“My definition of poverty is the one we owe to Seneca: It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, who is poor”. These words came from José Mujica, the former president of Uruguay. The man who was commonly referred as “the world’s poorest president”, handed his power over to a new leader on March 1, but his liberal ideas and initiatives made him a living legend and one of the most beloved politicians in South America.
When he was elected president in November 2009 by polling 53% of the vote, Jose Mujica, aka Pépé, decided that the presidential salary is way too big for his needs. He decided to donate 90 per cent of his income while he was taking home only 1250 euro. He has always been concerned about regular people. Poverty is an existing problem in the small Latin country but levels have dropped from around 40% before 2005 to less than 13% today. Speaking to the Spanish newspaper El Mundo in 2012, Uruguay’s leader explained that the amount he keeps is sufficient. “I do fine with that amount; I have to do fine because there are many Uruguayans who live with much less,” he told the paper.
Mujica is not the regular president you will find drenched in luxury. He implemented himself a personal austerity by choosing to continue living in a humble way. He refused to move in the presidential residence in the capital Montevideo. He preferred to reside in a small farmhouse in the outskirts with his family and their three-legged dog named Manuela. He and his wife work the land themselves, growing flowers. When declaring his wealth, Mujica stated that his most valuable possession is his 1987 Volkswagen Beetle, which he refuses to give up. Following her husband’s example, Lucia Topolansky donated a large sum of her senatorial salary.
Lat January, a young Uruguayan man posted a message on his Facebook page saying that the president and his wife picked him up while he was hitchhiking. “When I got out, I thanked them profusely because not everyone helps someone out on the road, and much less a president,” he told Uruguay’s newspaper El Observador.
Life in Prison
Mujica’s background explains a lot about his ideas. As a young man, he spent the 1960s and 1970s as part of the Uruguayan guerrilla Tupamaros, a leftist and anti-capitalist armed group inspired by the Cuban revolution. During the years of Uruguay’s civic military dictatorship, he was shot six times and spent 13 years imprisoned. Most of his detention was spent in harsh conditions and isolation. He survived torture and endless months of solitary confinement. Majica said he never regretted his time in jail, which he believes helped him to shape his outlook on life. He was finally set free in 1985, when Uruguay returned to democracy.
“Locked up, I almost went mad. Now I’m a prisoner of my own freedom to think and decide as I wish. I cultivate that freedom and fight for it. I may make mistakes, some huge, but one of my few virtues is I say what I think” he told in October 2014 to the Guardian.
His late and most significant innovation came in June 2012 when defence minister Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro announced that the state would be taking over the production and sale of marijuana. The world’s most avant-garde cannabis law passed by the Uruguayan parliament in 2013, opening the way to legalize the production, distribution, sale and consumption of the planet’s favourite illegal drug regulated by the state.
Declaring the war on the war on drugs Mujica targeted to weaken the illegal drug cartels and drug traffickers. In this way the state also wanted to be able to keep track of all marijuana consumers, and provide treatment to the most serious abusers. “150,000 people smoke (marijuana) here and I couldn’t leave them at the mercy of drugs traffickers,” he says. “It’s easier to control something if it’s legal and that’s why we’ve done this.”
Jose Mujica is leaving office in order to become a senator. While Uruguay is experiencing 12 years of booming economy, rising salaries and historically low unemployment, it will be a challenge for the newly elected president Tabare Vasquez, to overpass his predecessor, a president every other country would be lucky to have.