Whatever your own particular “shade” of politics, it’s impossible not to be impressed or beguiled by Jose “Pepe” Mujica.
There are idealistic, hard-working and honest politicians the world over – although cynics might argue they’re a small minority – but none of them surely comes anywhere close to the outgoing Uruguayan president when it comes to living by one’s principles.
It’s not just for show. Mujica’s beat-up old VW Beetle is probably one of the most famous cars in the world and his decision to forgo the luxury of the Presidential Palace is not unique – his successor, Tabare Vasquez, will also probably elect to live at home.
But when you visit “Pepe” at his tiny, one-storey home on the outskirts of Montevideo you realise that the man is as good as his word.
Wearing what could best be described as “casual” clothes – I don’t think he’s ever been seen wearing a tie – Mujica seats himself down on a simple wooden stool in front of a bookshelf that seems on the verge of collapsing under the weight of biographies and mementoes from his political adversaries and allies.
Books are important to the former guerrilla fighter who spent a total of 13 years in jail, two of them lying at the bottom of an old horse trough. It was an experience that almost broke him mentally and which shaped his transformation from fighter to politician.
“I was imprisoned in solitary [confinement] so the day they put me on a sofa I felt comfortable!” Mujica jokes. “I’ve no doubt that had I not lived through that I would not be who I am today. Prison, solitary confinement had a huge influence on me. I had to find an inner strength. I couldn’t even read a book for seven, eight years – imagine that!”
Given his past, it’s perhaps understandable why Mujica gives away about 90% of his salary to charity, simply because he “has no need for it”. A little bit grumpy to begin with, Mujica warms to his task as he describes being perplexed by those who question his lifestyle. “This world is crazy, crazy! People are amazed by normal things and that obsession worries me!”
Not afraid to take a swipe at his fellow leaders, he adds: “All I do is live like the majority of my people, not the minority. I’m living a normal life and Italian, Spanish leaders should also live as their people do. They shouldn’t be aspiring to or copying a rich minority.”
Jose Mujica is outspoken and sometimes brusque, but he can afford to be so. Uruguay is often referred to as the most liberal country in South America. As economic and political turmoil threaten to engulf the neighbouring giants of Brazil and Argentina, this country of just three million people certainly feels like a refuge.
Mujica leaves office with a relatively healthy economy and with social stability those bigger neighbours could only dream of. Mujica’s underlying principles are still socialist but he’s a man who has mellowed with age. Some of the most controversial political initiatives from his five years as president – like the legalisation of abortion and cannabis – were done for pragmatic as much as ideological reasons.
“Marijuana is another plague, another addiction. Some say its good but no, that’s rubbish. Not marijuana, tobacco or alcohol – the only good addiction is love!” says the man who in 2005 married his long-term partner and former co-revolutionary, Lucia Topolansky. “But 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.”
Mujica, who is sometimes described as the “president every other country would like to have,” dismisses all the adulation and attention with a waft of his hand but he is not leaving the stage just yet. “I have no intention of being an old pensioner, sitting in a corner writing my memoirs – no way!” he barks at me with a grin. “I’m tired of course, but I’m not ready to stop. My journey’s ending and every day I’m a little closer to the grave.”
Maybe so, but this enigmatic leader remains an inspiration to many and is a reminder that politics is meant to be a humble and honourable profession.
This article should be compulsory reading for all British politicians and in particular Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind who were recently caught in a “sting” by the Daily Telegraph and Channel 4 TV when they offered their services to a “fake” Chinese company for £5000 per day (yes per day!). Rifkind claimed that he had plenty of time on his hands to do the work and that a salary of £67k as a politician was “not enough to live on.”