People anywhere in the world are used to the campaign promises of politicians. The poor will be prioritized, leaders will set the example, the government will spend within its means and the doors of authorities are always open to all sectors of society. Then, once in office, all the promises will just vanish into thin air.
The Latin American region has seen a revolution of sorts the past few years. Popular presidents whose political beliefs are left of center have been elected in different South American countries. They have been walking the walk and have gone beyond the usual lip service of politicians. From Venezuela and Bolivia to Brazil and Chile, leaders who seem to be genuinely concerned with the plight of the people have been taking charge.
Uruguay has not been left behind in this recent wave. The country has elected a former leftist guerrilla as its president. Jose Mujica, an atheist, vegetarian, former member of the Tupamaro, Volkswagen Beetle-owner who has eschewed the privilege of living in a palace reserved for the country’s head of government for a humble farm in the outskirts of the capital of Montevideo, is known as the poorest president in the world and he is proud of it.
A Humble Background
Mujica was born on May 20, 1935. He has Spanish Basque and Italian ancestries. His father was a farmer who lost it all in 1940 when Mujica was barely five years old. His mother came from poor immigrants from Italy that cultivated vineyards in Colonia Estrella.
When he was young, Mujica was actually active in the National Party, a right wing conservative party. He even got close to Enrique Erro.
From Right to Left
In the early 60s, Mujica’s beliefs shifted from conservative to the extreme left when he joined the MLN-T, or Movimiento de Liberacion Nacional – Tupamaros (Tupamaros National Liberation Movement). Named after the famous 18th century South American revolutionary Tupac Amaru II, the movement came about from the alliance of the Movimiento de Apoyo al Campesino, or Peasant Support Movement, and the trade unions founded by Raul Sendic, one of the movement’s leaders.
The group initially abstained from violence and armed actions, preferring instead to be known as a political movement. In 1968 however, the then-Uruguayan government violently suppressed labor unrest and demonstrations, using torture to extract confessions from political prisoners. The Tupamaros responded in kind, engaging in political kidnappings and assassinations. The most notable were the abductions of an unpopular banker named Pereyra Reberval, who had killed a newsboy for selling a newspaper that had an article critical of him, and an American agent named Dan Mitrione, the man who taught torture methods to different Latin American police forces. The movement eventually killed Mitrione.
State forces captured Mujica four times during his time with the movement. This included a stint when Mujica was confined to the bottom of a well for a couple of years. It was only in 1985 that he was finally freed under a general amnesty law after the restoration of constitutional democracy.
From Bullets to Ballots
Mujica eventually joined other left wing groups to form the Movement of Popular Participation, or MPP, political party. This party was then accepted as part of the Broad Front coalition.
In 1994, he was elected as a deputy, or legislator. He served for four years until 1998, when he was elected to the Uruguayan Senate. By 2004, the MPP had become the largest faction in the Broad Front. It was considered the primary force behind the coalition and one of the main reasons for the election of then-candidate Tabare Vasquez for president.
Vasquez eventually appointed the popular Mujica in 2005 as the country’s Minister of Livestock, Agriculture and Fisheries, taking advantage of the latter’s background in the agricultural sector. Mujica took a leave of absence in the Senate before returning in 2008 after a cabinet reshuffle.
By that time, however, Mujica was already considered as presidential timber. A party convention already proclaimed him as the Broad Front candidate, though he had to beat the challenge of four other candidates, including the then-Finance Minister Danilo Astori, the man anointed by President Vasquez. Astori agreed to become Mujica’s vice presidential running mate.
The two got the most votes in the elections, though a run-off was required as they failed to get a plurality of the votes. In the succeeding runoff, Mujica got 52 percent of the vote compared to the 43 percent of the conservative candidate, Luis Alberto Lacalle.
Having seen the best and worst of competing ideologies across both ends of the political spectrum, Mujica has learned to adopt a more pragmatic approach to governance. Though he still considers himself as left of center, he has been vocal in wanting a more flexible approach that is capable of thinking outside the box. He has a folksy style and he speaks the language of the people.
Mujica is also the epitome of an anti politician in that he is not afraid to speak out his mind. He has declared his support for abortion in case a bill comes up to him for approval despite opposition from conservative and religious groups. He has not taken a belligerent stand in the dispute between Argentina and Uruguay over pulp mills along a shared river, thus opening possibilities for an immediate and peaceful resolution. He has also called for more acceptance of leaders of belligerent nations, even commending the Brazilian leadership’s friendship with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad because fencing in Iran will just make it harder for the rest of the world. He has also backed the legalization of marijuana, claiming that it would help weaken the drug cartels while at the same allow social service groups to monitor and help the most serious abusers.
He has also stuffed his cabinet with members of like-minded members of the Broad Front, even as he conceded the economic and finance portfolios to aides of Astori.
Poor but Popular
Mujica lives in a humble farm near Montevideo, where he and his wife cultivate chrysanthemums. He has also practiced reverse tithing…instead of giving away 10 percent of earnings to charities, he only keeps 10 percent of his $12,000 salary while donating the rest to organizations that help small entrepreneurs and the poor.
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