Tuesday, May 12, 2015
Jose Mujica may not have been a very good president in the political sense, but he was probably the most colorful character to lead any country in a long time. During his term in office Uruguay legalized marijuana and abortion. He spoke against corporate and government abuses of power and spoke for the poor and impoverished members of society. He offered asylum to several former Guantanamo detainees. He gave a speech to the United Nations where he said, among other things, “We have sacrificed the old immaterial gods and now we are occupying the temple of the market god,” and “This god organizes our economy, our politics, our habits, our lives. It seems we have been born only to consume.”
And “There’s marketing for everything! There’s marketing for cemeteries, for funeral services, for maternity wards, for fathers, for mothers, grandparents and uncles! ... Everything is business! ... The average man of our time wanders between financial institutions and the tedious routine of offices ... He dreams of vacations and freedom. He dreams of being able to pay his bills, until one day, his heart stops.”
Before becoming president in 2009, Mujica had spent more than 10 years imprisoned in solitary confinement in a well! He was a revolutionary Tucamaro during the military dictatorship of the 1970s and early 1980s.
Another quote from Mujica, “You don’t stop being a common man just because you are president.” He drove a VW beetle and commuted from his home to the office as president; 90% of his salary went to charity.
I met President Mujica a couple of times, once at a reception celebrating the opening of a new pharmaceutical company in Montevideo. No Secret Service, no bodyguards, no police, no soldiers. No entourage. He was just another visitor at the event. He spoke to me in rapid Spanish about the new jobs being created by the company for working men and women. He didn’t seem to care whether I was a voter or a tourist. His enthusiasm and charisma were evident in everything he said and did. But that’s not enough in today’s complex world. Uruguay’s economy, like almost all the South American countries in their region, is taking a big economic hit. Not as big a hit as its neighbor Argentina, but still a hit. Former President Mujica’s policies have taken the blame, and he’s now a former president. His style and personality will be missed on the world stage and in his home country.