MONTEVIDEO Six former Guantanamo Bay prisoners sent to Uruguay as part of a push by President Barack Obama to close the U.S. military's prison camp in Cuba were "turned halfway into vegetables" during their detention, outgoing President Jose Mujica said on Wednesday.
In an interview four days before his predecessor Tabare Vazquez takes office, Mujica said the six men lacked the strength to learn Spanish and integrate.
"These people are destroyed," Mujica said. "They could be here for two years and they won't understand a goddamn thing, because even though you want to teach them Spanish, they lack the inner strength, the will to move on with their lives. They have been turned halfway into vegetables."
Mujica, a former leftist guerrilla who was himself jailed during a 1973-85 military dictatorship, has called Guantanamo Bay a "human disgrace."
The six were flown to the South American country for resettlement in December.
One, Jihad Diyab, spent much of his final two years at Guantanamo on hunger strike being force fed, and now suffers sharp back pains which he puts down to his treatment.
The men who are housed in an old property in the center of the coastal capital, Montevideo, have yet to find work or be reunited with their families as they struggle to adapt to their new lives in exile.
"They need to recuperate," said Mujica. "But I don't know if they will."
Mujica is one of Latin America's most popular leaders due to his straight-talking style and empathy with the country's poor. A former Marxist rebel, he spurned the presidential palace and stayed in his ramshackle farmhouse on the edge of Montevideo. He has driven himself around in a battered VW Beetle and donated most of his president's salary to charity.
Mujica put Uruguay on the global map with radical measures like his decision to take in the Guantanamo detainees as well as legalize the cultivation, distribution and sale of marijuana.
But Uruguay has struggled to roll out its ground-breaking pot experiment, which is being monitored across the region where the legalization or decriminalization of some softer drugs is increasingly viewed as a better way to fight drug trafficking.
Mujica acknowledged on Wednesday that pricing could pose a headache if the price sought by producers of legally-grown weed surpasses the cost of illegal cannabis sold on the street.
"Growers are going to try and take away as much money as they can, just like any business," Mujica said, adding that producers would be given land and other advantages to keep costs low.
"The true goal is to leave drug gangs without a market," he said.
(Writing by Richard Lough, editing by G Crosse)