In my opinion, no matter where you live in the world, chances are your President or leader is not nearly as cool or compassionate as Uruguay’s. Jose Mujica puts all others to shame with his rebellious, unconventional tactics that show that he really understands the plight of his people. In fact, he purposefully puts and keeps himself in their shoes.
Elected in 2009, Mujica spent the 1960s and 1970s as part of the Uruguayan guerrilla Tupamaros, a leftist armed group inspired by the Cuban revolution. Shot six times, he went on spend 14 years in prison, including more than a decade in horrific solitary confinement, often in a hole in the ground. During that time, he would go more than a year at a time without bathing. He was freed in 1985 when Uruguay returned to democracy.
Mujica says that those years in jail were critical in shaping his outlook on life. In a deliberate political and social statement, Mujica, 77, shunned the refined and elegant Presidential Mansion, with its staff of 42, choosing to remain instead in the same farm home where he and his wife have lived for years, where they grow chrysanthemums for sale in local markets. Laundry is strung outside the house. The water comes from a well in a yard, overgrown with weeds. His security detail? Two plainclothes officers parked on a dirt road, and Manuela, a three-legged dog.
As for having no use for presidential properties, he also upset some many by selling off a seaside presidential residence, calling the property “useless.”
His net worth upon taking office in 2010? The value of the ancient VW Beetle he drives, their humble home, plus half of what his wife’s farm equipment is worth. He donates about 90 % of his salary, largely to a program for expanding housing for the poor, leaving him with roughly $800 a month of his salary in line with the average Uruguayan’s income). He said he and his wife, Senator Lucía Topolansky, a former guerrilla who was also imprisoned, do not need much to live on.
His low-key radicalism — a huge change from his days employing weapons in an effort to overthrow the government — exemplifies Uruguay’s position as quite possibly Latin America’s most socially liberal country. (Since he took office in 2010, Uruguay has drawn attention for seeking to legalize marijuana and same-sex marriage, while promoting abortion rights laws and dramatically increasing the use of renewable energy sources like wind and biomass).
For democracy to function properly, Mujica argues, elected leaders should be taken down a notch.
“We have done everything possible to make the presidency less venerated,” Mr. Mujica has said.
He acknowledges that his lifestyle choices might seem unusual, but that it has been a conscious choice to forgo the trappings of power and wealth. Quoting the Roman court-philosopher Seneca, Mr. Mujica said, “It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, who is poor.”
Polls show that his approval ratings have been declining over his support of marijuana legalization, but “I don’t give a damn,” insisted Mr. Mujica. “If I worried about pollsters, I wouldn’t be president,” he said.
He laments that so many societies considered economic growth a priority, calling this “a problem for our civilization” because of the demands on the planet’s resources. (Interestingly enough, Uruguay’s economy is expanding at an estimated annual rate of 3.6 percent.) Mujica accuses most world leaders of having a “blind obsession to achieve growth with consumption, as if the contrary would mean the end of the world”.
“I’m called ‘the poorest president’, but I don’t feel poor. Poor people are those who only work to try to keep an expensive lifestyle, and always want more and more. This is a matter of freedom. If you don’t have many possessions then you don’t need to work all your life like a slave to sustain them, and therefore you have more time for yourself,” he says.”I may appear to be an eccentric old man… But this is a free choice.”