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New era | Uruguay’s ex-president, left-wing icon Jose Mujica, has been diagnosed with cancer

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Former Uruguayan President Jose Mujica leaves after a press conference at the headquarters of the Movimiento de Participacion Popular (Movement of Popular Participation, MPP) party in Montevideo on April 29, 2024. | AFP photo

Uruguay’s left-wing ex-leader Jose Mujica, once known as the world’s “poorest president” for giving away most of his salary and driving an old Volkswagen Beetle, will receive treatment for esophageal cancer, his doctor said Thursday.

On Monday, the 88-year-old had told reporters in Montevideo that a tumor had been discovered in his esophagus during a medical check-up.

“It’s obviously something very compromising,” he said — doubly complicated because he suffers from an immune disorder that would make radiation and surgery difficult.

“This isn’t the first time the Grim Reaper has hung around me,” Mujica said.

“This time it seems to me that he will come out with the scythe at the ready and we will see what happens,” he added.

On Thursday, his doctor Raquel Panone said the tumor was confirmed to be malignant, but the cancer had not spread.

Mujica will begin radiation therapy next week, she said.

The former guerrilla fighter became a cult figure during his 2010-2015 rule, partly because of his modest lifestyle.

Under his leadership, Uruguay passed a number of progressive laws, legalizing abortion and gay marriage, and in 2013 becoming the first country in the world to allow recreational cannabis use.

He remains a figurehead of the Broad Front, the left-wing coalition that was in power from 2005 until it was deposed by center-right leader Luis Lacalle Pou in the 2019 elections.

Mujica resigned from frontline politics in 2020 and left his Senate seat amid the coronavirus epidemic. He said a weakened immune system put him at risk and that staying in the office was no alternative to going out and meeting people.

Mujica was part of the MLN-Tupumaros rebels who waged an uprising against democratic governments in the 1960s and 1970s.

Although popular, many Uruguayans blamed them for provoking the 1973 military coup, which ushered in a dictatorship that would last until 1985.

Mujica spent twelve years in prison during that time, much of it in solitary confinement.