Jose Pepe Mujica: An Unorthodox President Who has Lived His Ideals – posted 10/13/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor 10/22/2014
This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 10/22/2014 under the title “The People’s President.” Jon
Probably there is no more powerful political force on the planet today than cynicism. Nothing acts to prevent activism and positive social change more. Cynicism is the ultimate inaction producer. It is a bulwark of the status quo.
The conventional wisdom is that regardless of political party, you cannot trust any politician. Politicians are like con men – they take you in and then they sell you out. Cynicism makes it hard to believe in any cause or collective effort toward any social justice objective. It promotes doubt in the sincerity and goodness of everybody.
But then along comes someone like Jose Mujica, the President of Uruguay. To friends and foes, he is known as Pepe. Still little known in the United States, Mujica can shut up cynics and force reexamination of fundamental assumptions. He was elected in 2010 and his term ends this year. He is not seeking re-election. Here are some of his accomplishments as President:
* reduced extreme poverty and successfully focused on lessening economic inequality
* raised the minimum wage 50%
* legalized gay marriage
* legalized marijuana so the state can regulate it
* confronted corporate abuses, especially by tobacco companies
* made Uruguay the first Latin American country to ban smoking in enclosed public places
* supported women’s reproductive rights, including passing the most liberal abortion rights law in Latin America
* promoted environmentalism and recycling
* opposed war and militarism
* helped pass a historic affirmative action law to help Afro-Uruguayans who have faced a long history of racism and discrimination
* increased education funding and helped to promote a program which gives all Uruguayan children a laptop and internet access
In a recent profile in the British newspaper, the Guardian, President Mujica said:
“A left-wing vision of the world requires you to imagine a future utopia but one doesn’t have the right to forget the most important thing for every human being is the life they lead now. The fight to make today better must become your central task.”
As president, he has shunned all the perks of the presidential office. He has not lived in the presidential mansion which had a staff of 42. He has stayed in his modest, long-time, one-bedroom home located on the outskirts of Montevideo. He has no servants. He and his wife raise chrysanthemums which they sell at local farmers’ markets. He never wears a tie. He is frequently accompanied by his three-legged dog, Manuela.
Mujica has donated 90% of his $12,000 monthly salary to charities that benefit poor people and small entrepreneurs. He drives a 1987 VW Beetle. When asked about being a poor president, he quoted the Roman philosopher Seneca: “It is not the man who has too little but the man who craves more, who is poor.”
For anyone who has stereotypes about Latin American dictators or strongmen, Mujica is a total contrast. He describes himself as a left-wing libertarian. He idolized Che Guevara as a young person but he evolved to temper his idealism with flexibility. He has worked persistently to advance reforms inside the Uruguayan political system.
You might wonder about his background. There again, Mujica is anything but typical. In the 1970’s, he was a member of the Tupamaros, left-wing armed urban guerillas. For those who recall it, the Tupamaros were central to the Costa Gavras movie State of Siege.
In 1970, after being recognized in a bar in Montevideo, Mujica engaged in a shoot-out with the authorities. The police shot him six times and he wounded two policemen. A surgeon on call at the local hospital who was a secret Tupamaro member saved his life.
Mujica actually escaped prison several times in the early 70″s. The Tupamaros had some success in tunneling their militants out. Mujica kept getting recaptured. After a recapture in 1972, things turned for the worse for Mujica. A military coup led to an extreme crackdown on the Tupamaros. Mujica ended up spending 13 years in prison in the most squalid conditions. He spent a decade in solitary confinement. He has said his companions were a tiny frog and rats with whom he shared crumbs.
In 1985, Uruguay restored constitutional democracy. An amnesty freed Mujica. After getting out of prison, Mujica reevaluated his politics. He adopted a more pragmatic left-wing stance. He and other Tupamaros joined the Frente Amplio, a broad coalition that included liberals, social democrats, Christian Democrats, Socialists and Communists.
The Frente Amplio has proven to be a powerful vehicle for electoral change. Politicos like Mujica worked to turn activists and the uncommitted into voters. The results have been very impressive. Since 2004, The Frente Amplio has arguably turned Uruguay into the most liberal and tolerant society in Latin America. It is notable that Uruguay has the lowest illteracy rate in Latin America.
Mujica has been quite vocal that Uruguay should not go the way of more advanced industrial societies. He has raised prophetic concerns about the environmental cost of a culture based on acquisition, greed, and growth.
“What are we thinking? Do we want the model of development and consumption of the rich countries? I ask you what would happen to this planet if the Indians would have the same proportion of cars per household as Germans. How much oxygen would we have left? Does this planet have enough resources so seven or eight billion can have the same level of consumption and waste that today is seen in rich societies? It is this level of hyper-consumption that is harming our planet.”
In the last year, Mujica’s popularity in Uruguay has fallen off. At the time of his election, he had a 66% popularity rating. Last month, that number had plunged to 43%. When asked about it Mujica responded, “I don’t give a damn. If I worried about pollsters, I wouldn’t be President”. Part of his appeal has been his blunt, down-to-earth speaking style.
I think over the last decade Americans have paid inadequate attention to Latin America. So much attention has been lavished on the Middle East with its history of endless vicious wars. Latin America has pioneered a far more creative, positive way forward. Multiple Latin countries with democratically elected governments have struggled to address poverty with some positive results. Uruguay is among those countries and we could learn from its example.
As for Mujica, he says he will be happy to go back to full-time farming. He did manage to govern without giving up his revolutionary ideals. His story should be a movie.