By Mick Krever and Claire Calzonetti, CNN
Jose Mujica is often referred to as the world’s “poorest” president.
“I'm not a poor president,” he told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour through an interpreter on Monday. “Poor are the people who need a lot – Seneca said that. I am an austere president.”
He donates 97% of his salary, drives a 1987 Volkwagen Beetle – the original “peoples’ car” – and sells flowers with his wife at their home.
Mujica, a former Marxist guerrilla, lives in the same modest Montevideo house he always has, forgoing the presidential palace.
“I do not need much to live. I live in the same way I used to live when I wasn’t a president and in the same neighborhood, in my same house, and in the same way. And I am a republican” – small ‘r.’
“I live like the majority in my country lives. It was a majority who voted for me. And that's why I identify with them. Morally, I do not have the right to live like a minority in my country.”
“A lot of people like a lot of money. They shouldn't go into politics. That's my way of seeing it. I am not improvising. I don't do marketing. This is my philosophy.”
President Mujica met with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House Monday. What is it like for a former Marxist guerrilla to enter the White House, that most potent of Western’s symbols?
“I cannot deny reality,” he told Amanpour. “I don't know whether I like this planet or not, but I have to accept it.”
There is not just one “United States,” he said. Yes, the country wields tremendous – “scary” – influence in Latin America, and the relationship between the region and America has a troubled history full of attempted coups and CIA operatives.
“However,” he said, “there's also a big debate in the States. There's human progress. There's a technological and scientific development that helps the whole of humanity. So we cannot just put everything in one bag and just say one word to describe the U.S.”
“I know that the U.S. is a bit of a global policeman, but I also recognize something really positive about the U.S. which has helped humanity.”
And lest Presidents Mujica and Obama feel at a loss for conversation topics, Mujica’s austerity is far from the only remarkable thing about him.
Uruguay is the first country to fully legalize the marijuana trade, earning it both praise and criticism from all over the world.
“We are regularizing a clandestine market that we want to legalize,” he said. “We are not expanding addiction. We are trying to resolve the problem in time for people who go into this addiction, which, like any other addiction, is a bad thing.”
Many people even in his country, he told Amanpour, do not yet fully understand the policy.
“It is a measure against trafficking, drug dealing. We are trying to snatch the market away from them, because it's 80 years now that we are repressing drug use.”
“So like everywhere in the world, repression by itself doesn't do the job. We are trying to find another way.”
Regulating use of the drug, he suggested, could even lead to a decrease in usage.
“When you surround that with this forbidden aura, you are actually calling the younger to take it up. However, if you place it as a controlled product that you can purchase at the chemist – like some other drugs like morphine, which is used for certain prescriptions – then we are taking the mystery out of marijuana and we hit the drug dealers.”
As he shines light on the marijuana market, President Mojica is also cracking down on the tobacco industry – a product he, a former smoker, says is a killer that needs to be brought under control.
The American tobacco giant Philip Morris is suing Uruguay over its anti-cigarette laws.
“It's not about companies; it's not about suing. I am just asking that we do have to really fight against this. Life is worth everything, and we have to fight for it. Being alive is a miracle.”
President Mujica’s story is all the more remarkable because he spent 14 years in prison, some of it in solitary confinement.
To stave off the crushing loneliness and boredom that punctuates prison life, Mujica befriended any living thing he could find.
“If you catch a black ant, a normal common ant, you grab her with two fingers, you put her right inside your ear, and you hear it scream,” he told Amanpour. “But of course you need time to do that. And you have to be really lonely.”
“When you spend a long time by yourself in solitary confinement, a frog, a rat that comes to eat because you leave some crumbs there – it's life. It's the life you have there.”
“And probably there's nothing worse that loneliness after death. We are gregarious. We need society to live. We never save ourselves alone. We always save ourselves with the others.”
“These are very elemental things of life. Yet they're things that we forget too often.”