While Uruguay has garnered attention for its potential as an IT hub, its high percentage of people with broadband access and its relative affluence compared to its nearest neighbors, in recent years the country was frequently overshadowed by Brazil, Mexico and other Latin American countries.
The tiny republic is in the spotlight once again, however, thanks to President José Mujica, a former guerrilla and farmer who has been in office since March 2010.
Mujica joined the Tupamaros guerrilla movement in the early 1960s. The movement drew some inspiration from the Cuban revolution and performed some violent actions that earned it notoriety, while at the same time performing other more sympathetic actions that fueled the Robin Hood mythology of the guerrilla. It was crushed shortly before the military dictatorship in 1973.
Some say he was shot six times, some say nine, some say less during his stint in the movement. He was imprisoned for 14 years, most of which were spent in solitary confinement. He has often stated that his time spent in prison helped him shape his thinking and taught him that one can always start again.
Mujica donates 90 percent of his salary — an estimated US $150,000 a year — to charities that his own political party runs, the majority of them related to providing housing for the poor.
He also shuns the presidential palace for a modest farmhouse on the outskirts of Montevideo. He lives there with his wife, Senator Lucía Topolansky, also a Tupamaros member, and their dog Manuela. Mujica is not the first Uruguayan president to remain in a private residence. His predecessor Tabaré Vázquez did the same. Vazquez lived in a well-to-do residential district, however, while water is taken from a well and clothes are hung from a line at Mujica’s farmhouse.
Mujica travels with no entourage, except for two police officers who don’t wear their uniforms inside. He drives a 1987 Volkswagen Beetle to his office, after years of driving an old Vespa to Parliament, where he spent two periods as MP. Again, the lack of bodyguards or chauffeurs is not exclusive to Mujica, in a country where other politicians regularly jog along the promenade or do their shopping at local supermarkets, all a result of the country’s still high ranking in terms of safety.
Poverty and Popularity
The president, who is usually referred to as “Pepe,” addresses the issue of his personal austerity by quoting philosophers, often present in his rhetorical repertoire. “I am not poor. Poor are those who work to keep an expensive lifestyle, always craving for more.”
He seems to be relaxed about his recent drop in popularity within the country. “I don’t give a damn” he is reported to have said, adding that if he believed in polls he wouldn’t be president.
It is worth mentioning that his popularity abroad is higher than ever, with media from all over the world producing sympathetic pieces about his persona, even when he gets himself into trouble by making “off the record” statements that get leaked, like when he recently referred to his ally, Argentinean President Cristina Kirchner, as “that old hag.”
Since his election, Uruguay has passed bills legalizing same-sex marriage and abortion, two extremely sensitive issues. Mujica himself prompted a debate on the legalization of marijuana, suggesting it would be an effective way to combat drug trafficking. After polls revealed that the majority of the population did not agree, he asked MPs to withdraw the bill and consider discussing the matter again in the next legislative session.
His government has also drawn international attention for the encouragement of alternative energy sources, like wind and biomass.
Whether he was shot one, two or six times, what cannot be denied is that President Mujica has reinvented and recycled himself, challenging every single notion of what a traditional leader does and becoming the austere president that many rich nations would like to have.
Pat Antuña Yarza is a freelance writer and translator based in Montevideo. This story was first appeared in NSAM sister publication Global Delivery Report.