Jose Mujica has gone viral for his humble lifestyle and liberal reforms. Paul Blest on what the Uruguayan president’s popularity means for global leftists.
President Jose Mujica is not your typical head of state. First off, Uruguay’s president is old – 78, to be exact, one year younger than Ronald Reagan when he left office. His biography reads like a Hollywood-driven cross between Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro, tilting in either direction based on which side of the political spectrum you align yourself with: a former guerrilla fighter against a president with strong ties to the United States (Jorge Pachecho served as Ambassador to the U.S. after his presidency) who served 14 years in prison before being freed and becoming active in legitimate politics, and then captivating the nation with an every-man charisma that we Americans know as the “guy you can have a beer with” effect. But Mujica, the president of Uruguay, a South American nation of about 3.3 million people situated on the Atlantic coast, is even more remarkable than his story suggests. And for socialists, liberals, and progressives around the world, he represents a kind of compassionate political experiment that, within the context of worldwide economic austerity, could chart a new geopolitical course in the coming years.
For a few years now, Mujica has become increasingly well-known throughout the world: no small feat considering he’s been president of a small country in South America for four years. Tales of his humility and simple lifestyle have regaled American and European media since his ascent to the presidency – there was a BBC story in late 2012 and a New York Times profile early last year, and more recently, Mujica’s lifestyle has seen another round of organic interest, perhaps owing to Uruguay being named the Economist’s 2013 “country of the year” and the Max Fischer story based on the above photo of the president, flanked by his vice president and finance minister.
Although the world media has stretched the truth – as one commenter said, there is no actual “presidential palace” in Uruguay, but rather something more resembling a governor’s mansion or even The White House – the narrative that a nation’s leader could be so restrained in his personal lifestyle and yet work towards a “government for the people” concept has begun to resonate with more and more liberals around the world. There’s the car – an ’87 Beetle that he drives to work every day, and his guardian, a three legged dog named Manuela that serves as his only protection besides the two guards that the government requires him to have. He’s a part-time farmer who grows chrysanthemums to sell at local markets. He shunned the presidential residence entitled to him in order to stay on his farm outside of the capital of Montevideo. And, probably most startlingly to Congressman Kevin Cramer, Mujica donates 90% of his monthly salary to charity.
Besides the stories that make Senator Cory Booker look like Richard Nixon in comparison, Mujica’s government has been a dream for those who wish Barack Obama would be just a little bit more liberal: last year saw the nationwide passage of same sex marriage and the legalization of marijuana, Uruguay currently has the most liberal abortion laws on the continent, and Mujica has continued many of his predecessor’s reforms in education and other domestic areas. In addition, Uruguay’s poverty rate has been cut in half since 2007, the country has the 46th highest quality of life in the world, and Uruguay was named by Transparency International as one of the least corrupt countries in the world in 2013, tied with the United States. Like all politicians, Mujica has faced some ups and downs with popularity; however, he has been remarkably popular for much of his presidency, and the most recent polling from October 2013 shows him at 51%.
Uruguay’s case has been in stark contrast with the United States and the European Union, which have both favored conservative economic policies throughout the recession. While the election of Socialist Francois Hollande as President of France, the economic recovery of Iceland, and the growing popularity of American politicians like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren has given a glimmer of hope to the global progressive movement, much of the Western world is still mired in austerity programs designed to slash government spending and grow the economy through the private sector.
For progressives, Mujica’s story can be almost as important as his successes as a leader, and flip the script that politics has be corrupt, politicians can be greedy, and that the untamed free market is the only right path forward. In a way, Mujica’s story can find apt comparisons with another beloved, powerful South American – Pope Francis, who’s recently been accused of being a Marxist by American conservatives. While Mujica doesn’t find too many other similarities with the Pope – he had a violent and shady youth, routinely makes inappropriate comments such as calling Argentina’s prime minister an “old hag”, and does not have the household recognition, to start – he does have that rare populist touch that liberal politicians in Europe and North America can only dream about. And when his term ends in March of 2015, and Jose Mujica retires to his chrysanthemums, his dog, and his farm, it’s a safe bet that his worldwide legacy will be that of the common-man presidency and the shaping of Uruguay into a progressive’s utopia.
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Credit—Photo: Matilde Campodonico/AP