Simple living: President of Uruguay leads by example
Despite being the figurehead of a country on the up, Uruguay president José Mujica donates his earnings to charity and lives on a small modest farm. Matthew Pikes reports
When José Mujica became Uruguay’s 40th president in 2009, he chose not to accept the chauffeur-driven police escort to the elaborate presidential palaces of La Residencia de Suarez. Instead, Mr. Mujica drove home to his wife Lucia at their modest farmhouse on the outskirts of Montevideo in one of his few owned assets, a 1987 Volkswagen Beetle. It was a simple and modest act that was to be the cornerstone of the president’s political direction from then on.
Last year, published data showed he was donating 90 percent of his monthly salary to charity. This included support to a government-led project called Juntos, which aims to build low cost, accessible housing for many of the country’s poorest communities currently living in slums. Such policies have long been pushed by Mujica’s left wing ruling party, Frente Amplio, a coalition of many small leftist movements.
President Mujica attempts to live as an equal to his people, and in choosing a life of simplicity he meets as many of his needs from his small farm as his busy head-of -state schedule will allow. His wife Lucia Topolansky, a senator herself, has long been growing chrysanthemums on the farm, which are sold at the local farmers’ market. This seemingly austere life was detailed in an interview with Mrs. Topolansky for MercoPress where the couple admitted they “belong to the old cash generation – we have no bank accounts and have never owned credit cards.”
Mujica’s election became another chapter in an ever-familiar South American political story. The son of a poor immigrant farming family, Mujica became involved in the armed guerrilla activist group Los Tupamaros. His status rose within the movement, setting the foundations for a future in politics. During this ascent he was imprisoned by the dictatorship for a total of 14 years, shot six times by police and kept in isolation at the bottom of a stone well for 18 months until his release in 1985, when democracy had been restored.
Under Mujica’s watch, Uruguay’s economy is growing, with the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects from January projecting a 4 percent growth rate for 2013. Unemployment levels have also been at their lowest, falling to 6.1 percent last year, from 20 percent in 2002.
Estafania Galimberti, a recent graduate from Montevideo University, believes her president is a great example to people all over the country. “Mujica really practices what he preaches and lots of people really love him because of it. It’s rare, but needed more than ever,” she says.
Despite drawing praise, Mujica has made decisions that have caused divided opinions. A huge proponent of last year’s abortion legislation, giving the right to all women during the first trimester of pregnancy, Mujica signed it into law in January 2013.
The decision caused much controversy, which he again stirred as the driving force behind a proposed bill that would allow citizens to grow and sell a regulated quantity of marijuana.
Agustina Russo, a young journalist in Montevideo, suggests it is his message that needs to be heard above the politics. “We are really proud of him for not changing his beliefs with all the power he has now,” she says. “He challenges us to use our knowledge to change the country, not to leave it to Europe or North America as so many have done before. Mujica says that everyone has a role and we must use it to improve our own country.”
When Mujica—the president not to have worn a tie in the last 20 years—ends his term of office in 2015, he will not retire with the thousands he’s earned. Most will be left in the good hands of small charities. He will no doubt drive home to his wife Lucia and farm dog Manuela in that same old rusting VW Beetle, while his politics and inspiration will ripple into Uruguay’s future.
“Development cannot fly in the face of happiness; development should promote human happiness, love and human relations between parents and children and friends,” Mujica stressed, speaking at last year’s Rio+20 sustainability conference. “Life is the most important treasure we have and when we fight, we must fight for human happiness.”