Uruguayan President José Mujica during a visit to Chile, March 10, 2014. (AFP Photo/Claudio Reyes)
By Ana Inés Cibils
MONTEVIDEO, May 12, 2014 -- Jose “Pepe” Mujica is a president unlike any other. He’s a former guerrilla, never wears a tie, lives on a modest farm with a disabled dog and has championed his country’s legalization of cannabis.
Very reluctantly, the Uruguayan leader will sometimes don a suit (though never a tie) when he goes to official events. But he’s more likely to be seen in a beret with scruffy clothes and espadrilles, having just gotten down from his tractor. Add to that the fact that he sleeps little, works a lot and speaks whenever or wherever he can, and you might see why journalists covering him don’t always have an easy time.
A typical day for the 78-year-old might see him welcoming a journalist onto his farm and sharing a recipe for tomato sauce, then heading to an official ceremony, followed by lunch with his driver in the centre of town. After which, perhaps he’ll meet with his ministers and then stand on the street and hand out some pamphlets he’s written.
The president stands outside his house in Montevideo, June 25, 2013. (AFP Photo/Mario Goldman)
And it’s likely, even if his entourage generally tries to dissuade him, that he will stop suddenly in front of journalists and share his thoughts on the rate of inflation or diplomatic relations. Or he’ll tell them what he is preparing to give his three-legged dog Manuela to eat. The canine companion lost one foot when Mujica accidentally rolled over it with his tractor. She now goes everywhere with the president and they seem totally devoted to each other.
Manuela the three-legged dog. (AFP Photo/Mario Goldman)
Uruguay -- with its 3.3 million people -- is a small country that doesn’t typically get that much international media attention. But Mujica is an exception. His iconoclastic personality and sweeping statements have been the subject of stories the world over. He recently said Uruguay would be prepared to take prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. And he has approved an unprecedented law legalizing the production and sale of cannabis. Under the law, Uruguayan citizens can grow marijuana or buy up to 10 grams per week.
A T-shirt bears the slogan "Mujicannabis" in a shop in Montevideo. April 24, 2014. (AFP Photo/Miguel Rojo)
When he succeeded to the presidency in March 2010, Mujica posed an interesting candidate. He had been one of the leaders of the Tupamaros extreme-leftist movement and was imprisoned by the military junta from 1973 to 1985. But many thought he didn’t measure up to his predecessor, the sober and serious Tabare Vazquez, who in 2005 became the first leftist president in the country and who was still very popular when he stepped down in 2010 due to term limits. Unlike Vazquez, who is an oncologist by profession, Mujica never studied at university.
He wasn’t the first ex-guerrilla to arrive in power in Latin America and, beyond the continent, his accession to the presidency was little noticed. But in June 2012, he started to attract attention during the environmental summit Rio+20, with his brilliant questioning of the model of development of rich countries’ consumption. His speech, published on YouTube, has now been seen more than 1 million times. His personality and his lifestyle then started to attract attention from overseas.
“I am not a poor president,” Mujica said during an interview with AFP in September 2012, contrary to what the international press was saying at the time. “Poor people are those who want a lot. Me, I don’t live in poverty, I live in austerity, selflessly. There’s very little that I need to live.”
Mujica speaks to journalists as he runs for the presidency in June 2009. (AFP Photo/Miguel Rojo)
Mujica presents himself carefully, choosing each word in a deliberate fashion and looking at his interviewer in the eyes. He is seemingly inexhaustible when he finds something interesting, but quiet when something displeases him, often responding with a “no sea nabo” (“don’t be stupid”) to journalists who ask him embarrassing questions. After four years in power, and more than 10 in parliament, he knows that his thoughts are increasingly listened to.
The former guerrilla, who during the ‘60s didn’t hesitate to take up arms against the capitalist system, nowadays centers his talks on peace and reconciliation. He offered his services as a mediator in the conflict in Colombia and, more recently, in the violent clashes in Venezuela. He tries to keep good relations with Uruguay’s neighbours, but his manners are sometimes less than diplomatic, like the time a live microphone picked him up remarking, “This old hag is worse than the one-eyed guy." It was a reference to Cristina Kirchner and her late husband, former president Nestor Kirchner, who had a lazy eye and was nicknamed "El Tuerto" (the one-eyed guy).
“I can’t help my everyday language, in private it can be harsh and brutal,” Mujica said when he apologized.
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez and Jose Mujica during a summit in Montevideo in December 2013.
(AFP Photo/Pablo Porciuncula)
But a little while later, he did it again, this time calling a deputy from his own party fat. He was referring to ex-interior minister Daisy Tourné and added: “She’s someone for whom I have lots of sympathy. Sometimes she drinks a glass or two and goes a little off the mark.”
His critics have accused him of deliberately distracting people from the country’s real problems. In April, a year from the end of his term, Mujica’s approval rating had slid to 45 percent. He is often accused of not having kept any of his big election promises, like improving the education system and the railway network, or fighting against insecurity.
The legalization of cannabis, which is getting a lot of international attention, is something more than half of the people in the country oppose, according to recent polls. The law has also been criticized by the International Narcotics Control Board and the United Nations.
A demonstrator smokes a joint during a cannabis-legislation march in Montevideo, December 2013.
(AFP Photo/Pablo Porciuncula)
But many policy makers are studying the landmark legislation with interest, especially those critical of the war on drugs led by the United States.
Conscious that his individual style has raised his international profile, Mujica explains that he is trying to show the world a Latin-American vision. He says he acts according to ideals and that once his term is over, he will stay on his farm where he aims to give agriculture classes to disadvantaged youths.
His story is worthy of a movie, and indeed the director Emir Kusturica is making a documentary on him due to be released next year. His inimitable style and his historic legislative measures mean Mujica has cast himself as a sort of wise old sage to whom everyone turns for counsel. It’s a role perhaps he didn’t seek, but one which he plays with an evident pleasure, and one he will certainly retain after his departure from political life.
Mujica and the rock group Aerosmith in Montevideo, October 2013. (AFP/Uruguay presidency)
Ana Inés Cibils is a correspondent for AFP in Montevideo.