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Uruguay's Pioneering Pot Law; New York Goes Dutch; Imagine a World

Aired May 16, 2014 - 14:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the special weekend edition of our program, where we bring you two of the stories that grabbed our attention this week. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

And this week a stark warning that Mother Earth is warming and the seas are rising, thanks to the Western Antarctic ice sheet that's melting. And it is now irreversible.

My interview with the Dutch innovator who thinks the world can work with all this water in a moment.

But first, our exclusive interview with the Uruguayan president, Jose Pepe Mujica, who went to the White House this week.

Known as the poorest president, he has captured the world's imagination. Mujica has foregone the trappings of power and since he became president in 2010, he has continued to live here in his tiny home on a dirt road in the capital, Montevideo. He drives a 1987 Volkswagen Beetle; he donates 90 percent of his salary and he sells flowers that he grows with his wife, who is, herself, a senator.

But it's Mujica's remarkable transformation from Marxist guerilla to president as well as his country's liberal laws, especially on marijuana, that have thrust him into the spotlight.

Uruguay is the first country to fully legalize the marijuana trade, earning it both praise and criticism from all over the world. Ironically, Mujica is also battling big tobacco, and he wants President Obama's help, as he told me.


AMANPOUR: President Mujica, welcome to the program and thank you for joining me.


AMANPOUR: Let me first start by asking you about legalizing marijuana in Uruguay.

What is the reaction to the legalization of marijuana in your country?

MUJICA (through translator): It's not legalization; we are regularizing a clandestine market that we want to legalize that a market state is going to take charge. We are not expanding addiction. We are trying to resolve the problem in time for people who go into this addiction, which, like any other addiction, is a bad thing.

In my country there is a majority of people who do not understand my policy yet. However, the popularity of it has been climbing up. More people are now understanding what it's all about.

It is a measure against traffic, drug dealing. We are trying to snatch the market away from them because it's 80 years now that we are repressing drug use. And in '84 we had about 2,000 registered consumers; today we have 150,000.

So like everywhere in the world, repression by itself doesn't do the job. We are trying to find another way.

AMANPOUR: This is gaining traction, even in the United States.

But what do you say to critics who are worried that it'll encourage young people, for instance, to start earlier and therefore become addicted?

MUJICA (through translator): We think we're going to get the exact opposite effect.

Now when you surround that with this forbidden aura, you are actually calling the young girl to take it up.

However, if you place it as a controlled product that you can purchase at the chemist, like some other drugs like morphine, which is used for certain prescriptions, then we are taking the mystery out of marijuana and we hit the drug dealers.

AMANPOUR: You were the leader of the Tupamaro guerillas in Uruguay for many years. And at that time, there was a deep anti-Americanism obviously amongst the rebels.

You're president of Uruguay, how you feel about the evolution that here you are now going to the White House, I want to know how you feel.

MUJICA (through translator): I cannot deny reality. I don't know whether I like this planet or not. But I have to accept it. It would be disingenuous for me if thinking that if a small country like mine ignores what the United States is today, there is not just one United States.

There are a lot of things in the States that I could consider to be reactionary of invasive attitudes, things that sometimes are even scary because of the amount of power this country has in response to Latin America.

However, there's also a big debate in the States. There's a human progress. There's a technological and scientific development that helps the whole of humanity.

So we cannot just put everything in one bag and just say one word to describe the U.S. The States is an amazing place. The president might be a bit restricted by Congress, but a lot of us -- and I will say it like this, we never thought that a black person would actually get to power in the United States. So that's a battle won.

AMANPOUR: Mr. President, you have captured the world's imagination because you are known as the world's poorest president. In fact, you choose to live in your original residence of your own. You won't go and live inside the presidential palace.

Can you tell me what it is that motivates you and how your 14 years in jail affects the way you live today?

MUJICA (through translator): My years in jail were a bit like a workshop for my -- that actually forged my way of thinking and my values. I'm not a poor president. Poor are the people who need a lot and that was -- Seneca said that.

I am an austere president. I do not need much to live. I live in the same way I used to live when I wasn't a president and in the same neighborhood, in my same house and in the same way. And I am a republican. I live like the majority in my country lives. It was a majority who voted for me. And that's why I identify with them.

Morally, I do not have the right to live like a minority in my country. A lot of people like a lot of money. They shouldn't go into politics. That's my way of seeing it. I am not improvising. I'm not -- I don't do marketing. This is my philosophy.

AMANPOUR: How long did you spend in solitary confinement?

And how did you manage to survive that?

MUJICA (through translator): Because human beings are strong. And that's what I want to transmit to people, that we can trip and fall, but we can always stand up and start anew. We shouldn't look for that strength outside. We have it inside ourselves. We shouldn't blame others. We have to look inside ourselves for that strength. Nature has given us all we need.

The ones who fail are those who stop fighting. Life is a lovely fight. We have to defend it.

And that's something I came to ask President Obama. We have a fight against tobacco. Eight million people die a year by smoking. That's a lot more than all the people who dies at wars.

AMANPOUR: Philip Morris is suing Uruguay because of your actions against smoking and against tobacco.

What is your response to that?

MUJICA (through translator): I have said it already. I -- it's not about companies; it's not about suing. I am just asking that we do have to really fight against this. Life is worth everything and we have to fight for it. Being alive is a miracle and I will really insist every day.

That's why this battle against tobacco and other battles for life, I will always fight for them.

AMANPOUR: I just want to ask you finally to explain how you survived what you did to get through 10 years in solitary confinement. I read that you interacted with the insects and befriended the rats in your cage.

Why was that important?

MUJICA (through translator): If you catch a black ant, a normal common ant, you rub it with two fingers, you put her right inside your ear, and you hear it scream. But of course you need time to do that. And you have to be really lonely.

When you spend a long time by yourself in solitary confinement, a frog, a rat that comes to eat because you leave some crumbs there, it's life. It's the life you have there. And probably there's nothing worse than loneliness after that. We are gregarious. We need society to live. We never save ourselves alone. We always save ourselves with the others.

These are very elemental things of life. Yet they're things that we forget too often.

AMANPOUR: Mr. President, Jose Pepe Mujica, you've had an incredible journey and you have an incredible story. Thank you very much for joining me.

MUJICA (through translator): Thank you so much.


AMANPOUR: And cutting the consumption of fossil fuels for the sake of the environment continues to be a hard sell in many world capitals; not so in Montevideo, where President Mujica actually turned down a deal for cheap coal from Brazil because of environmental concerns.

But with rising tides and now irreversible reality, what can we do to cope? We meet a man with some new ideas, after a break.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program.

Now imagine if our cities, skylines and most famous landmarks were suddenly submerged. This is the nightmare scenario, a disaster movie that's designed to spur us into action as our world slowly drowns. And the real picture is not much prettier. Two separate groups of American scientists warned this week that the West Antarctic ice sheet is melting and that nothing can be done to stop it.

And that section alone will cause sea levels to rise four feet worldwide.

Now remember Hurricane Sandy, it killed 186 people in its path; it caused upward of $100 billion dollars in damage and lost revenue and it saw the low-lying parts of New York City underwater.

The United States is now reaching across the Atlantic for answers. The Netherlands, otherwise known as the Low Countries, for centuries, the Dutch have been waging this battle; otherwise 30 percent of the country would be drowned because it is actually below sea level. And their massive sea barriers are legendary.

Can they export that knowledge and their culture to the famously skeptical United States?

Dutch innovator Henk Ovink thinks so, and the U.S. government is betting on him to help beat climate Armageddon.


AMANPOUR: Henk Ovink, welcome. Thanks for joining me.


AMANPOUR: Let's ask you first how did the Dutch do it? You are famed in your country for centuries of fighting the war.

Walk me through how you guys did it.

OVINK: Actually, we're not fighting so much the water and I think that actually explains very much the asset of deduction. We've been working with the water for over 900 years. Around 1200, our first water board emerged. We got out of necessity.

People got together, several communities, saying let's work together to solve our water problem because, you know, our lands get flooded; it's not good for our economy, for our business, for our families.

And the only way they found out which is, you know, the interesting aspect of water, if you build a little barrier, it moves to your neighbor. And so if you don't collaborate with your neighbor, you're either at war or a fight or you better solve it together.

AMANPOUR: Well, here's the thing. You just now strike a real chord because you're talking about community solutions, building it together. And now that you're in the United States, what is the challenge you're finding with trying to translate that notion of regional community to a very individualistic culture?

OVINK: I think there is a big challenge and also a tension, an individual culture versus the idea of collaboration. I think that's actually an opportunity. Collaboration always consists of individuals or different communities or different cities.

And Sandy, in that sense, was an opportunity. Sandy put so much pressure on this populated region, also very balkanized region, with at least two big states, with two big governors and a big city and a big federal government because the interests of the New York region for the federal budget is enormous.

So you had all these interests and the -- of the business community. The only way forward is to collaborate.

AMANPOUR: Before we get to changing the culture, what physical examples and redesigns are you trying to import from the Netherlands into the United States?

OVINK: In the Netherlands, after our '53 disaster and the storms in the '90s, we developed a strategy of working and living with water, making more room for the river instead of less.


OVINK: By opening it up, giving up some of the land and negotiating --

AMANPOUR: Some farmland?

OVINK: -- yes, negotiating with the farmers and even some smaller urban parcels to secure more room for this water, so more -- and then your river system becomes more flexible because -- and I really have to stress this. Water is not a threat; it's an asset, especially for the Dutch.

AMANPOUR: And it's not just farmland and widening the rivers; you've got designs for towns as well.

OVINK: And what you see is that it's not only about the surge that's coming from the sea or a surge that's coming from the melted water in the river, it's also more intense rainfall or no water at all. So bigger periods of -- longer periods of drought and longer periods of intense rainfall all come together.

So your whole urban system has to deal with it. So that means that you have to make not only more room for the water in your river system, you also have to make more room for your water in your cities by parks that can withhold waters or water squares and, you know, storing capacity in parking garages.

So you really use the urban fabric to deal with water. And again, it's about living with it.

AMANPOUR: Now you're bullish on, as you said, Sandy being a target of opportunity, bullish on the ability of the U.S. actually to adapt and survive.

But then how do you deal with a culture -- and we touched on this -- that sees communal efforts as socialism, somebody famously said to you?

How do you convince a culture in the United States, where a recent poll of what's most important to them, saw climate change bottom?

OVINK: By design and a collaborative process; we start on the ground with working with communities and the mayor and the governor. We started on dealing with the issues that face people and businesses on the ground and come up with solutions together.

So it was not a group of designers and engineers and scientists that were isolated in a room and came with a rabbit out of a big hat and said, oh, we know how to solve this.

So actually by working together you could show that the people in the businesses as well as the government in the region, that the only way forward is collaboration. When we started to connect it to solutions, also again developing that together, it brought the insight there that climate change is real.

It's a fact: sea level rise is real. It's a fact: these storms are very hard to deal with. But there are also solutions that if we deal with them collectively, we can actually, you know, build a better region and with that better region, strengthen our ecology, strengthen our economy and strengthen our culture.

AMANPOUR: And if not, what is the worst-case scenario?

OVINK: We have to change our behavior. We're pretty much, you know, we're a pretty devastating species, mankind, when it comes to our ecology. So we have to change our behavior at one. And at the same time, we also have to come up with solutions that deal with current and future times.

And my belief is -- and the Dutch showed it over our 900 years working and living with water -- that our country, one-third is below sea level; another third is at sea level. So only a third is above.

And we've been working with the water for all those ages and decades. We came up with intelligent solutions, not -- they were not always fine in the beginning, but you know, it's an evolutionary process.

So we need, on one hand, speed, because of this urgency, and at the same time it will take another generation to really change the hearts and minds of everybody involved.

AMANPOUR: In fact, the Dutch were pretty upset after centuries of fighting back the water, when you all suggested, well, hang on a second, as you described, let's make room in our cities and lowlands for the water.

How did you convince your own people?

OVINK: You really have to sit down with people and work with them within their environment and show them that there are solutions we can build together.

For one polar this contained parcel of land we needed for, you know, calamity storage of water, there were several farmers that said, you know, we're not going to leave. This was our land of our fathers and grandfathers. It's going to be our land of our daughters and sons.

And together we came up with a solution. The Dutch used to live on terps so high, parcels of land, we used to raise the land for our farms.

We created actually new terps for new farms. Now so now when the water comes in, they move their cattle and their family up on these terps and when there's no water, they can use the land for their farming. So --


OVINK: No, it's not easy. It's very hard. It is a change between the -- your ears and eyes. It's a change of culture and therefore a change of the heart, which is always harder than an engineering change or harder than an investment decision. You really have to change the way we go about water.

And I think water is a key asset for our -- the world, for human beings, for our businesses and economy. Without clean water, we have nowhere to go. There's a lot of scarcity of water.

And I think internationally, we have to really get, you know, get our hands together and collaborate on the issues of water, being it too much or too little, being of quality or non-quality, there's no way forward except to collaborate.

AMANPOUR: And how long do we have?

OVINK: We got no minutes to lose, but we have a generation to invest.

AMANPOUR: Well, let us hope that our children's generation have a better sense of urgency than ours and our parents' generation.

Henk Ovink, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

OVINK: Thank you, Christiane.


AMANPOUR: Earlier we brought you Uruguay's President Mujica at the White House, considered one of the most iconic seats of power on the planet.

But imagine a world where climate change sweeps the wonders of the world away. Help is at hand from an unlikely source, when we come back.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, earlier in the program we discussed our feeble fight against rising tides and global warming. So imagine tonight the nightmare scenario becomes reality and all the world as well as its wonders go underwater.

Now lest that actually happen, replicas of some of the Earth's greatest treasures have popped up in one of the world's unlikeliest places, China. Reuters photographers have snapped these remarkable images; for a pretty souvenir de Paris, you can find a mock Eiffel Tower at this housing complex in Hangzhou.

But if Roman architecture is more your style, continue the European tour by swinging down to Macao for a view of the famous Colosseum and if you find yourself in Beijing, check out these Easter Island statues in the business district. Their big stone noses are free of the anti-smog masks that are usually donned by their own citizens in China to combat horrible air pollution.

And also in Beijing is this replica of the U.S. Capitol; even this young Chinese boy appears to be enacting a replica of the frustration that so many Americans feel with their government gridlock.

And finally, in the city of Shenyang (ph),you can find a windmill, the symbol of Dutch innovation helping to keep water from swallowing up their land. Here's hoping now that the world finds new, innovative ways to deal with global warming and its catastrophic consequences and that those inventions will one day be replicated and on display somewhere in China.

That's it for our program tonight. Remember you can always contact us at our website,, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks for watching and goodbye from London.