was in this context of revolutionary longing that Pepe joined the Tupamaros. Founded in the 1960s by Raúl Sendic, a lawyer who had also met Guevara, the group started out doing what they called “armed propaganda”— taking over cinema houses, for example, and forcing the audience to watch slide shows decrying the injustice of liberal democracy. The Tupamaros would also rob banks and give back to people in the city, earning them a Robin Hood–like reputation. Women were well accounted for in the organization, and the guerrillas became notorious in the Uruguayan press for their high-profile female members — like a beautiful blond Jane Fonda type named Yessie Macchi, whom Pepe dated. The group’s propaganda minister told the press that “at no point is a woman more equal to a man than when she is holding a .45 in her hand.”
The Pando raid, in which Pepe dressed as a funeral attendee, was timed to honor the second anniversary of Che Guevara’s death and was meant to advertise the group’s presence — and goal of eventually taking over Uruguay — to the country. When the line of black cars and the Volkswagen entered the city just after noon, Tupamaros in disguise who had already arrived in town commenced a vaudevillian display of character acting in front of the city’s main police station. They harangued the officers at the front desk with their petty complaints until, in a coordinated assault reminiscent of a scene from The Town, they drew their guns and raided the precinct, locking the cops in the building’s jail cells and trading fire and grenades with one policeman who had held out and made a break for it.
Pepe and his team were in charge of disabling the telephone exchange, and they dispatched their duties efficiently, without firing a single shot. The stunned telephone operators left their desks and lay on the ground. Then Pepe went into a tirade about the Che Guevara–inspired revolution the Tupamaros hoped to ignite in Uruguay. Besides the intricate planning, careful disguises, and hiding-in-plain-sight nature of Tupamaro attacks — of which there had been a handful before the Pando assault — pontification was a frequent and important feature. Their tactics of urban assault weren’t geared toward amassing a body count; they were calibrated to convert everyday citizens to the cause.
In the end, three Tupamaros were killed and many more injured in a dramatic gunfight that started at the town’s main bank branch (which the Tupamaros were robbing) and spilled out into the streets. Meanwhile, Pepe had already fled Pando and returned to Montevideo, where he sat at a bar, listening to the action unfold on the radio, like the rest of the country. To Uruguayans alive then, that day is reminiscent of the chaos in Boston after the marathon bombing last year.
On March 23, 1970, Pepe was arrested. A cop recognized him while Pepe was drinking grappa at La Via, a bar in the center of Montevideo. The officer called for backup, and Pepe, seeing a police car pulling up to the bar’s entrance, took out his gun and opened fire.
A gunfight ensued. Two policemen were shot, and Pepe was hit twice. While he was sprawled on the bar floor, another cop shot him four more times, in the gut. He likely would have died had it not been for a fortuitous Tupamaro twist: The doctor who ended up treating him turned out to be a Tupamaro too, hiding in plain sight.
From a broad historical perspective, Mujica’s capture could be seen as the beginning of the end for the Tupamaros. Their merry days of masquerading had transformed into an increasingly brutal urban guerrilla war, during which the Tupamaros kidnapped and murdered an FBI agent. The military staged a coup in the summer of 1974, and the junta made a special cause of imprisoning, killing, and torturing hundreds of Tupamaros — including most of the leadership. Pepe spent most of the 1970s in and out of prison, escaping several times, only to be caught again. He and eight other leaders of the Tupamaros were singled out as special prisoners—the government called them hostages — and they were placed in solitary confinement and shuttled around in groups of three between military prisons.
At one of the locations where he was held — a military base in the rural town Paso de los Toros, about 160 miles north of Montevideo — Pepe lived at the bottom of a well. Or not exactly a well, but an outdoor pool in a courtyard from which the military’s horses would drink water. They drained the pool and built three cells, placing sheet metal atop the pool to block the sunlight.
Pepe went mad. He started hearing static, as if a radio had been left on, stuck between stations. He would scream for someone to turn it off.
In 1984 the military rulers signed an agreement to hand power over to a democratically elected government, and the dictatorship officially ended the following year. During that transition, Pepe’s conditions of imprisonment improved. They let him garden. He grew vegetables and regained a degree of psychological stability. But one of the other Tupamaro “hostages” died in captivity, and another went insane.
The surviving eight prisoners were released in 1985 and offered amnesty. Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro, another leader, and Pepe started the Movement of Popular Participation, a legal political party, with other former Tupamaros. Pepe’s charisma carried him to win election to the country’s parliament in 1994, then to its senate in 1999. In 2005 he was appointed the minister of livestock, agriculture, and fisheries. And then, in 2009, riding a crest of liberal sentiment in Uruguay, he won the country’s presidential election with 52.4 percent of the vote.
Mujica has commented a few times over the years about his time in the Tupamaros and his subsequent rise to legitimate leadership, and the statement that makes it into his biographies speaks to the unlikelihood of his life’s arc. According to Mujica, “Not even the greatest novelist could have imagined what happened.”
In March I flew to Montevideo to interview President Mujica. The day we were scheduled to meet was bright and sunny. I stood in Independence Square, the same public plaza where he was inaugurated. In the center of the square stands a massive statue of Uruguay’s colonial liberator, José Gervasio Artigas, who fought against the Spanish to secure the country’s independence in 1830. He sits in full uniform astride a horse. Artigas died in exile in Paraguay, and legend has it that as he was approaching death he called for a horse so he could die in his saddle, like a true caballero. His remains are interred beneath the statue.
On the southeastern side of the square is the Torre Ejecutiva, the offices of the president, and I escaped the morning sun under its blue-green glass awning while waiting to be driven to Pepe’s farm, a few miles from the city.
A beige Hyundai minivan emblazoned with the seal of the president — a smiling sun with undulating rays reaching over a curved horizon — pulled up to the curb near where I was waiting. I got in, and we drove through the center of town and its Italian Gothic–style architecture, past the city’s maritime ports, and into the flat countryside.
Pepe’s farm is bucolic and ramshackle. We sat in the sun-dappled courtyard of his one-story farmhouse, where his three-legged Chihuahua, named Manuela, and a few small kittens roamed. Songbirds chirped in the meadow surrounding his farm. I asked him why he chose such humble environs instead of the presidential palace.
“As soon as politicians start climbing up the ladder,” he said, “they suddenly become kings. I don’t know how it works, but what I do know is that republics came to the world to make sure that no one is more than anyone else.” The pomp of office, he suggested, was like something left over from a feudal past: “You need a palace, red carpet, a lot of people behind you saying, ‘Yes, sir.’ I think all of that is awful.”
As his wife, Lucía Topolansky, a former Tupamara who is now a senator, worked inside the house, I asked Mujica what the implications of being the first nation to fully legalize marijuana meant for his country.
“We’re going to start an experiment,” he said, in gravelly Spanish. “It’s almost certain that we’ll be under the international spotlight. We’re a petri dish, really, a social laboratory. But remember this: In Uruguay there are 9,000 prisoners. Three thousand of them are locked up for narcotrafficking crimes. What does that mean? That three out of nine incarcerations are drug-related. First and foremost we need to fix that.”
While many of those prisoners are locked up for marijuana-related offenses, Uruguay also consumes the third most cocaine per capita in South America. When I asked whether other drugs might become legal, he responded, “Paso a paso.” Step by step.
Under the current law, tourists are not allowed to buy weed, but examples like Colorado—where hundreds of millions of dollars in increased economic activity is expected to produce a windfall of tax revenue for the government—are enticing. Is developing a weed economy a pragmatic economic decision?
Mujica rejected this as a goal of his law. “We want to find an effective way to fight narcotraffic,” he repeated. “After that we might encounter different chapters. But let’s take it easy and go slowly. Because we have to apply a thing and invent a road that we don’t know yet… we have to discover it along the way.”
Even though Pepe is a humble man, his goals are ambitious. The international drug trade is “basically a monopoly for the ones who control it,” he said. “We want to introduce a huge competitor, which is the state, with all the power of the state.” The endgame is to force cartels out of business through economics: The government will sell weed at a shockingly low price of a dollar a gram. To Mujica, stamping out the violence associated with the drug trade comes down to slashing prices, not funneling billions of dollars to military and police and locking up his citizens.
Perhaps surprisingly, while drug-policy analysts, news-hungry stoners, and other anti-prohibition observers love Uruguay’s move to legalization, it’s actually unpopular within Uruguay. A poll conducted prior to the law’s passage determined that 64 percent of citizens oppose legalizing the drug. And the United Nations’ International Narcotics Control Board has decried the nation, and Pepe in particular, for irresponsible policy decisions. I asked him what he thought about that.
“It has always been like that with changes,” he said, wagging his head. “In 1913 we established divorce as a right for women in Uruguay. You know what they were saying back then? That families would dissolve. That it was the end of good manners and society. There has always been a conservative and traditional opinion out there that’s afraid of change. When I was young and would go dancing at balls, we’d have to wear suits and ties. Otherwise they wouldn’t let us in. I don’t think anyone dresses up for dancing parties nowadays.”
Also unpopular is Pepe’s recent push to open his country up to mining. In 2013 his government approved what’s known as the Valentine’s Project, a $3 billion open-pit mine complex. Once the mine is up and running, Uruguay will become a global exporter of iron ore in the amount of roughly 4 to 5 billion tons, according to projections. To Pepe, it’s the most important foreign-policy decision of his administration, but farmers, ranchers, and environmentalists fear that the project, which includes hundreds of miles of slurry pipelines and a deep-sea port, will be disastrous. When I asked him about it, he cut me off mid-question, leaned in closely, and squinted his eyes into two downward-facing crescent moons.
“Let’s get things straight,” he said. “We want to diversify our economy. We don’t want to stop our cattle industries or agriculture or water. If we can add one more economic activity, that could be very interesting. But we have to do it the right way.”
He went on: “What’s sad is that an 80-year-old grandpa has to be the open-minded one. Old people aren’t old because of their age, but because of what’s in their heads. They are horrified at this, but they aren’t horrified at what’s happening in the streets?”
Pepe has no children and was referring to his grandpa-ness in a metaphoric sense, and he won’t turn 80 until after his term in office ends. But I was curious what he thought about the current state of revolt that has gripped young people and set streets on fire from Brazil to Greece, Taiwan to Turkey, and has brought down governments in Egypt and Tunisia.
“I’ve seen some springs that ended up being terrible winters,” he said. “We human beings are gregarious. We can’t live alone. For our lives to be possible, we depend on society. It’s one thing to overturn a government or block the streets. But it’s a different matter altogether to create and build a better society, one that needs organization, discipline, and long-term work. Let’s not confuse the two of them.”
Before I could ask my next question, Pepe interjected, hoping not to admonish the spirit of revolt that had guided most of his life. “I want to make it clear: I feel sympathetic with that youthful energy, but I think it’s not going anywhere if it doesn’t become more mature.”
After our interview, Pepe showed me around the rest of his property and then brought us back to the courtyard. He answered a call on an old Nokia brick phone — urgent state business. After he hung up, I asked Pepe whether he minded if I smoked a joint. I fully understood the implications of smoking weed in front of a head of state, but of all presidents, I thought, he’d be game. After my translator relayed my request, Pepe smiled broadly and exclaimed, “Por favor!”
I sparked up a joint, and Pepe shrugged and smiled. “I have no prejudice,” he said, “but let me give you something juicier to smoke.” He got up, went back into his house, and emerged with a cigar. “This is a cigar given to me by Fidel Castro.” His wife, Lucía, followed behind and showed me a portable humidor, a large box shaped like a house filled with Castro-length Cohibas. For a moment, I thought she was giving all of them to me, and I worried how I’d get them through customs. Pepe chuckled, and I smoked the rest of my joint.
To be clear, Uruguay’s legalization is not aimed at allowing bozos like me to get high indiscriminately. It’s a serious legislative experiment designed to dismantle what pretty much everyone agrees is a horrid failure of public policy: the war on drugs. And while Pepe has an almost too-good-to-be-true avuncular charm, he’s a carefully calculating statesman with a keen sense of how to capture the limelight.
A small country of 3.4 million legalizing weed is, on the global scale, a tiny occurrence, but it might just be that crucial example, the hiding-in-plain-sight truth, that all it takes is bold decisions and bold leadership to turn ideas into action. Whether it actually will work is a question neither Pepe nor I can answer.