“A president is a high-level official who is elected to carry out a function. He is not a king, not a god. He is not the witch doctor of a tribe who knows everything. He is a civil servant. I think the ideal way of living is to live like the vast majority of people whom we attempt to serve and represent.”
They say power corrupts. But that did not apply to Jose Mujica, who was incorrectly referred to as the world’s poorest president.
Mujica, who served as the 40th president of Uruguay between 2010-2015, didn’t live in a palace like many of his predecessors and counterparts. He chose to reside on his small farm on a dirt-road off the outskirts of the capital Montevideo, with his wife and of dogs, including three-legged Manuela .
It is just one example of how a former urban guerrilla leader, who spent over a decade being tortured in prison or kept in solitary confinement during the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s, practices the simplicity he preaches. He is a man of principal, who lives within his means and without the grandeur and lavishness expected of a national leader.
While president he was known for unusual frankness, fiery oration and bold leadership to turn ideas into action. He has also garnered international acclaim for his progressive policies, down-to-earth personality and simple presentation.
Under his watch his watch he legalised abortion and gay marriage. He explained: “We applied a very simple principle: Recognise the facts. Abortion is old as the world. Gay marriage, please — it’s older than the world. We had Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, please. To say it’s modern, come on, it’s older than we are. It’s an objective reality that it exists. For us, not legalizing it would be to torture people needlessly.”
And when he legalised marijuana he cemented Uruguay as South America’s most liberal country. But it was a move which demonstrated his pragmatism as much as anything else. He ceded: “Marijuana is another plague, another addiction. Some say it’s good but no, that’s rubbish. Not marijuana, tobacco or alcohol – the only good addiction is love!
“150,000 people smoke [marijuana] here and I couldn’t leave them at the mercy of drugs traffickers. It’s easier to control something if it’s legal and that’s why we’ve done this.”
He famously gave 90% of his salary, the equivalent of $12,000 (£7,500) a month, to charity because he did not need it, explaining: “I have a way of life that I don’t change just because I am a president. I earn more than I need, even if it’s not enough for others. For me, it is no sacrifice, it’s a duty.”
I have a way of life that I don't change just because I am a president
And throughout his presidency he continued to drive his banged-up 1987 VW Beetle. Mujica was even offered $1m for the car by an Arab Sheikh, but said he didn’t give the offer “any importance”.
It is not surprising that throughout this time he kept banging his socialist drum and demanding a fair deal for the little man. He said: “Businesses just want to increase their profits; it’s up to the government to make sure they distribute enough of those profits so workers have the money to buy the goods they produce. It’s no mystery — the less poverty, the more commerce. The most important investment we can make is in human resources.”
And turning his attention to an every-day item found in wardrobes around the world, he said: “The tie is a useless rag that constrains your neck. I’m an enemy of consumerism. Because of this hyperconsumerism, we’re forgetting about fundamental things and wasting human strength on frivolities that have little to do with human happiness.”
Rejecting the label of world’s poorest president, he identified true wealth has nothing to do with money when he said: “I’m not the poorest president. The poorest is the one who needs a lot to live. My lifestyle is a consequence of my wounds. I’m the son of my history. There have been years when I would have been happy just to have a mattress.”
When his presidency ended in 2015 Mujica, then aged 79, left office with a relatively healthy economy and with social stability neighbouring countries Argentina and Brazil could only dream of. He also had an approval rating of nearly 70%.
It is no wonder that Mujica is described as the president every other country would like. He is a champion for the poor, and stands up for oppressed and marginalized peoples. He’s offered asylum to detainees from Guantanamo Bay, and shelter to Syrian children refugees.
There is no other global leader quite like him. If more followed his example, we would live in a far better world.
It would be more accurate to call Mujica the world’s most humble president. He remains an inspiration to many and is a reminder that politics is meant to be a humble and honourable profession.