Poverty and the Presidency: Uruguay's Jose Mujica

Two women reach out to greet Uruguay's President Jose Mujica at the opening session of the 5th annual Latin American Street F
Two women reach out to greet Uruguay's President Jose Mujica at the opening session of the 5th annual Latin American Street Football Tournament in downtown Montevideo, Uruguay, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. Three hundred teenagers from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay, take part of in the week long event. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)

Notwithstanding that he is an ex-Tupemaro guerrilla armed with all manner of rustically asinine reservations about the virtues of economic growth, Uruguay's president, Jose Mujica, deserves emulation for his threadbare lifestyle. He has declined to move into the presidential palace and lives instead on his wife's farm outside Montevideo. While he has a net worth of under $2,000, in which he rejoices because he believes that possessions dominate and obsess people and cause them to toil to try to maintain them, his wife is a comparative plutocrat, as she apparently has assets of about $430,000. He has consolidated half of her assets into his own required net worth statement. It would seem that he is hamming it up a bit in the way he lives, with his wife on a poor working flower-farm where laundry hangs outside the window of a tumble-down cottage and he sits on a rickety chair that he occupies alternately with the couple's plucky three-legged dog.

President Mujica donates about 90 percent of his official salary to assist the poor, which brings him down to the average Uruguayan per capita income of about $10,000 a year. Even including half the value of his wife's farm, he still has only about a third of the declared wealth of his predecessor and two thirds the declared personal net worth of his vice president. This means that two consecutive presidents of Uruguay and the incumbent vice president combined have a net worth of barely over $1 million, pretty thin gruel for Latin American officialdom, even allowing that Uruguay is a small country wedged between Argentina and Brazil.

President Mujica was a guerrilla in the 1960s and 1970s and for his reformist efforts was shot six times and imprisoned under rather severe conditions for 14 years. He seems to be one of that rare breed of sincere anti-materialists, who thinks that the pursuit of wealth beyond a minimum is sociopathic and the root of most evil in the world. He is not exactly a Marxist, as Marx and his ostensible Communist followers, even the likes of Stalin and Mao Zedong, were fierce materialists who just wished to distribute the wealth evenly, although, of course, they excepted themselves and their senior collaborators from too literal an enactment of that ideal. Mujica regards his comparative poverty as freedom, and emphasizes that it is a free choice, and speaks nothing but the truth when he says that "I may appear to be an eccentric old man." He lectured the Rio+20 summit that it was a chimera to speak of liberating the masses from poverty.

"What are we thinking? Do we want the model of development and consumption of the rich countries? I ask you now what would happen to this planet if Indians would have the same proportion of cars per household as Germans. How much oxygen would we have left? Does this planet have enough resources so seven or eight billion can have the same level of consumption and waste that today is seen in rich societies? It is this level of hyper-consumption that is harming our planet."

He was unswayed by responses that yes, the world could sustain such economic growth and one where India had the same standard of living as Germany would be one where the people of Uruguay itself would be much happier, and much more content with their national leadership.

Though he is admired for his sincerity and his picturesque championship of a bucolic idyll to which not one percent of his countrymen would subscribe, the public is grumpy that he has not translated the rising prosperity of the country into improved social services and education. Much of Uruguay remains very conservative (which is why the Tupemaros could not win their long insurrection and could only achieve power by awaiting the return of democracy and winning popularity contests that do not imply a radical socialization of government). This is why he is not clearly carrying the country on his proposed legalization of abortion and marijuana. He lives only about 30 miles from Punta del Este, the Palm Beach of the southern hemisphere and playpen of much of South America's very rich.

President Mujica leaves the fiscal direction of his country to the finance minister he retained from his more capitalistic predecessor. In some respects, he is more like the mascot than the president of the country, and his example is not entirely replicable in the Ruritanian, pretended grandiosity of contemporary government leaders, especially in Latin America where chiefs of state normally disport themselves with great panache, even leftists like Fidel Castro. But it is still a stirring example of down-to-earth government, and puts a determinedly human and amiable face on the Latin American far left that is generally better characterized by machine gun-happy violence addicts like Che Guevara and blood-stained terrorists who are ostentatiously indifferent to the human tragedy they wreak.

President Mujica will be 79 when his term ends in 2014, and is unlikely to seek reelection. Here, at last, long after the collapse of international Communism, may be Communism's human face, an amiable, unthreatening old flower farmer, tossing off aphorisms to passersby from the rocking chair on his wife's farmhouse veranda. It probably would not satisfy Lenin or Trotsky, but the Uruguayans rather like it.