Uruguay v France: Under-20 World Cup final

Not much in the way of proper, meaningful football going on in Argentina but it was a very different story over the river in Uruguay at the weekend.

Their Under-20 boys were playing France in the final of their World Cup, being played in Turkey.

Coincidently I was scheduled to interview the president that same afternoon. Yes, you read correctly. I interviewed President Jose Mujica.

“We’d like to be done well before three,” said the press people. In any other country you might have asked: “Why? Phone call coming in from Obama? A budget to rubber stamp?”

“No. Everyone wants to watch the football.” Obviously! This is after all a country of less than four million that has twice won the World Cup and are currently champions of South America.

Jose Mujica has been dubbed the poorest president in the world since he gives ninety-percent of his salary to charity and drives a second-hand Volkswagon Beatle. The hole-riddled chunky cardigan could have been invented for him and he has a three-legged dog called Manuela.

In my research beforehand I read that he’d also spent two years imprisoned at the bottom of a well – a bizarre fact that I never had the opportunity to question him on. He was a former rebel – a leading member of Uruguay’s Tupamaros organization – who spent fourteen years in captivity after participating in an armed operation to take control of a small Uruguayan town. It was during that captivity, while the military was in power, that he spent the two years in the well. I had other things to ask him and our time was limited.

The president’s press office drove us from Montevideo to the presidential country retreat, La Anchorena, a two-and-a-half hour drive westwards in the direction of Colonia. We traveled in a mini-bus with presidential license plates which allowed us to whiz through the toll gates without paying and attracted many a curious stare to see if the man the locals affectionately call Pepe was inside.

After a brief wait in the gravel car park of La Anchorena we were told the president could meet us. He stood at the corner of the house clad in a sweat-shirt of indistinguishable colour thrown over an off-white sweat shirt that stretched over a protruding belly. He was slightly hunched, his grey hair long and swept back to give maximum prominence to bushy eyebrows that arched over small, dark and piercing eyes. The only other adornment on his weather-beaten face was a pert moustache of the type you’d see a lot of in films from the nineteen-fifties and sixties.

The president and his wife, Lucia Topolansky, a senator in the Uruguayan parliament, were in the midst of a ministerial meeting which had to finish promptly since, as I mentioned, there was football to be watched.

The three-legged dog, who Mrs Topolansky told me had suffered a lawn-mower accident, pottered about the lush-green grounds like she owned them.

We still were not ready when Mr Mujica appeared at my shoulder.

“Let’s just go,” I said between gritted teeth. “We’re ready.” It’s not every day you get to interview a president and I suspect that somewhere the protocol suggests you don’t keep them waiting – even one as amiable as the president of Uruguay.

The American whistleblower, Edward Snowden, was the top of everyone’s agenda. And since a Mercosur summit had ended the day before in Montevideo, I had to assume that had been their main topic of conversation – especially since the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, was there. And several countries in Europe had the previous week refused his plane entry to their airspace since they, wrongly, suspected Snowden was on board.

Hundreds of years of pent up Latin American resentment over European colonialism bubbled to the surface.

“Should a country in Latin America grant Snowden political asylum?” I asked the president.

“Political asylum is as important as a religion,” he replied. “It’s one of the fundamental human rights, with all the errors of judgement that can be made. As an institution humanity must defend political asylum.”

Unequivocable! The trouble was, he continued, he feared retribution from the United States if they did. “A superpower doesn’t let you defy it,” he explained. “Even though it has no reason, even though it has no legal standing. The US is trying to deter others so that these things don’t happen again.”

I’ve interviewed many politicians from many countries of all political colours and increasingly they talk on auto-pilot, programmed by their press offices to spout the party line. Not Pepe Mujica! He was animated. He thought about his answers and told it like he saw it, waving his hands in the air, stroking his chin, slumping back contentedly into the folds of his armchair when his point had been well made.

“Marijuana?” I said. “Uruguay wants to legalise its sale. What’s that all about?”

“Our main concern is drug trafficking,” he explained. “Much more than drug addiction. Drug trafficking is the main reason why violence has increased in our society because it brings criminal behaviour which infiltrates the whole society. Human life ends up not being worth anything.”

I work for Chinese television so I couldn’t not ask him about Chinese investment in his country. He’d been there just a couple of months earlier. “We have to negotiate with China,” he said. “They’re too big not to.”

It transpired that he’d also been to China as part of a student delegation in the early nineteen-sixties when he’d met Chairman Mao.

“Just a photograph,” he said modestly. But he was sure about Mao’s legacy. “Chairman Mao Zedong was aware that China was a potential power and that the reforms that he had promoted had had a relative degree of longevity but had to be framed in their 1000 year long history. What remained was a China that was solid and strong and proud of itself.”

President Mujica took office in March 2010. Under his watch Uruguay became the first country in the region to legalise abortion. “I don’t like abortion,” he said. “No-one likes abortion.” But it’s a reality, he explained, a reality that requires pragmatic solutions.

And his greatest achievement since he took office? Taking seven to eight hundred thousand people – in a country with a population of less than four million – out of poverty. “However,” he said. “The work is not done.”

Neither is Uruguay’s battle to bring to justice those who under the military dictatorship of the nineteen-seventies and eighties tortured and killed hundreds of their own people.

“They used torture,” said the president. “The country can’t use torture. We can’t use the measures they used because that’s not logical.” Too many people, he explained, were harbouring too much vital information that they were not willing to give up.

“Time passes and we are disappearing,” he said, referring to his own seventy-eight year old body. “I think debts of this kind leave great wounds in society.”

There was much more that I wanted to ask him. Whether he thought, with hindsight, that the armed struggle he took up in the nineteen-sixties was the right course of action, whether he had really been imprisoned at the bottom of a well and, if so, what was it like? But our  half-an-hour was up.

As we climbed aboard the presidential mini-bus taking us back to Montevideo, Manuela the three-legged dog waddled into view to see us off.

I’ve long held that countries probably get the politicians they deserve. Here was a man who had fought and suffered for his country, who had thought long and hard about its history, who at seventy-eight years old was still prepared to host ministerial meetings at the weekend and had the compassion to care for a three-legged dog.

Uruguay I thought as we pulled along the gravel path away from the presidential country retreat, is in good hands, well able to overcome their Under-20s’ defeat to France on penalties after the game ended goalless.

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