As far as presidents go, Uruguay's Jose Mujica is a special case. The 78-year-old former guerrilla is known for his eccentricities: he eschews the sartorial customs of heads of state, as seen in the now famous picture above; he likes to pass his time in a spare, simple farmhouse; he is celebrated for his love of a three-legged dog.
But Mujica is a very serious man and has spent his presidential tenure enacting reforms that have made him the darling of progressives everywhere. He supported the most liberal abortion law in staunchly Catholic Latin America. He legalized gay marriage. And, last year, he helped push through the most sweeping pot legalization laws in the world even when public opinion was (slightly) against it. The Economist, not often charmed by Latin American leaders, named Uruguay “country of the year” in 2013, largely a compliment to Mujica’s time in office.
On a visit to Washington this week, which included a sit-down with President Obama, Mujica spoke with my colleague Mary Beth Sheridan about his latest initiative: to take six Arab detainees from the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and settle them as refugees in Uruguay.
The detainees are no longer linked to terrorism charges, but can’t be repatriated – four of them are Syrian – because of fears surrounding their safety as well as continued activities once they go home. “We are not the jailers of the United States government, or the United States Senate,” Mujica told the Post. “We are offering solidarity on a question that we see as one of human rights.”
He went on to explain to Sheridan why he felt so strongly about accommodating these Guantanamo detainees:
Mujica spent more than 13 years behind bars as a young man for his guerrilla activities, much of it in solitary confinement under a military dictatorship. “I know prisons from the inside,” he said.
He recalled that his only companions during many of those years were mice, ants and spiders. At one point, he befriended a tiny frog in his cell, providing it a cup of water in which to swim. “When you have a lot of solitude, any living thing becomes a companion,” he said.
Mujica may represent one of South America’s smallest countries, but his large-heartedness deserves the global recognition it’s now getting.