WASHINGTON -- Though Uruguay's president José Mujica is now internationally known for legalizing gay marriage, creating a government-regulated national marijuana trade and donating 90 percent of his presidential salary to charity, he began his political career as a left-wing guerrilla fighting against the government.
He was shot six times before being arrested in 1972, the year before the country's government fell to a dictatorship. He was tortured and spent a total of 14 years in prison, including periods of solitary confinement and two years in the bottom of a well.
At 78, often exhibiting a jolly, grandfatherly demeanor, Mujica says he now views the world through a less radical lens. Speaking before a crowd of students at American University Tuesday, Mujica reflected on the time he spent as a prisoner during the 1970s and 1980s, explaining how his views of war have changed over the last five decades.
Asked by a student how he found the strength to live through those years at the bottom of a well, Mujica answered by first highlighting his responsibility for what happened to him.
“They didn’t put me in a well because I was black or anything like that,” Mujica said. “With me, it was because they caught me.”
He described the loneliness of solitary confinement as the worst pain that can be felt, but added that “sometimes, pain is a good thing, if you’re capable of turning it into something else.”
“It was bad, but at the same time, I found myself,” Mujica told the students. “If anything similar ever happens to you, try to remember that you’re strong and that you can start over and that it’s worth it.”
It’s not surprising that Mujica’s views have changed. Latin America saw several guerrilla uprisings from Mexico to Argentina from the 1960s to the 1980s, largely inspired by the success of the Cuban Revolution. “When you want to change the world, that’s the cheapest way,” Mujica said, referring to armed revolution.
Many Latin American politicians -- like Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff or the mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, Gustavo Petro -- began their political lives as revolutionaries during those years, but later, like Mujica, turned away from violence and joined the mainstream.
These days, few uprisings remain. The main exception is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, which has waged a half-century long guerrilla war against the Colombian government. The group entered peace talks with the Juan Manuel Santos administration in 2012 in Havana, Cuba, though they have yet to agree to a ceasefire.
“There’s no logic to that war,” Mujica said of the Colombian conflict. “It’s endless, you can’t ask a society to make that kind of sacrifice.”
“Years ago, we used to think that there were good wars and bad wars,” Mujica said. “Good wars were the ones supported by a just and noble cause, for processes of liberation. Today, with all of our technological and scientific knowledge, war -- whatever its tendency -- ends up becoming a sacrifice for the weakest people in society … The worst negotiation is better than the best war. That’s what I think now, because I know the pain and sacrifice of war.”
Mujica later clarified that his message to the students was not to become “little pacifist doves,” but rather to “join in solidarity with the weak.”
“Struggle to be good,” Mujica said. “There will never be a better world if we’re not capable of bettering ourselves.”