Uruguay’s President José Mujica gives away most of his salary and promotes happiness as the ultimate goal of politics. Zach James profiles an eccentric visionary
Not far outside the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo President José Mujica lives with his wife, Senator Lucía Topolansky, and Manuela, their three-legged dog. They grow and sell chrysanthemums and drive a 1987 Volkswagen Beetle. Mujica donates 90% of his salary – which equates to £7,500 a month – to charities that benefit poorer citizens of Uruguay and start-up entrepreneurs, a contribution that brings his remaining income in line with the average Uruguayan earnings of £485 a month.
Mujica spoke to the BBC in response to the international media having dubbed him the poorest president in the world. “I am not a poor president. Poor people are those who always want more and more – those who never have enough of anything. Those are the poor, because they are in a neve- ending cycle and they won’t ever have enough time in their lives. I choose this austere lifestyle. I choose not to have too many belongings so I have time to live how I want to live.”
A prominent member of left-wing urban guerrilla group Tupamaros in the sixties and seventies, Mujica now represents Frente Amplio (Broad Front), a coalition of progressive political parties that are occasionally in dispute with each other regarding subjects such as abortion and fiscal conservatism. Many political commentators noted Mujica’s apparent slide from the radical leftist politics of his Tupamaros days to a notably more centrist philosophy in time for the 2009 elections – a modification which helped secure the votes of both centre and centre-left voters.
He won the presidency from Frente Amplio colleague Tabaré Vázquez, who is credited with making economic progress with the introduction of a mix of social programs and pro-business strategies, and who is running for office again this October. The Uruguayan constitution explicitly prohibits consecutive re-election, but each president may run again after sitting out a term. Polls suggest Vázquez is likely to be handed back the baton this year.
With these 2014 elections fast-approaching, opponents of Mujica have been eager to criticize him. Former President and unsuccessful 2009 candidate Luis Lacalle accused him of wasting a favourable economic climate. “If you look at the power he had and the potential he had, we can see that his administration has not been as good as it should have been.” Other remonstrances paint Mujica as a populist or a promotor of state intervention, though opinion polls have shown stable approval ratings, and political consultancy Cifra claim that 54% of Uruguayans sympathize with the president.
His popularity outside his homeland is evident. His appearance on Spanish television this May sparked over 100,000 tweets using the hashtag #UnPresidenteDiferente, which heavily favoured his lifestyle and values over that of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
Beside his personal, Mujica is widely respected due to the remarkable social progress Uruguay has made during his time in office. In 2012, the senate approved a bill which allows women to have abortions during the first trimester of pregnancy for any reason. Pioneering plans to become the world leader in wind energy generation by 2015 are on track – soon Uruguay will produce 90% of its electricity consumption by means of renewable sources. The country is only the second on their continent to have legalized same-sex marriage, and the legalization of marijuana followed earlier this year.
Mujica told Jonathan Watts of the Guardian that: “These measures are logical. With marijuana, this is not about being more liberal. We want to take users away from clandestine dealers. But we will also restrict their right to smoke if they exceed sensible amounts of consumption. It is like alcohol. If you drink a bottle of whisky a day, they you should be treated as a sick person.”
‘I am not a poor president. Poor people are those who always want more and more – those who never have enough of anything,’ President José Mujica
This direct and honest approach has proved popular. His speeches are also logical and concise. “I may appear to be an eccentric old man,” he joked to Vladimir Hernandez of the BBC, “but do allow me to express myself; when world leaders talk about sustainable development, what is that growth based on? It’s based on pushing people into mass consumption, but then you face an economic crisis like the one you see today.” At the Rio +20 summit on sustainable development in 2012, he elaborated on this argument, simply asking: “Does the world today have the material elements to enable seven or eight billion people to enjoy the same level of consumption and squandering as the most affluent Western societies? Will that ever be possible?”
Waste is a topic he frequently returns to. In reference to Uruguay’s economy, growing at an annual 3%, he outlines the paradoxical issues he faces. “I am trying to expand consumption but to diminish unnecessary consumption … I’m opposed to waste – of energy, or resources, or time. We need to build things that last. That’s an ideal, but it may not be realistic, because we live in an age of accumulation.”
‘Basic development has to work in favour of human happiness, of love on earth, human relationships, caring for children, having friends, having our basic needs covered,’ President José Mujica
Mujica’s disapproval of a disposable culture in which products are designed to have short lives so that the purchasing of replacements continues to fuel the market is consistent with his objection to being known as the “poor president”. “Poor people are those who never have enough of anything” is a reference is to Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher, who is accredited with “It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, who is poor.”
The grounding of his politics in a philosophical world view is one of the sources of Mujica’s charm. “I’m just sick of the way things are. We’re in an age in which we can’t live without accepting the logic of the market. Contemporary politics is all about short-term pragmatism. We have abandoned religion and philosophy … what we have left is the automatisation of doing what the market tells us.”
The priority, he argues, must be happiness, which our economic development must never inhibit. “Basic development has to work in favour of human happiness, of love on Earth, human relationships, caring for children, having friends, having our basic needs covered. Precisely because this is the most precious treasure we have; happiness,” he said.