José Mujica: Uruguay’s exceptionally humble president

Away from the glitzy seaside resort of Punta del Este and other areas across the water from the Argentine capital Buenos Aires, Uruguay is a small and unassuming country, little explored by international tourists and overshadowed in many senses by its larger and more powerful neighbours. It is perhaps fitting, then, that the Uruguayan president José Mujica has hit the headlines around the world for his extreme degree of modesty. Pepe as he is known to his legions of admirers lives a life so frugal that it barely resembles the glamorous political circles in which many other national leaders reside.

Mujica with his wife Lucía Topolansky

Mujica pictured with his wife Lucía Topolansky. Source: US Embassy in Uruguay, at Wikimedia Commons

In a world where presidential residences are often extremely lavish and iconic buildings at the centre of our cities, Mujica opted to remain in his rustic farmhouse an hour or so outside the capital, Montevideo. Whilst politicians elsewhere have lately become embroiled in deplorable salary and expenses scandals, Mujica openly pledges 90% of his salary to varied social projects and housing associations. To both his admirers and detractors, Pepe is an utterly unique leader, and is driven as much by his first-hand experience of a turbulent political history as his progressive agenda for contemporary Uruguay.

In common with much of Latin America, Uruguay had entered a period of political crisis in the second half of the 20th Century with a military dictatorship on the horizon. In the 1970s, the then dissident Mujica became the leader of the Tupamaros guerrillas who tasked themselves with fairer distribution of the national wealth, often forcibly by way of violence and robbery. The military government placed him and many contemporaries in prison, frequently in barbaric conditions. After 14 years of incarceration, Mujica was released in 1985 as Uruguay too was released from the clutches of dictatorship, and he became steadily more involved in a more measured and democratic school of politics. Driven by a desire to see the country developing in a more equal and sustainable manner for its people, Mujica paved his way to presidency in 2010. Accused by some as seeking to hamper international economic development for Uruguay, Mujica frequently warns of the damage and exploitation of big business on the smaller and more fragile economies of the world, with rampant capitalism creating as much relative poverty as it does new wealth. In a way, his own lifestyle is the most powerful symbol of this belief. A particularly poignant moment was when a wealthy Middle Eastern sheikh offered $1 million for Mujica’s famous VW Beetle. Needless to say, he declined the offer.

Portrait of Mujica in Montevideo

Portrait of Mujica in Montevideo. Source: Ehrmann on

The Uruguayan president has also become well-known (and indeed often criticised) for his liberal policy making, such as a bill authorising same-sex marriage and a relaxation of abortion laws. Perhaps most famously, he approved the regulated sale of marijuana to the people of Uruguay in December 2013. Rather than an expression of civil liberties, Mujica was keen to point out that this pioneering step was a message to the wealthy industrial economies of the world, urging them to take similar measures in order to protect both their own citizens from crime and those affected elsewhere by the violence and oppression of drug trafficking.

Mujica is due to step down after five years in office next March as stated by the national constitution, though it is likely he will retain a political presence. Whatever your political stance on his leadership, the pace of change has been significant over the last few years, but Uruguay still faces many challenges as a developing country based on the occasionally conflicting demands of social stability and economic openness. Latin America has not been short of maverick leaders in the last few decades, offering their own agendas for tackling challenging times. Drastically different leadership approaches give an insight on the extremes present in many Latin American countries and the inherent challenge of responding to such a varied society. What do you think are the attributes that make a good leader? A challenging topic for your Spanish class perhaps…and definitely a revealing one!

Your Friendly Spanish team

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