When the president of Uruguay, Jose Mujica, visited Washington DC in May, his presence generated more attention than usual for the head of state of a small, geographically remote country. This included a private bilateral meeting with President Obama, in the Oval Office, as well as a high profile speaking engagement at American University’s School of International Service.
A major part of the interest in President Mujica – who prefers to go by his nickname, “Pepe” – is his eccentric persona. He is infamous around the world for his austere lifestyle, preferring his small country house to a presidential palace and his Volkswagen Beetle to an armed motorcade.
But also on display during President Mujica’s visit was the willingness to pursue controversial or even unpopular policies that has defined his administration, and which makes Uruguay an interesting outlier in the region. Since taking power in 2010, President Mujica has pushed through measures to allow for gay marriage and create a legalization framework for cannabis, moves that would be unthinkable in most of Latin America.
More recently, President Mujica has taken on another issue that has become something of a third rail in international politics: the asylum of prisoners being housed in the United States’ Guantanamo Bay facility in Cuba. President Obama took office swearing to close the prison, due to the problematically extra-judicial nature of its role in the war on terror, but major obstacles presented themselves almost immediately. Not least of these was the US Congress, which blocked efforts to move detainees – who have not been convicted and who have been cleared for release – to the mainland United States.
The US government has thus struggled to find homes for the 154 prisoners that remain in custody, especially since many of them cannot be returned to their own countries due to security concerns. It is a particularly difficult group of six men that Uruguay has offered to take in – four Syrian nationals, a Palestinian, and a Tunisian.
As with many other policies championed by President Mujica, the Uruguayan public is largely skeptical. A public opinion poll showed that only 23 percent of citizens approved of the transfer, compared with almost 50 percent opposed.
Why, then, is the Uruguayan government going out on a limb to accept them? Certainly a part of it comes down to President Mujica’s own stubborn attachment to his principles, an admirable trait that he has demonstrated on a number of occasions. And his personal opinion on the Guantanamo detention center is clear: “It’s a disgrace,” he said recently, “I’m doing this [taking in the prisoners] for humanity.”
It is not an unprecedented stance for Uruguay. The country has a history of asylum-giving, taking in refugees from neighboring Argentina’s “dirty war” of the 1970s and 1980s, as well as a number of previous Guantanamo inmates in 1999.
But as many analysts point out, the move is also in keeping with Uruguay’s strategic approach to international affairs, in which it has long sought to compensate for its small size by forging close working ties with the US. Sandwiched between two major regional powers, Argentina and Brazil, a succession of Uruguayan leaders have worked hard to develop strong relationships with the US, expanding trade and collaborating on bilateral priorities.
Thus Uruguay fills a unique role, as one of the region’s most leftist governments, but also one of the most pro-US. It also enjoys strong, democratic institutions that don’t face the threat of personalistic populism that troubles Venezuela, Argentina, and others in the region.
In their Oval Office meeting, President Obama made the warm relationship with Uruguay very clear, arguing that “President Mujica personally has extraordinary credibility when it comes to issues of democracy and human rights, given his strong values and personal history, and is a leader on these issues throughout the hemisphere.” He additionally pointed out the expanding trade portfolio between the countries, and Uruguay’s contribution to UN peacekeeping missions in Haiti and elsewhere.
As his term nears its end – Uruguay will hold elections for a new president in October – President Mujica has increasingly styled himself as something of an elder statesman, interested in taking a more removed and philosophical view of the major issues confronting Latin America and the world. In his talk at American University, he opined on topics as diverse as the nature of democracy, the ongoing evolution of humanity, and the need to treat drug abuse and addiction from a medical, rather than a criminal, standpoint. In the Oval Office meeting, he spent almost as much time decrying the evils of tobacco as highlighting bilateral diplomacy.
He finished those remarks with a nod to his affection for the US and his love for rural culture. “I am getting old, and to be old means you don’t want to leave home,” he said. “I would like to be a little bit younger to see the Mississippi, visit the ranches, Los Angeles, the milk farms, and other things.” With his term ending soon, he may yet have the chance.