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Latin America | WATCH: Uruguay President Jose Mujica – The World’s Least Selfish PresidentEstimated reading time: 18 minutes
Imagine if all world “leaders” truly led by such example …
Jose Mujica: The world’s ‘poorest’ president
By Vladimir Hernandez
BBC Mundo, Montevideo
It’s a common grumble that politicians’ lifestyles are far removed from those of their electorate. Not so in Uruguay. Meet the president – who lives on a ramshackle farm and gives away most of his pay.
Laundry is strung outside the house. The water comes from a well in a yard, overgrown with weeds. Only two police officers and Manuela, a three-legged dog, keep watch outside.
This is the residence of the president of Uruguay, Jose Mujica, whose lifestyle clearly differs sharply from that of most other world leaders.
President Mujica has shunned the luxurious house that the Uruguayan state provides for its leaders and opted to stay at his wife’s farmhouse, off a dirt road outside the capital, Montevideo.
The president and his wife work the land themselves, growing flowers.
This austere lifestyle – and the fact that Mujica donates about 90% of his monthly salary, equivalent to $12,000 (£7,500), to charity – has led him to be labelled the poorest president in the world.
“I may appear to be an eccentric old man… But this is a free choice.”
“I’ve lived like this most of my life,” he says, sitting on an old chair in his garden, using a cushion favoured by Manuela the dog.
“I can live well with what I have.”
His charitable donations – which benefit poor people and small entrepreneurs – mean his salary is roughly in line with the average Uruguayan income of $775 (£485) a month.
All the president’s wealth – a 1987 VW Beetle
In 2010, his annual personal wealth declaration – mandatory for officials in Uruguay – was $1,800 (£1,100), the value of his 1987 Volkswagen Beetle.
This year, he added half of his wife’s assets – land, tractors and a house – reaching $215,000 (£135,000).
That’s still only about two-thirds of Vice-President Danilo Astori’s declared wealth, and a third of the figure declared by Mujica’s predecessor as president, Tabare Vasquez.
Elected in 2009, Mujica spent the 1960s and 1970s as part of the Uruguayan guerrilla Tupamaros, a leftist armed group inspired by the Cuban revolution.
He was shot six times and spent 14 years in jail. Most of his detention was spent in harsh conditions and isolation, until he was freed in 1985 when Uruguay returned to democracy.
Those years in jail, Mujica says, helped shape his outlook on life.
Tupamaros: Guerrillas to government
-Left-wing guerrilla group formed initially from poor sugar cane workers and students
-Named after Inca king Tupac Amaru
-Key tactic was political kidnapping – UK ambassador Geoffrey Jackson held for eight months in 1971
-Crushed after 1973 coup led by President Juan Maria Bordaberry
-Mujica was one of many rebels jailed, spending 14 years behind bars – until constitutional government returned in 1985
-He played key role in transforming Tupamaros into a legitimate political party, which joined the Frente Amplio (broad front) coalition
“I’m called ‘the poorest president’, 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,” he says.
“This is a matter of freedom. 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,” he says.
“I may appear to be an eccentric old man… But this is a free choice.”
The Uruguayan leader made a similar point when he addressed the Rio+20 summit in June this year: “We’ve been talking all afternoon about sustainable development. To get the masses out of poverty.
“But what are we thinking? Do we want the model of development and consumption of the rich countries? I ask you now: what would happen to this planet if Indians would have the same proportion of cars per household than Germans? How much oxygen would we have left?
“Does this planet have enough resources so seven or eight billion can have the same level of consumption and waste that today is seen in rich societies? It is this level of hyper-consumption that is harming our planet.”
Mujica accuses most world leaders of having a “blind obsession to achieve growth with consumption, as if the contrary would mean the end of the world”.
Mujica could have followed his predecessors into a grand official residence
But however large the gulf between the vegetarian Mujica and these other leaders, he is no more immune than they are to the ups and downs of political life.
“Many sympathise with President Mujica because of how he lives. But this does not stop him for being criticised for how the government is doing,” says Ignacio Zuasnabar, a Uruguayan pollster.
The Uruguayan opposition says the country’s recent economic prosperity has not resulted in better public services in health and education, and for the first time since Mujica’s election in 2009 his popularity has fallen below 50%.
This year he has also been under fire because of two controversial moves. Uruguay’s Congress recently passed a bill which legalised abortions for pregnancies up to 12 weeks. Unlike his predecessor, Mujica did not veto it.
Instead, he chose to stay on his wife’s farm
He is also supporting a debate on the legalisation of the consumption of cannabis, in a bill that would also give the state the monopoly over its trade.
“Consumption of cannabis is not the most worrying thing, drug-dealing is the real problem,” he says.
However, he doesn’t have to worry too much about his popularity rating – Uruguayan law means he is not allowed to seek re-election in 2014. Also, at 77, he is likely to retire from politics altogether before long.
When he does, he will be eligible for a state pension – and unlike some other former presidents, he may not find the drop in income too hard to get used to.
“At The Heart of Uruguayan Democracy, Surrounded by Thinking Heads”
On March 1 (2010), José “Pepe” Mujica took office as the President of Uruguay. He is a former Tupac Amaru guerrilla fighter, who later became a senator, congressman and minister in different governments and is another “invictus” of contemporary history. This speech, which he gave to his country’s intellectuals during the campaign, explains a whole program for reflection, action and life.
Dear friends, life has been extraordinarily generous to me. It has given me endless satisfactions beyond my wildest dreams. Almost all of them are undeserved, but none more so than the one I have today: finding myself here now at the heart of Uruguayan democracy, surrounded by hundreds of thinking heads. Thinking heads on the left and right! Thinking heads all over the place, loads and loads of thinking heads…
Do you remember Scrooge McDuck, Donald’s millionaire uncle who swam in a pool full of bank notes? The guy had developed a physical sensuality for money. I like to think of myself as someone who likes to bathe in swimming pools full of other people’s intelligence, culture and wisdom. The more alien the better. The less they coincide with my limited knowledge, the better. The weekly newspaper Búsqueda has a beautiful phrase it uses as an insignia: “What I say I don’t say as a knowing man, but rather looking together with you.” For once we agree. Yes, we’ll agree!
I don’t say what I say as a know-all small farmer or a well-read gaucho minstrel; I say it searching together with you. I say it searching, because only the ignorant believe the truth is definitive and solid, when really it’s only temporary and gelatinous. It has to be sought out because it goes running from hiding place to hiding place. And woe to anyone who hunts alone. It has to be done with you, with those who have made intellectual work their raison d’être, those who are here and the many more who aren’t.
From all the disciplines
If you look to the side you’ll surely see some familiar faces because these are people from related areas of work. But you’ll see many more unknown faces, because the rule of this convocation has been heterogeneity. The people here include those dedicated to working with atoms and molecules and those dedicated to studying the rules of production and exchange in society. There are people from the basic sciences and from the social sciences, which is almost its opposite; there are people from biology and the theater, as well as from music, education, law and the carnival.
And to ensure that nobody is missing, there are people from economics, macroeconomics, microeconomics, compara¬tive economics and even someone from domestic economics. All of them are thinking heads, but they are thinking about different things and can help improve this country from their different disciplines. Improving this country means many things, but from the emphases we want for this session, it means pushing the complex processes that multiply the intellectual power gathered here a thousand times. It means that in 20 years an event like this won’t fit in the Centenary Stadium, because Uruguay will be swamped with engineers, philosophers and artists.
It isn’t that we want a country that breaks world records for the pure pleasure of doing so. It’s because it has been demonstrated that once intelligence acquires a certain degree of concentration in a society it becomes contagious.
If one day we fill stadiums with professionally trained people it will be because outside, in society, hundreds of thousands of Uruguayans have cultivated their capacity to think. The intelligence that provides benefits to a country is distributed intelligence; it isn’t just confined to laboratories or universities, but circulates in the streets. It’s the kind of intelligence used to sow, use a lathe, drive a forklift truck or program a computer, as well as to cook or to properly attend to a tourist’s needs. Some will climb up more rungs than others, but it’s the same ladder and the lower rungs are the same ones used for both nuclear physics and managing a field. What is needed for all of this is the same curious look, hungry for knowledge and unsatisfied. It ends up knowing, because previously we knew enough to feel uncomfortable with not knowing. We learn because we have an itch acquired through cultural contagion almost as soon as we open our eyes to the world.
I dream of a country in which parents show their little children grass and ask them, “Do you know what this is? It’s a plant that processes the sun’s energy and the earth’s minerals.” Or show them the starry sky and use that spectacle to make them think about the celestial bodies, the speed of light and the transmission of waves. And don’t worry; those little Uruguayans are still going to play soccer. It’s just that at some point as they watch the ball bouncing, they can also think about the elasticity of the materials that makes it bounce.
The capacity for self-questioning
There’s a saying, “Don’t give a child fish, teach him to fish.” Today we should be saying, “Don’t give a child a fact, teach him to think.” The way we’re going, the deposits of knowledge aren’t going to be inside our heads any more, but rather outside, available to be looked up on the internet. All the information is going to be there, all the facts, everything that’s already known. In other words, all the answers.
But what won’t be there is all of the questions. What’s going to matter will be the capacity for self-questioning, the capacity to formulate fertile questions that trigger new research and learning efforts. And that can be found down here, almost etched on our skulls, so deep down we’re almost unaware of it. We simply have to learn to look at the world with a question mark, and it becomes the natural way of looking.
It’s something we acquire early on and that remains with us for life. And above all, dear friends, it’s contagious. Throughout time, it has been you, those who dedicate themselves to intellectual activity, who have been responsible for scattering the seed. Or to put it in words that mean a lot to us, you’ve been responsible for setting off the admirable alarm. Please, go forth and infect.
Don’t spare anyone! We need a kind of culture that’s propagated in the air, among households, that slips into kitchens and is even in the bathroom. When that happens, the game is almost won forever, because it breaks the basic ignorance that makes many weak, generation after generation.
Knowledge is pleasure
We need to spread intelligence, first and foremost to turn us into more powerful producers. And that’s almost a question of survival. But in this life, it’s not just about producing; you also have to enjoy.
You know better than anyone that both effort and pleasure are involved in knowledge and culture. They say that the people who jog along La Rambla reach a kind of ecstasy where tiredness no longer exists, only pleasure. I believe the same is true with knowledge and culture. There comes a point in which studying or researching or learning is no longer an effort and becomes pure enjoyment. It would be so good for such delicacies to be available to many people!
How good it would be if the quality of life basket that Uruguay can offer its people were to have a good number of intellectual consumer items. Not because it would be elegant, but because it’s pleasurable; it’s something that can be enjoyed with the same intensity as eating a plate of noodles.
There’s no obligatory list of things that make us happy! Some may think of the ideal world as a place full of shopping centers where people are happy because everyone can leave loaded down with bags of new clothes and boxes of electrical appliances… I have nothing against that vision; I’m just saying it isn’t the only one possible. I’m saying we can also think about a country in which people choose to fix things rather than throw them out, can have a small car rather than a big one, can wrap up warmer rather than turning up the heat.
The most mature societies don’t squander. Go to the Netherlands and you’ll see cities full of bicycles. You’ll realize there that consumerism isn’t the choice of humanity’s real aristocracy. It’s the choice of novelty-lovers and the frivolous.
The Dutch also get around by bicycle. They use them not only to go to work but also to go to concerts and parks, because they’ve reached a level where their day-to-day happiness is fed by both material and intellectual consumptions. So, my friends, go and spread the pleasure provided by knowledge, while my modest contribution will be to try to get Uruguayans to take bike ride after bike ride…
I asked you before to spread a curious look at the world, which is in the very DNA of intellectual work. And now I’m extending that request and begging you to spread independence. I’m convinced that this country needs a new epidemic of dissidence like the one intellectuals generated decades ago. In Uruguay, those of us in the leftist political arena are the children or nephews and nieces of the great Carlos Quijano’s weekly newspaper Marcha.
That generation of intellectuals took on the task of being the nation’s conscience. They went around with pins in their hands bursting balloons and deflating myths, particularly the myth that Uruguay was a multi-champion: the champion of culture, education, social development and democracy.
Like we were going to be champions of anything! Much less during those years, in the fifties and sixties, when the only record we knew how to compete for was the Latin American country with the least growth in 20 years. Only Haiti ranked higher than us on that.
Those intellectuals helped demolish that Uruguay of the conformist siesta. With all its defects, we prefer this stage, where we are humbler and more aware of our real stature in the world. But we have to recover that dissatisfaction and try to get it under the skin of the whole of Uruguay.
I told you earlier that the intelligence that works for a country is distributed intelligence. Now I’m telling you that the nonconformity that works for a country is distributed nonconformity, the kind that invades everyday life and pushes us to wonder whether we can’t find a better way of doing whatever we’re doing.
Nonconformity is part of the very nature of the work you do and it needs to become second nature for all of us. A culture of nonconformity is one that doesn’t let us stop until we achieve more kilos per hectare of wheat or more liters of milk per cow. Everything, absolutely everything, can be done a little better today than it was yesterday, from making a hotel bed to making an integrated circuit. We need an epidemic of nonconformity. And that’s also culture; it’s also something that’s irradiated from the intellectual center of society to its periphery.
Nonconformity is what has won respect for small societies and what they do. Take the Swiss, a handful of crazy people, just like us, who allow themselves the luxury of going around selling Swiss quality or Swiss precision. I’d say that what they’re really selling is Swiss intelligence and nonconformity, which they’ve scattered throughout their society.
Education is the way
And friends, the bridge between today and the tomorrow we want to see has a name; it’s called education. You can see that it’s a long, difficult bridge to cross, because education rhetoric is one thing and deciding to make the sacrifices imvolved in launching a great educational effort and sustaining it over time is quite another.
Investments in education produce slow yields and thus don’t put a shine on any government; they rather generate resistance by forcing the postponement of other demands. But it has to be done. We owe it to our children and grandchildren. And it has to be done now, when the technological miracle of the Internet is still fresh and never-before-seen opportunities to access knowledge are opening up.
I grew up with the radio and witnessed the birth of television, followed by color television and satellite transmission. Then 40 channels appeared on my television, including ones transmitted live from the United States, Spain and Italy. Then came cell phones and computers, which at first only served to process numbers. And each time, it left my mouth agape.
But now with the Internet my capacity for surprise has been exhausted. I feel like those humans who saw a wheel or fire for the first time. You feel you were lucky enough to experience a historical milestone. The doors of all the libraries and museums are opening up; all scientific journals and all books in the world are going to be available, and probably all the films and the music in the world as well. It’s overwhelming.
So we need all Uruguayans, particularly little Uruguayans, to learn how to swim in that torrent. We have to climb aboard that current and navigate in it like a fish in water. We’ll achieve that if that intellectual matrix we mentioned earlier is solid, if our little ones know how to produce ordered reasoning and how to ask worthwhile questions. It’s like a race on two different tracks, up there in the information ocean and down here preparing for trans-Atlantic navigation.
Full-time schools, faculties in the country’s interior, mass tertiary education. And probably English in state education from pre-school level, because English isn’t just the language Yankees speak; it’s the language the Chinese use to communicate with the world. We can’t be on the outside. We can’t leave our little ones out in the cold. These are the tools that let us interact with the universal explosion of knowledge. This new world doesn’t simplify our life, it complicates it. It forces us to take education further and deeper. There’s no greater task facing us.
Idealism at the service of the State
Dear friends, we are in electoral times. In blessed and cursed electoral times. Cursed, because we fight and run races against each other. Blessed, because they allow us to live in civilized coexistence. And blessed once again because despite all their imperfections, they make us the masters of our own fate. All of us here have learned that the worst democracy is preferable to the best dictatorship.
In electoral times, we all organize in groups, factions and parties; we surround ourselves with technicians and professionals and parade before the sovereign. There’s adrenaline and enthusiasm. But afterwards, someone wins and someone loses. And that shouldn’t be a drama. With one set of people or another, Uruguayan democracy will continue on its path and find the formulae to take it towards wellbeing. We’ll be trying to lend a hand wherever we’re needed. And I’m sure the same is true of you as well.
Society, the State and the government require your many talents and require even more your idealistic attitude. Those of us here went into politics to serve, not so the State would serve our interests. Good faith is our only intransigence. Almost everything else is negotiable. Thank you for accompanying me.