Uruguay's President Shuns Trappings Of His Office

The president of Uruguay is said to be extremely frugal and gives most of his salary to charity. Renee Montagne talks to Simon Romero of The New York Times about Jose Mujica's presidency.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

When the president of Uruguay met with President Obama yesterday, he did not don a tie. Unusual for a head of state at a White House meeting, but Jose Mujica is unusual. For one thing, he donates most of his salary to charity. He's also taken on tobacco giant Philip Morris over their marketing in South America - a crusade that's made Mujica a favorite of global health activists and Michael Bloomberg.

To get more about President Mujica, we reached the New York Times Simon Romero who interviewed him last year.

SIMON ROMERO: It was one of the most fascinating interviews I have ever done with a political leader. He shunned the opulent presidential mansion in Montevideo, the Uruguayan capital, preferring to remain in his modest home on the outskirts of that city where he and his wife have long farmed flowers, chrysanthemums. And he doesn't have any servants, no maids.

When I interviewed him he hardly had any bodyguards at all. It was an incredible experience to meet a head of state who really lives like that.

MONTAGNE: And that, I take it, sets the tone to some degree of his presidency.

ROMERO: Certainly his austere lifestyle was the result of a lifetime of similar choices. In his youth he was a leader in an urban guerilla movement. He was captured by the authorities and spent almost a decade and a half in prison, most of that time in solitary confinement. When he was released he decided to go back into politics, this time in a peaceful way.

And he's always championed socially liberal projects. Under his watch Uruguay has legalized gay marriage and it's also legalized marijuana.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. Let's talk about him legalizing marijuana because he would've been doing that in a context where there are major and deadly drug wars going on around him in the region, also in a region where at least the United States' interest has been to stamp out drug use. He went against the grain there. Tell us about that.

ROMERO: Well, it's been a fascinating experiment so far. Uruguay is closely monitoring what's happening in the states of Washington and Colorado. To a certain extent there's even a kind of cross pollination taking place with the legislative experiments in those different places trying to learn from one another. What Mujica wants is for the government in Uruguay to control every level of the legal marijuana industry from growing the plant to distributing and selling it in pharmacies.

It's very well situated within Uruguay's own history of having the government control key industries ranging from telecommunications to oil. Many Uruguayans are comfortable with that level of state control and they're applying it now to their marijuana industry. Mujica really sees Uruguay as adopting a pioneer stance in Latin America and it's helped to trigger a debate in countries across the region.

MONTAGNE: Now, this visit to the White House. What is the relationship between the United States and Uruguay? What does each have to offer each other?

ROMERO: You know, it's actually a remarkably strong and vibrant relationship. Uruguay is of course happy to see in the U.S. a trading partner and a market for some of its commodities like lamb. Uruguay is also a huge cattle exporter and it produces wine. And the U.S. sees in Uruguay, and in Mujica especially, someone who they can talk with and maintain a good level of exchange with.

MONTAGNE: Well, Simon Romero, thank you very much for joining us.

ROMERO: Renee, thanks for having me.

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MONTAGNE: Simon Romero is a South America correspondent for the New York Times. This is NPR News.

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