AP Interview: Uruguay's first lady like no other

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In this Aug. 26, 2013 photo, first lady and Senator Lucia Topolansky speaks during an interview at her office in Montevideo, Uruguay. Topolansky is being talked about as a potential vice president for Tabare Vazquez, who preceded her husband Jose Mujica in office and is a likely front-runner to retake the presidency in 2014. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) — Lucia Topolansky is a first lady like no other. An outspoken senator, former Tupamaro guerrilla and key member of her country's ruling coalition, she is more than qualified to follow her husband Jose Mujica into the presidency.

But would she?

"No way," she told The Associated Press in an interview in her Senate office. "Now that I've seen the presidency up close, I wouldn't wish it on anybody. Look, I remember well how in your country Barack Obama didn't have a single gray hair in his first term, and now he's totally gray!"

Topolansky is, however, being talked about as a potential vice president for Tabare Vazquez, who preceded Mujica in office and is a likely front-runner to retake the presidency in 2014.

Now 69 and gray herself, Topolansky still speaks with the intensity of the young, blond militant who tried to change her country through armed revolution starting in 1966, organizing jailbreaks and even crawling through sewers to escape from prison.

Recaptured just before Uruguay's 1973 military coup, she suffered torture during her nearly 14 years in prison. With democracy's return in 1985, she and Mujica were among the former guerrillas granted amnesties. They eventually got married and kept working for change, achieving through the ballot box what bullets couldn't.

Mujica won the presidency through his charisma and common touch, but credits his wife for his political backbone — missing her birthday while visiting the United Nations last week, he called her his "hard drive."

Topolansky has focused on lawmaking, and shows little patience for ceremonial roles. Her small Senate office lacks any national symbols or signs of political power. She sits among piles of documents, books and several framed pictures — iconic images of tango singer Carlos Gardel and Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, and a faded black-and-white photo of her husband with Tupamaro leader Raul Sendic during their revolutionary days.

She spoke with the AP as the Senate was preparing to give final approval to an unprecedented plan to create a legal marijuana market with the government at its center, licensing growers, sellers and users in an effort to fight organized crime. Uruguay also legalized abortion and gay marriage recently, putting the country and its first couple on the map.

"We have been granted the luxury of setting this agenda of individual rights" because Uruguay already took care of more basic problems like increasing education funding and creating jobs, she said. "The country is ready now for this rights agenda."

But as Mujica nears the end of his term and the Broad Front coalition of leftist parties, unions and social organizations aims to put Vazquez back in the presidency, unemployment among Uruguay's 3.3 million people is 7.1 percent and nearly 800,000 workers take home less than $650 a month, according to the country's PIT-CNT union coalition.

Some other former leftist revolutionaries think the current government's policies are a luxury Uruguay still can't afford.

"This is an agenda they pursue in the U.S. and in Europe's social democracies, which invented women's lib and the gays and this and that so they don't have to talk about what's really important," Defense Minister Eleuterio Fernandez Huidobro told the magazine Caras y Carateras. "This agenda doesn't bother anybody and we're so naive that we don't see it ... They've forgotten about class war. To the war between classes and nothing less!"

Topolansky's brother Carlos, one year older, recalled the family's shock when police showed up in 1969 looking for Lucia the guerrilla.

"It was as if they told you there was a Martian at the door," he said. She was seen as timid girl and her father never accepted her choice. "They tricked her," he always said.

But Topolansky makes it clear that she has made her own choices, accepted the consequences, and has no regrets or bitterness — not even for being tortured, or not having children.

"I had certain ideas about freedom. And when I made certain political decisions, I didn't want any attachments," she said. "Later, I was jailed for a thousand years, and then the kids didn't come, so it doesn't bother me now, because I have a lifelong project."

Asked whether the Tupamaros were justified in killing unarmed prisoners, she said: "History is what it is. We're not going to change it by trying to go back and analyze it."

Now Topolansky is so popular that she may be called on to run for vice president. "I'll do what my party asks of me," she said, but insisted that working as a community organizer or union activist would be just as important.

As a young woman, a revolutionary, a prisoner and a politician, she's always sought "public happiness," Topolansky said.

As for personal happiness, she said she's already found it, on the ramshackle flower farm that she shares with "Pepe" Mujica, known internationally as "the poorest president in the world."

"We don't consider ourselves so poor, like they say," she said. "We're austere because it suits us. We're happier. We have fewer worries, fewer problems. We have this lifelong project; we like it and we feel good."