Farewell Pepe! The Legacy of the World’s poorest President

Guerrilla fighter, MP, Senator, Minister and eventually President of Uruguay – José “Pepe” Mujica’s life has been more than eventful. The floriculturist that nowadays occasionally appears shaved and in a shirt but still without tie, has during his presidency given way to progressive and courageous, though contested, reforms that have catapulted Uruguay towards one of the most liberal countries in Latin America.  

 On 1st March 2015 the presidential term of José “Pepe” Mujica, also often named the “world’s poorest president”, ended. The humble man of 79 years has throughout his presidency refused to reside in Uruguay’s glorious presidential palace, and instead preferred to live with his wife on their Chacra, a small farm in the outskirts of Montevideo. He has also, among others, been donating about 90% of his monthly salary (amounting to $12,000 to charity) which benefits poor Uruguayans and small entrepreneurs. Such an austere lifestyle coupled with altruism has earned him admiration and respect among Uruguayans, as well as a considerable popularity in the media. But also the policies he initiated during his presidency brought underway significant changes in Uruguay’s political and societal life. Taking into account both Mujica’s lifestyle and progressive reforms, it is very well worth taking a closer look at the outgoing president’s life and political legacy.

Political Pathway: Tupamaros, Frente Amplio, and Presidency

Mujica looks back at an eventful and at times dramatic life, which is intrinsically linked with the political history of the country. Born in 1935 to a poor rancher, who some years after went bankrupt, and into a time characterised by the harsh rule of, then dictator Gabriel Terra, Mujica was confronted early on with poverty, injustice, and social inequality deeply rooted in the political system. Therefore it is no wonder that in the late 1960s he joined the Tupamaros, a left-wing urban guerrilla group inspired by the Cuban Revolution, in their armed fight for social equality of income and property. During the early 1970s the Tupamaros were at the peak of their activity, waging a guerrilla war against the state. In the same year, Mujica, who had quickly moved up the internal hierarchy of the Tupamaros, was, while violently resisting a police arrest, shot six-times; fortunately his life could be saved in surgery.

After the years in prison Mujica has become a different man. He has left behind the guerrilla fighter, convinced that societal change can only be brought about by political and legitimate means.

In 1971 the Frente Amplio, a left coalition of political parties consisting of communists, left radicals, Christian Democrats as well as former Tupamaros emerged. It was created as an alternative to both the violent guerrilla fight and the two dominant parties, the liberal Partido Colorado, on the one, and the conservative Partido Colorado, on the other hand. The governing Partido Colorado helpless in the face of kidnapping, bombings, assassinations as well as public turmoil handed over the power voluntarily to the military in 1973, thereby paving the way for a 15-years-long dictatorship. In the subsequent years the military shut down the press, dissolved congress, and imprisoned one in every 50 people, resulting in the highest rate of political incarceration in the world at that time. Mujica was one of those prisoners of conscience. For the next 14 years he was kept under harsh conditions in solitary confinement until he was freed in 1985 when Uruguay returned to democracy.

After the years in prison Mujica has become a different man. He has left behind the guerrilla fighter, convinced that societal change can only be brought about by political and legitimate means. The former Tupamaro has also become more inclined towards political compromises, a trait that many in the left-wing have heavily criticised. Nevertheless, in 1995 Mujica was elected into parliament for the Frente Amplio. In 2004 Tabaré Vazquez won the election for the Frente Amplio with 52% of the votes, thereby becoming the first left-wing president after there had been a two-party system for 174 years. Under Vazquez Mujica served as minister of agriculture from 2005 until 2008. During Vazquez’s presidency Uruguay developed into the “Switzerland of Latin America”, owing to its thriving economy that has grown in average by 5% per year since 2003. Particularly the growth in the service sector and tourism as well as the agricultural sector with its prospering livestock exports under Mujica’s charge have contributed to the economic growth. Yet it is in these years, as minister of agriculture, that Mujica was especially attacked by the left-wing for his readiness to compromise. As during his term of office vast parts of the country’s most fertile lands were sold to TNCs primarily from Europe and Brazil, resulting in the displacement of peasants and small ranchers.

As the Uruguayan constitution prohibits direct re-election of the president, Mujica was designated to represent the Frente Amplio in the 2009 presidency elections. Notwithstanding, the contested sales of Uruguayan land to TNCs during his term as minister of agriculture, the former guerrilla fighter won, 24 years after the release from prison, the presidential elections with 52% of the votes.

Presidency: Prospering Economy, Political Reforms and Criticism

Given Mujica’s past it might become understandable why he donates about 90% of his salary to charity and consciously forgoes presidential amenities. According to Mujica this is a free choice motivated by a critical stance towards overconsumption:”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”, further he adds: “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”. Similarly he denounces unsustainable growth at all cost, especially sought to be achieved by world leaders “as if the contrary would mean the end of the world”.

“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.”

 It is not only such lines of reasoning that have made Mujica popular among young and old, marginalised peasants, socially excluded and intellectuals. But especially political actions have lent him credibility and recognition: Between 2006 and 2013 the poverty in the population has been reduced from 32.5% to 11.5%, and extreme poverty from 5% to 0.5%. During his presidential term investment has increased from about 13% ten years ago to 25% today. Moreover, Uruguay, a country without any known gas and oil reserves, which until 2012 had been fully dependent on gas and electricity imports from Argentina and Brazil, has undergone an energy turnaround without equal. Since 2008 Uruguay, a fairly windy country, has invested $ 7 bn. in renewable resources, primarily in the construction of wind farms. By 2016 it will cover 30% of their energy needs with renewable energies. This process has, to the relief of the population, created thousands of new jobs and reduced the monthly electricity bill by 5.5% (an average household used to pay easily €160 monthly for electricity with an average income of €1300 per family). What is also well worth mentioning: Uruguay has become energy self-sufficient. In other words, it has transformed from an energy importing country to an energy exporting country, selling electricity to its northern neighbour Brazil, which has almost 200 million more inhabitants.

Apart from these considerable socio-economic and environmental achievements, Mujica has brought underway three political reforms that have been both, widely acknowledged for their progressivity, and subject to strong criticism. Since 2012 abortion for pregnancies up to 12 weeks is legally permitted. Except for Cuba and Guyana, Uruguay is the only country in Central and South America, in which abortion is not legally prohibited. In the other countries abortion is either completely prohibited or only allowed under certain circumstances. Considering the still highly dominant and powerful position of the Catholic Church in Latin American states, Uruguay’s decision to legalise abortion comes as an unexpected surprise, since Vazquez had vetoed this law proposed by Congress before. As if this were not enough of a blow to the Catholic Church, Uruguay, which had already in 2009 been the first country in Latin America that allowed gay couples to adopt children, in 2013 legalised same-sex marriage. Meanwhile Argentina and Brazil have followed suit and allowed same-sex marriage as well. The third reform was the legalisation of cannabis, which made Uruguay the world’s first country that legalised the production, distribution, sale and consumption of cannabis for recreational purposes. This reform in the larger context of South American large-scale cross-border drug-trafficking and powerful drug cartels that have brought large parts of the public sector in some Latin American countries under their control, appears indeed courageous. According to Mujica “the consumption of cannabis is not the most worrying thing, drug-dealing is the real problem”. Hence by putting the sale of cannabis under state supervision, he intends to deprive drug cartels from an important source of their revenue. Yet the introduction of the legal consumption of cannabis has also been recently criticised by the United Nations: It has warned Uruguay that its cannabis legislation policies fail to comply with the international drug treaties, which the country has signed and ratified. In its annual report the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board stated that it will send a “high-level mission to Uruguay” in order to check the country’s compliance with the drug treaties.

Despite the progressive nature of Mujica’s initiated reforms, these have been criticised by the conservative part of the Uruguayan population, which considers them as too liberal and too progressive. By the same token, Mujica has been accused to have neglected education and domestic security. For instance, in the 2012 PISA study conducted by the OECD, Uruguay’s results in maths, science and reading were the worst since 2003. With regard to security, the number of homicides have increased from 210 homicides per year in 2003 to 289 in 2012, making this Uruguay’s most violent year on record. According to InSight Crime, an organisation that conducts research on and collects data of organized crime in the Americas, the high number of homicides in 2012 can be explained by the increase in “gang shootouts and murders in Montevideo” connected to drug trafficking from Colombia, Mexico and Bolivia. Nevertheless Uruguay’s homicide rate is relatively low for the region, and it still remains one of the safest countries on the Southern Cone.

Beyond that Mujica has to listen to criticism that he has done too little to improve the living conditions of Uruguayans with African origin that make up 8% of the country’s population. 27.2% of Afro-Uruguayans live below the poverty line, more than double the poverty rate of the country as a whole (12.4%). Furthermore, Afro-Uruguayan citizen have less access to education, which results in lower salaries and higher unemployment rates among Afro-Uruguayans (14% of Afro-Uruguayans are unemployed, 3% higher than overall unemployment rate). Until now the inequality remains, but the country has passed policies to award more scholarships to Afro-Uruguayans, enhance their access to vocational training and introduce quotas in government jobs. From 2015 onwards schools shall also be required to teach Afro-Uruguayan history.

Redefinition of Left Politics?

Mujica’s political record certainly gives rise to contestation and criticism. Especially the neglect of the education system and domestic security, as well as the remaining inequality between Uruguayans of European origin and Afro-Uruguayans are points that cast a shadow over Mujica’s political legacy. Vazquez, who now not only has preceded but also succeeds Mujica (Vazquez won the elections in October 2014 with 57%, which is the highest victory since the end of the military dictatorship), will have to address these points on behalf of the Frente Amplio in his second presidential term. Despite these points of criticism, Mujica has in only one presidential term achieved more than other presidents or heads of government in two or more: He has from an economic perspective significantly reduced poverty, stabilised economic growth, and made Uruguay a spearhead in renewable energies. With regard to societal changes, Mujica has given women the right to abort as well as gay couples to marry and adopt children. It is this medley of pro-business policies and welfare programmes combined with a genuinely principled political credo that has earned Mujica respect and acknowledgement both domestically and internationally. Thus, Mujica has not only rethought and introduced an alternative, more humble approach towards presidential lifestyle, but he has also offered a credible alternative to Latin American social conservatism and leftist anti-American populism.

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