MONTEVIDEO, Ururguay — The polls have it: the most beloved politician of the 20th century was Nelson Mandela. Facebook exploded on December 5, 2013 with people all over the world mourning the loss of the last scrupulous politician, or so they thought.
José Mujica, popularly termed the “Pauper President” of Uruguay, is nearing the end of his last presidential term. Known for practicing the progressive lifestyle he preaches, Mujica returns to his humble home with aged VW Beetle and a pristine conscience in tow.
His unofficial title stems from a decades-long career of humble servitude to his country. This is a leader who spent 13 years in prison during the military dictatorship that suffocated Uruguay in the 1970s and 80’s.
Elected in 2009, Murjica refused the luxurious Presidential Palace. “We still live today as we did 40 years ago. You don’t stop being a common man just because you are president,” he explained to the Guardian.
And Uruguayan culture is nothing if not historically egalitarian. Consistent with Murjica’s belief that liberty cannot exist without equality, Uruguayans consider materialistic displays of superiority impolite. As Eve Fairbanks of The New Republic writes, “the national self-conception always emphasized honoring the working class and valuing the nonmaterial.”
Still, Murjica had his share of dissidents. Uruguayan journalist Mauricio Rabuffetti asserts that for all of his efforts not to be hypocritical, his policies left much to be desired. Contrary to Murjica’s grounded, peace-loving ideals, Rabuffetti says that the nation has only become more materialistic during Murjica’s tenure, not less.
Murjica’s image—that of a slovenly-dressed rebel turned politician—had begun to work against him in the eyes of his harshest critics. Having once perceived him as analogous to Camelot’s King Arthur, they now dismiss him with the derisive title “bar philosopher.”
But the poor stand behind him. Here, Murjica’s image and lifestyle work most effectively to his advantage because they see him as one of them.
Those on the lowest rungs of Uruguay’s economic ladder stand behind him precisely because he appears to be at their level. Possessing a keen moral sense, Murjica is readily forgiven by his poor constituents because they sense his sincerity and are willing to overlook his lack of political experience.
His progressive measures also appeal to them. During his presidential term, Mujica gave away 90 percent of his salary to charity and legalized both marijuana and abortion.
When asked about his guerilla past, his philosophical side emerges as he says, “I suffered, but you can’t hold on to hatred. I wouldn’t be the person I am if I hadn’t lived through those years.”
But Uruguayan law prevails, and a president cannot serve consecutive terms. Once again, former president Tabaré Vazquez is poised to preside over the Uruguayan populace, with lukewarm consensus.
Vazquez has gained a reputation as the more efficacious politician. He inaugurated a left-wing government—Uruguay’s first since its dictator days—in 2005, and initiated the One Laptop Per Child program.
But his closest colleagues and allies do not like him. It seems that the closer one works to Vazquez, the more remote his temperament becomes. His policies are effective, but his leadership style remains callous and autocratic.
Time alone can tell what these differences will mean for Uruguay’s future. However, it is not implausible that Mujica will one day be compared to both Nelson Mandela and Princess Diana: all three of them caring and compassionate political figures in their own rights. It is clear to the media that the Pauper President is not fazed by any loss of power. “I have a way of life that I don’t change…I earn more than I need, even if it’s not enough for others. For me, it is no sacrifice. It’s duty,” said President Mujica.
– Leah Zazofsky