In his White House visit Monday, Uruguay President Jose Mujica Cordano spoke about the increasing importance for people in the Western Hemisphere to be bilingual, the dangers of smoking and his interest in having U.S. professors travel to his country to guide the younger generation.
In brief, but wide-ranging remarks after his meeting with President Barack Obama, Mujica, who is 78 years old, did not address some of the more controversial topics he regularly focuses on – such as Uruguay's legal marijuana market and his vow to take into his nation detainees from the counter-terrorism prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
But, through a translator and with Obama sitting to his left, Mujica described himself as a former smoker who was now committed to finding ways to deal with the “mass killer” that smoking has become.
“In the world, per year, 8 million people are dying from smoking,” Mujica said. “And that is more than World War I, World War II. It’s murder. We are in an arduous fight – very arduous – and we must fight against very strong interests.”
The colorful president also said the United States needs to learn Spanish – though he acknowledged his country needs to learn English, as well.
“We belong to a continent where our mother tongue is more or less Spanish. And we live in a time where we need to learn English -- yes or yes. And you will have to become a bilingual country -- yes or yes,” he said. “Because the strength of Latin women is admirable and they will fill this country with people who speak Spanish and Portuguese, too.”
Mujica noted that the United States is a world leader in biological sciences, and that his “little Uruguay” sends many students to study here every year.
At the same time, however, he expressed concern about those Uruguayan students who do not return to their homeland upon completing their studies.
“My people, who are there in the midst of an enormous fertile area and much water, come here to seek out knowledge and research in all sectors of the biological sciences,” he said, "particularly in land that require local research, because the continent must produce much food for the world.”
“[The United States] is the most advanced country in the world for biological sciences, but we don't want to merely send students out – they get married, and the American corporations pay more money, so we lose these qualified people,” he said.
Perhaps the solution, he said, is to have U.S. professors go to Uruguay.
Obama lauded trade and commercial ties between the United States and Uruguay during his meeting with South American nation's president.
Obama said to reporters that he has been "consistently impressed" with the progress Uruguay has made since Mujica took office in 2010, particularly his commitment to democracy and human rights.
Mujica rarely dons a tie and made no exception for his visit to the White House. The former guerrilla fighter has also garnered attention for driving an old Volkswagen Beetle and continuing to live on a ramshackle flower farm with his wife.
Mujica said he wished he could visit other places in the United States during his trip, but is growing old and doesn't travel much anymore.
As for growing old, Obama noted that the first thing Mujica said after seeing him “is that my hair has become much grayer than the last time he saw me.”
Striking a more serious note, Obama praised Mujica for being a defender of human rights.
“On the international front, we are very grateful that Uruguay is one of the largest contributors to U.N. peacekeeping in places like Haiti and Africa, and has been responsible for helping to facilitate peace in some very volatile regions,” Obama said.
“President Mujica personally has extraordinary credibility when it comes to issues of democracy and human rights given his strong values and personal history, and is a leader on these issues throughout the hemisphere.”