Jose “Pepe” Mujica, the former President of Uruguay, announced his retirement from politics on Sunday. He said that although he loves politics, he has a chronic immune disease which will cause a lot of difficulties and keep him from being active in his duties as a senator and a political leader. He will now be leaving his place in the Senate.
This marks the end of his time as a brilliant political leader dedicated to people’s interests. His anti-capitalist and pro-people legacy that took him from an urban guerilla group to becoming the head of state is one that must be remembered in present times as we are surrounded by the poverty of politics caused by the rise of the neoliberal right-wing across the world.
Jose Mujica has been famously termed as the “poorest president in the world”. His choices of lifestyle are a matter of awe for people from other countries, where material interests seem to be the driving force for all politicians. But his life simply portrays a refreshing lack of hypocrisy that we have come to stop expecting.
The Tupamaros and the Revolutionary Life of Mujica
Born in 1935 to a family of poor immigrant farmers, Mujica became active in the National Party as a young man, where he grew close to Enrique Erro, a popular leftwing politician. However, it was his meeting with Ché Guevara in post-revolutionary Cuba that caused a political epiphany for him. Many young Uruguayans like him, inspired by the Cuban revolution, formed the MLN-Tupamaros movement, an armed leftwing urban guerilla group, trying to resist the old order and heal their country from the widespread poverty and inequality.
As a guerilla, he was shot by the police, arrested, and imprisoned many times, but he managed to escape from prison twice. Finally, as Uruguay underwent a military coup in 1973, he was one of eight Tupamaros who were captured and kept in military custody as hostages- to be killed if their group was ever revived. He was in captivity for 13 years where the brutality of the conditions pushed him into severe mental distress. At one point, he had to put stones in his mouth to keep himself from screaming because of the constant auditory hallucinations he experienced.
Kept in solitary confinement, the hostages could only communicate by tapping morse code on their cell walls, and could only use the toilet once a day, urinating in their water bottles during the day and drinking what they could from there when they needed to. For more than two years during his imprisonment, Mujica was confined to the bottom of an old, emptied horse-watering trough.
He was finally released in 1985, after the restoration of constitutional democracy in the country. A few years later, he and many other former Tupamaros joined other left-wing organizations, forming the Movement of Popular Participation (MPP) which became a part of the Broad Front leftist coalition. Jose Mujica entered electoral politics in 1994, becoming a senator in 1999, and a cabinet minister in 2005. He was elected as the president in 2009.
In interviews, Jose Mujica talks about how much he lost during the 13 years of imprisonment he endured, things that he will never get back. However, his warmth shines through as he refuses to hold any resentment towards those who imprisoned him and sees them as being representative of power. In his first speech after becoming President, he addressed his political opponents, saying there were no winners or losers in the election, and called for unity. In these moments, even outside of political speeches, Jose Mujica’s capacity of empathy shines through, the most sincere expression of his people’s politics.
His history as a part of the Tupamaros is something that keeps coming up, the group having been accused of assassinations and violence and so on. But Mujica maintains that he will never try to hide that part of his history and is not apologetic for any of it either. He admits to robbing banks and the wealthy but refuses to let anyone colour this in a negative light, asserting that he was expropriating resources from the rich for a collective movement against capitalism.
His partner, Lucía Topolansky, a fellow former Tupamaros member, is also followed by allegations of assassinating people during her time as part of the group. But she says that her biggest crime was revealing the private records of a banking company which was gaining wealth through illegal means.
As an employee at the bank, she had found out about their illegal transactions and told her comrades. The Tupamaros then robbed the bank, taking the documents with them and giving them to government authorities. Both Mujica and Topolansky reject the ideas of morality and non-violence that protect the privileged- where the robbing of a bank is a crime but not so much when it comes to the exploitation of the poor.
Mujica’s Anti-Consumerism and Pro-People Life and Policies
As a president, Mujica has notably refused to use the presidential palace or the presidential staff, and donates 90% of his presidential salary to the poor. Him and Lucia live in the same one-bedroom farmhouse they have lived in for the past 30 to 40 years, working in their farm and selling chrysanthemums for a living. He talks about how easy it is to become prisoner to the consumerism pushed by the market and the time it can take away from a person’s life to build meaningless possessions and then trying to maintain them, and that as President he is not someone special but just one of the people.
As a political leader, he balances between pragmatic policies that can improve the conditions of the people in the present, along with imagining a future that is not held captive to the market. He critiques the pettiness of politicians across the world who are just thinking about the next election to the next election, even as global capitalism is taking the world to a destruction from which there will be no return. He is perhaps one of the few leaders in the world raising the issue of anti-capitalism as essential to protect the world from climate change. He has also been a critic of globalisation and the imperialism of the US and other major countries over countries like Uruguay.
During his term, he legalized cannabis in order to regulate it and help poor Uruguayans escape the clutches of the drug market, reduce drug-related crimes and incarceration. He has also legalized homosexual marriage and abortion.
His term has coincided with an economic boom, caused by China’s import of food from the region, but also helped by policies introduced by him and his predecessor Tabaré Vázquez which have increased public spending, introduced the country’s first income tax, increased social spending in education, and so on. By the time his presidency ended in 2015, the national poverty rate had reduced from 40% to 11%, the minimum wage had been raised by 250%, and trade unions and bargaining power of workers, supported by the government, had been strengthened more than most other countries.
Jose Mujica is retiring, but let us hope that this does not signify the end of an era. A time must come when leaders like Jose Mujica are no longer anomalies across the world and the people of any country can expect and demand representatives who are committed to their interests, and free from hypocrisy and corruption.