José Mujica: At Long Last – A Politician to Admire

jmThe South American country of Uruguay does not often make for headline news. It’s a relatively well-developed and prosperous place that quietly goes about its business without making any fuss. Uruguay enjoys a moderate, but sustainable, rate of economic growth.

In early 2013, Uruguay became one of only eleven countries worldwide to legalise same-sex marriage. Last December it became the first country in the world to fully legalise the sale, cultivation, and trade of cannabis.

José “Pepe” Mujica, the country’s president, did make the headlines as the first Latin American leader to openly speak out against the US-led war on drugs. Taking cannabis out of the legal equation was Mr Mujica’s way of promoting societal peace.

Having won the election of 2009 as candidate for the Broad Front, a coalition of left-wing political parties, Mr Mujica has led Uruguay according to the principals of social democracy. He has also brought a rather unique and endearing style to his country’s highest office.

“While many governments around the world speak of austerity, the Mujica Administration is one of the few that actually lives according to the austerity gospel.”

Mr Mujica has chosen the path-less-travelled to power and has the bullet wounds to prove it. In the early 1960s he joined the Tupamaros urban guerrilla movement which drew its inspiration from the Cuban Revolution. The Tupamaros were famous for their “Robin Hood” tactics, staging bank robberies as well as targeting businesses only to distribute the loot among the poor of Montevideo.

In 1970, Mr Mujica was arrested and sent to Punta Carretas Prison from where he escaped a year later with 110 other inmates, most of whom fellow Tupamaros members. In 1972, Mr Mujica was again detained after a shootout with the police. He was shot no less than six times, but survived to tell the tale.

After twelve year of brutal military rule, democracy was restored in 1985. Mr Mujica was released from prison under an amnesty law. In all, he spent 14 years of his life behind bars – two of which in solitary confinement.

In 1989, Mujica entered the political fray as the Tupamaros joined other progressive groups in the Movement of Popular Participation, a party which subsequently participated in the Broad Front coalition. Mr Mujica was elected senator in 1999 and became Minister of Agriculture in 2005. Four years after that, he received his party’s nomination as its presidential candidate. He went on to win the election.

While many governments around the world speak of austerity, the Mujica Administration is one of the few that actually lives according to the austerity gospel. Indeed, President Mujica truly leads by example: He donates 90% of his $12,000 monthly salary to charity.

The remainder pays for the presidential residence: A somewhat dilapidated chrysanthemum farmstead just outside Montevideo. Mr Mujica is now trying to convince his staff that the downtown presidential palace may be better employed as a shelter for the homeless.

Mr Mujica’s primary mode of transportation is a beat-up Volkswagen Beetle. Decorum precludes this vehicle to be escorted by a motorcade. Though dubbed the world’s poorest president, Mr Mujica begs, politely, to disagree.

President Mujica is an odd combination of the idealistic old revolutionary and the pragmatic contemporary leader. He is quite content with his austere lifestyle. Posturing does not enter the equation: He is genuinely not concerned with material wealth.

As a politician, Mr Mujica is weary of market economics and the power of global capital. Although he doesn’t impose his lifestyle on the rest of the country, Mr Mujica still finds much wrong with the world’s fixation on over consumption and materialism. Global politics should offer alternatives to this predatory lifestyle.

Yet this conviction is absent from his government’s policies. Mr Mujica is also a pragmatist and presides, progressively minded, over a liberal economy geared for steady growth.

Though Mr Mujica probably wouldn’t read this publication cover-to-cover, he still deserves full credit as a CFI hero. Considering the often disappointing calibre of leaders his country and the wider region have produced as of late, this slightly cantankerous, idealistic, incorruptible old Marxist with his live-and-let-live approach isn’t all that bad. In fact, it is pure genius. Pity then that Mr Mujica has said that he won’t be seeking re-election later this year. He would rather open a school on his farm.

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