Jose Mujica: The World’s Humblest President

(Photo Credit: By Vince Alongi via Wikimedia Commons)

“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.”

-Jose Mujica, President of Uruguay (2010-2015)

Wow, what a f’n refreshing breath of unpolluted air this guy is. Often given the nickname “The World’s Humblest President” or “The World’s Poorest President”, Mujica broke the mold on how a head of state should behave. Although no longer the president of his country, his example, values, philosophy and governing style should be adopted by all political leaders- from all sides of the spectrum. Too bad Mr. Mujica was only in office for 1 term (I believe the Uruguayan constitution has strict term limits for their Presidents), for I believe he could have done a lot more for his country and the world. At the very least, Uruguayans have had a political leader that they can hold their heads up and feel proud of.

Here are some groundbreaking facts about his term as President:

  • He donated 90% of his salary to charity (mostly to poverty organizations and small entrepreneurs). The 10% leftover put his monthly income on par with the average citizen of his country.
  • He forsook the opulent Presidential Palace. Instead he, his wife, and their three-legged dog lived on their ramshackle flower farm outside the capital, Montevideo.
  • Driving himself independently in his 80s era Volkswagen beetle, Mujica was known to pick up hitchhikers around town.
  • Mujica would usually just dress in casual clothes, rarely wearing a tie. When he went abroad, he would fly economy.
  • He legalized marijuana and same sex marriages, making Uruguay one of the most socially progressive countries in Latin America.
  • He left office with a 70% approval rating. The economy was in good health, salaries rising, less corruption, and the political stability of his country is the envy of his neighbors.

     (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Jose Mujica has certainly had a life worthy of a Hollywood film. And like Nelson Mandela, he spent many years in appalling prison conditions before gaining release and becoming an elected politician. In his youth, Mujica joined the revolutionary Marxist “Tupamaros” guerrilla group. The Tupamaros  were named after the Inca King, Tupac Amaru, who resisted the Spanish. Hmm, Tupac Amaru: sounds like a rapper I heard of once… Now I’m not saying everything they did was great or justified, but he and his cohorts did dedicate their movement to helping the poorest in their society. A string of bank robberies, shootouts and kidnappings brought them funds to continue their insurgent war and distribute food and money to the slum dwellers. But their violent tactics soon turned popular support against them, and an army crackdown and subsequent right wing coup d’etat saw the Tupamaros either all killed or imprisoned.

Mujica was put into the worst of the worst conditions during his incarceration, and even staged 4 daring, yet unsuccessful escape attempts- most notably when he and 100 fellow prisoners tunneled out of Punta Carrenas prison. Despite all this bravery, Mujica was soon recaptured. He was even shot 6 times in a confrontation with the police, yet somehow survived. His years in prison were often in unsanitary solitary confinement, and his bed was an empty metal horse trough. According to Mujica himself, he ended up suffering from hallucinations and other related forms of paranoia during these times. All in all, he was to spend a total of 13 years in prison before finally being released with the restoration of democracy in Uruguay in 1985. “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!”

Upon his release, he renounced violence and peacefully entered democratic politics getting elected as congressional representative in 1994, and then a senator in the 2000’s. He handily won the office of the President in 2010. As his country’s head of state, Mujica was notably more calm than his guerrilla days (he was in his late 70s by this point). He worked tirelessly to improve the conditions of the most desperate in society and to break the violence of the drug cartels by legalizing marijuana. In perhaps his most prominent moment on the global stage, he addressed the UN General Assembly in 2013 and urged his fellow humans to eschew an existence shackled to material consumption by trying to return to lives based on simplicity, human relationships, love, friendship, family and adventure. Why the heck aren’t more politicians around like this guy?!? Jose Mujica: I formally nominate you to be the official President of freethinking slackers the world over!

(Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons)

What’s Jose Mujica doing now? I’m trying to find some info on him post-retirement, but not much has come up. He occasionally does some interviews, and as far as I can tell, he just enjoys his simple life on his farm with his beloved wife and three-legged dog. Good for him: A Life Well Lived.

8 thoughts on “Jose Mujica: The World’s Humblest President

  1. Wow ! I’d never heard of him before now. Fascinating!

    • Post Author Greg Goldblatt

      Yeah- he’s a pretty fascinating guy. I need to research more into Spanish newspapers and see what he’s up to, but I think he’s just living the quiet life at this point.

  2. Shootouts? Kidnappings? No thanks!! Sounds like solitary confinement did indeed help redirect his passion towards being able to help and lead people in a safer and more populous way!

    • Post Author Greg Goldblatt

      I don’t agree with violence in politics either (ballots not bullets), and if the history of the 20th Century teaches us anything, we should be extremely wary of “Revolutionaries”. They often end up worse than the despots they overthrow. But not like the military junta that took over in the 70s was any better than the student radicals they locked up. Solitary confinement, torture, disappearances, inhuman prison conditions: an extremely tragic period in Latin American history. Nice to see Uruguay has found a more humane, democratic approach to providing for their people’s needs.

  3. Yes! ‘WORLD CLASS’ – Will definitely being using more of Mujica in my Int. Relations classes from now on. Uruguay is a MARVELOUS case study for lots of reasons, and despite it’s small size offers a wonderful example of how nation states (even outside of Scandinavia) can be improved substantially given powerful leadership and higher quality governance. Beware, though, it’s a silver-lining with a very fat touch of grey!

    • Post Author Greg Goldblatt

      Glad to hear I’m inspiring your syllabus Good Sir! I think Uruguay is great case study for many nations with developing and 1st World. All the best examples of “perfect” countries always seem to to be the small, culturally homogeneous ones though (Iceland, Denmark, Japan) etc. Brazil’s president, Lula, came from extremely an humble background. he achieved a lot for the poorest folks, but it’s such a large country, with so many regional cultures and variations that such large social changes were a lot harder to implement. Same for the US, just too many competing groups and geographical differences for people to ever feel united about a common cause. In my humble opinion anyway…

  4. he has such a nice mug.

    • Post Author Greg Goldblatt

      Better than the mugshot they took of him after getting shot 6 times in a showdown with the police!

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