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Pot-friendly farmer president prepares to step down

01 March 2015, 06:55

Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay-Known for his push to legalize cannabis, spartan lifestyle and devotion to his three-legged dog, Uruguay's outspoken President Jose "Pepe" Mujica will step down Sunday more popular than ever.

But after five years steering this South American nation of 3.3 million people, the 79-year-old former guerrilla leaves something of a mixed legacy for his successor, Tabare Vazquez, to build on.

"There's still so much to do and I hope that the next government will be better than mine and will have greater success," Mujica said in an interview with a local newspaper Thursday.

"I became president filled with idealism, but then reality hit."

The colorful rabble-rouser attracted international attention as much for his lifestyle as he did his policies.

Eschewing the trappings of power, Mujica insisted on living on his modest farm and driving around in an aging Volkswagen Beetle.

He was more likely to be seen in a beret with scruffy clothes, having just gotten down from his tractor, than wearing a suit. He also gave most of his salary to charity.

Mujica would sometimes unexpectedly speak with journalists about the rate of inflation or diplomatic relations. Or he'd tell them what he was preparing to feed his three-legged dog Manuela.

The canine companion lost one foot when Mujica accidentally rolled over it with his tractor. She now goes everywhere with the president.

Under Mujica, Uruguay became the first country in the world to fully legalize marijuana all the way from the cannabis field to the joint, setting up a regulated market for cultivation, sales and use.

Less-than-diplomatic politician

The leader was also known for his candid -- and sometimes less-than-diplomatic -- remarks.

A live microphone once caught him saying: "This old hag is worse than the one-eyed guy." It was a reference to Argentine President Cristina Kirchner and her late husband and former president Nestor Kirchner, who had a lazy eye.

Nevertheless, Mujica often spoke of the need for improved regional ties -- especially important for Uruguay, which is sandwiched between the giants Argentina and Brazil.

"I succeeded in putting Uruguay on the world map," Mujica said.

On Saturday, his last day as president, Mujica reiterated his call for regional cooperation as he opened a binational wind farm with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

"We are very far from being integrated, but it's the first time that the governments of Latin America... are meeting, talking and agreeing," he said.

Brazil and Uruguay have embarked on an ambitious plan to improve energy cooperation, including the construction of a new stretch of power lines.

Critics point to Mujica's shortcomings, including his failure to implement education reform, even as the country's academic achievements fell.

Vazquez, a leftist, was previously president from 2005-2010 but had to step down due to rules that bar presidents from serving consecutive terms.

Uruguay's cannabis laws face an uncertain future when Vazquez, a buttoned-down politician with a traditional style, takes over from Mujica.

Sunday's handover will be attended by regional leaders, though Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro canceled his trip due to the "political situation" in his crisis-hit country.

US Vice President Joe Biden, who called Vazquez on Saturday to congratulate him, sent Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Krysta Harden and Washington's deputy UN envoy Michele Sison in his place to attend the inauguration.

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