May 12 9:57 AM

Uruguay president sends Obama more than smoke signals

Uruguay's president Jose Mujica waves at the press upon his arrival at La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, on March 10, 2014.
Claudio Reyes/AFP/Getty Images

[updated 2x below]

Uruguayan leader José “Pepe” Mujica, the “world’s poorest president,” won’t be rolling up to the White House Monday in his beat-up Volkswagen Beetle. But the farmer and former guerilla, nonetheless, will have no trouble seizing President Obama’s attention.

Just last week, Uruguay formerly launched it marijuana legalization law – Mujica’s “experiment” – to equal parts praise and derision.  Obama, though, may have to temper his criticism of the measure, an antidote to the U.S.-led war on drugs, after Colorado and Washington state legalized the drug, and as efforts to decriminalize pot intensifyin the White House’s backyard.

Mujica and other Latin American presidents have openly questioned a U.S. drug policy that has seen Latin America loose thousands of lives combating a drug that is legal in two U.S. states. And analysts speculate that Mujica will call on Obama to reexamine its hemispheric drug policy.

Monday’s meeting, though, will also focus on a leaf of a different color. Philip Morris is suing Uruguay for $2 billion at the World Bank’s International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes – a sizeable sum for a country with a gross domestic product of $50 billion.

The world’s largest tobacco company argues that a 2009 Uruguayan anti-tobacco law – which requires that graphic health warnings cover 80 percent of cigarette packets – violates its intellectual property rights. The Uruguayan daily El País last week stated that Philip Morris’s goal is to make the tiny nation a “test case” to keep other countries – the company is also suing Australia and Thailand – from implementing restrictive tobacco policy. And President Mujica, the newspaper notes, will ask Obama for help with the costly lawsuit.

Obama may have something to ask for in return. Last month, Mujica announced that Uruguay was willing to accept five Guantánamo Bay detainees – an offer that may offer Obama some relief as he pledges to shut down the facility. For Uruguay, it’s an exercise in realpolitik, as the country pushes for clout in a region dominated by powerhouses Brazil and Argentina, whose war over territory surrounding the River Plate ended in 1828 with the creation of Uruguay as a sort of buffer state.

And one can’t help but wonder whether Mujica’s past played a role in his offer to Obama. The former leader of the Tupamaros guerilla group spent 14 years in prison – over 10 in solitary confinement – for crimes against the Uruguayan government, including kidnappings and assassinations. “They are a human wreck,” Mujica said of the detainees in a March interview with the Associated Press. “If the inmates of Guantánamo want to make their nests in Uruguay, they can do it.”


Update (3 p.m.): During their meeting in the Oval Office Monday morning, Mujica made a point of highlighting Uruguay’s tough stance on smoking, which has been banned in closed public spaces since 2006.

Mujica told Obama, a former smoker, that 8 million people die worldwide due to smoking related illnesses. “This is more than World War I [and] World War II,” said Mujica through an interpreter. “It’s murder. We are in an arduous fight – very arduous – and we must fight against very strong interests.”

Update (5/13 10 a.m.): Although the Mujica administration announced on May 5th that Philip Morris was suing Uruguay for $2 billion, the tobacco company insists that figure is erroneous.

Philip Morris, in an email to Al Jazeera, said Tuesday that the correct sum is $25 million, not $2 billion.

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Any views expressed on The Scrutineer are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.


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