• Former President Jose Mujica of Uruguay announced Monday that he has been diagnosed with esophageal cancer.
  • “This is obviously very complicated and doubly so in my case,” Mujica said of the diagnosis.
  • Mujica, a leftist who held Uruguay’s highest office from 2010 to 2015, is noted for his transformational leadership that rendered his country one of the most socially liberal in Latin America.

Uruguay’s former guerilla-turned-president, Jose Mujica, widely known as a leftist icon who transformed his small country into one of the most socially liberal in all of Latin America, said Monday that he has esophageal cancer.

Mujica, 88, said he was diagnosed during a routine medical checkup last Friday. He said the tumor discovered in his esophagus is particularly dangerous because he also suffers from an autoimmune disease.

“This is obviously very complicated and doubly so in my case,” the ex-president who governed Uruguay from 2010 to 2015 told reporters Monday. He said doctors were assessing the best course of action but warned him that chemotherapy and surgery posed challenges.

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Known among both fans and detractors as “Pepe” Mujica, the folksy leader of Uruguay, a country of just 3.3 million people, was first a leader of the Tupamaros, the Marxist guerilla group that drew inspiration from the Cuban revolution.

Jose Mujica

FILE – Uruguay’s former President Jose Mujica, left, and his wife Lucia Topolansky enter La Moneda presidential palace for a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the military coup that toppled the government of late President Salvador Allende in Santiago, Chile, Sept. 11, 2023. Mujica announced on April 29, 2024, that he has esophageal cancer after a tumor was detected during a medical check-up. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix, File)

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Mujica wielded weapons on Montevideo’s streets in an effort to overthrow the government, getting shot by police several times and ultimately landing in prison until the fall of the country’s dictatorship led to his release in 1985.

As Uruguay’s 40th president, Mujica legalized same-sex marriage — a bold move in the predominantly Roman Catholic country — and boosted women’s rights. He also made Uruguay the first nation in the world to fully legalize recreational marijuana.

He drew admiration in Uruguay and far afield as a politician who spoke with blunt honesty and lived up to his own values, shunning the presidential palace in favor of his modest house on the outskirts of Montevideo and donating most of his salary to charity.

“I live as I think,” he told The Associated Press in an interview last fall. “When we have companions, we’re not poor.”

Although Mujica left the Senate in 2020, he remained a powerful force in the Broad Front, a coalition of leftist parties and centrist social democrats.

In his characteristically charming and self-effacing style, Mujica turned the press conference on his diagnosis into a pep-talk for the country’s youth.

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“I want to convey to all the young people that life is beautiful, but it wears you out and you fall,” he said. “The point is to start over every time you fall. If there is anger, transform it into hope.”

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