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Truthdigger of the Week: José Mujica

    Uruguay's President José Mujica is not your run-of-the-mill leader. AP/Matilde Campodonico
Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Assistant Editor and Poetry Editor
Natasha Hakimi Zapata is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American Literature at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain. She also holds a Creative Writing M.F.A. from Boston University and both a…
Natasha Hakimi Zapata

Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.

The world’s “humblest” president, the “poorest president” in terms of personal wealth, the “most radical.” How did one man earn so many superlative epithets?

The 79-year-old Uruguayan President José Mujica — who leaves office at the end of next month — is at first glance an unlikely head of state. In keeping with the approach he developed while imprisoned for 14 years as a leftist Tupamaro urban guerrilla, Mujica repudiates materialism. Although the Broad Front party leader has been president of the now booming Latin American country since 2010, you won’t see him boasting the trappings of power that other world leaders embrace. His clothes are simple, his home is a “ramshackle” flower farm he refused to leave for the fully staffed presidential palace. His car, which for a long time was his only physical asset, is a plain 1987 Volkswagen Beetle. But while these superficial facts may have indeed earned “El Pepe” a superlative or two, it’s what he’s done during his five-year term that has won him the hearts of his people as well as other nations’ respect.

The act that gained him the title “the poorest president in the world” was his decision to donate 90 percent of his monthly $12,000 presidential salary to charities, largely organizations that assist single mothers. His donations, which have totaled $550,000, brought his salary down to the Uruguayan average of roughly $775 per month. Though there are ways Mujica could make a bit of spare change, such as charging rent to the 14 other people who live on his farmland, he’s simply uninterested in doing so. “I’m called ‘the poorest president,’ ” he says, “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,” he continues. “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.” And yet, the once revolutionary militant says he doesn’t reject capitalism — on the contrary, he “needs [it] to work.” In a move that some of his former compañeros on the left criticize him for, Mujica has become a democratic socialist. But his reason for embracing the economic system that has been blamed for growing wealth gaps across the globe is based on noble and pragmatic reasons in the president’s mind. “I have to levy taxes,” Mujica told The Guardian in a recent interview, “to attend to the serious problems we have. Trying to overcome it all too abruptly condemns the people you are fighting for to suffering, so that instead of more bread, you have less bread.”

Under Mujica and his predecessor, Tabaré Vásquez, who not only also belongs to the Broad Front party but will replace Mujica when he finishes his term March 1, the nation has witnessed an economic boom fueled by the agricultural industry and a dramatic decrease in poverty from 40 to 12 percent in the past 10 years. The minimum wage has increased by 50 percent and the Uruguayan wealth gap has narrowed. Moreover, the 75 percent increase in the economy has allowed for social spending to expand, money that has gone in part toward funding education and has, for example, allowed every schoolchild to have his or her own laptop computer. Mujica has also focused on enacting environmentally friendly policies and limiting consumption, an approach consistent with the speech he gave at the 2012 Rio+20 Summit in which he stated, “We can almost recycle everything now. If we lived within our means — by being prudent — the 7 billion people in the world could have everything they needed. Global politics should be moving in that direction.”

But not all of the Broad Front leader’s policies have been as welcome as free laptops. Mujica has also approved controversial legislation, such as the legalization of gay marriage and of abortions during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Perhaps most controversially, under his rule Uruguay became the first country to legalize the production and sale of marijuana. Mujica explains that in his view the true dangers of drugs lie in trafficking, not consumption. The quixotic president, who says he has never smoked cannabis, explains that the approach to narcotics in Latin America for the past 80 years has failed and that his government has instead decided to regulate marijuana sales, which “naturally, has to be done by the state.” He adds, “We want to take users out of hiding and create a situation where we can say: ‘You are overdoing it. You have to deal with that.’ It is a question of limits.”

Despite the waves the marijuana law has caused in his own country, Mujica has pressed more developed nations to follow in Uruguay’s footsteps and adjust their drug policies. This bold advice isn’t the only instance in which the “world’s most radical president,” as he’s been called, has stood up to his counterparts and demanded a sweeping change. Mujica, in fact, played a crucial role in the recent shift in relations between the United States and Cuba, having urged several times that President Barack Obama revise American policy toward Cuba; the Uruguayan has also offered to take in a number of detainees held in Guantanamo Bay to speed up the detention center’s closure. Mujica doesn’t stop at dealing forthrightly with fellow presidents. He has continued to be a vocal critic of tobacco, calling it a “killer,” despite the fact that cigarette giant Philip Morris is suing Uruguay over its legislation requiring warning labels on tobacco products and prohibiting smoking in public areas. As far as other international disagreements go, despite his once militant approach to politics the Uruguayan president “professes a hatred for modern war, but also scorns ‘beatific pacifism.’ ” In this sense, he has come a long way from the past that shaped him, although, evidenced by his sometimes colorful use of language and his propensity to stand up to bullies, he hasn’t lost the revolutionary spunk that inspired him to join the Tupamaro guerrilla movement (also known as the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional, or MLN) in the 1960s when his country was turning increasingly corrupt.

Though Mujica says he avoided violence whenever possible, the MLN, once called “Robin Hood guerrillas” for their history of hijacking food delivery trucks to distribute their loot to slums, eventually became intensely violent when faced with an aggressive government response. The movement went from robbing banks to expose corruption to leading what was described as a terrorist campaign of kidnappings and even targeted bombings. Some critics have gone so far as to blame the rise of the Uruguayan dictatorship in the 1970s on the Tupamaros. In the eyes of these critics, it was the government’s knee-jerk response to guerrilla violence that caused authorities to call on the military and ultimately led to a military coup. Today Mujica, who was shot six times by police, was tortured and spent the entire dictatorship in solitary confinement, has no regrets about his actions. He says he didn’t hide his past during his presidential campaign nor does he turn away from it now, and though he says he wasn’t elected for being a Tupamaro he also admits, “I wouldn’t be the person I am if I hadn’t lived through those years [in prison].” He expresses a similarly philosophical sentiment about his torturers, saying he holds no hard feelings against them, because they were merely “instruments in other people’s hands.”

Under Uruguayan law presidents cannot serve a second consecutive five-year term, but Mujica says this limitation is no source of displeasure for him. After he leaves the presidency he plans to spend more time with his wife, former Tupamaro fighter Lucía Topolansky, and Manuela, his three-legged dog, while resuming his seat in the country’s senate. After Mujica leaves office it will be easy for his admirers to give in to nostalgia and obsess about his plucky and progressive presidency, but that’s not what the “world’s humblest president” wants. Just last week, after thousands of his fans planned to organize an homage to the outgoing president, “El Pepe” publicly pleaded that they refrain because, in his words, this is a time to look “forwards, not backwards.” He asked his supporters to share their addresses with him via social media so he could arrange to meet with them under different circumstances; after all, he said, “I like smaller reunions better.” For his continued humility, his courageous efforts in the fight against inequality and his eccentric yet sincere approach to leadership, José Mujica is our Truthdigger of the Week.

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