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 Pike considers how his grounded principles are changing the political landscape

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, on that victorious evening, 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 Mujica’s political direction from then on.

Last year, published data showed he was donating 90% 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.

Such generosity, combined with his modest declaration of assets – including his VW Beetle, an old tractor and a small piece of land shared with his wife – quickly coined for him the moniker ‘the world’s poorest president’. However, speaking to members of the Associated Press last year, Mujica was quick to dismiss not the reality of the term, but the mentality behind it, stating: “I don’t feel poor. Poor people are those who only work to try to keep an expensive lifestyle, and always want more and more.”

“I don’t feel poor. Poor people are those who only work to try to keep an expensive lifestyle, and always want more and more” – José Mujica

Mujica has attempted to align himself with 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 Topolansky for MercoPress in 2010, shortly after the presidential inauguration, 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. Mujica’s status rose among 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% growth rate for 2013. Unemployment levels have also been at their lowest under Mujica, falling to 6.1% last year, from 20% in 2002.

Estafania Galimberti, a 27-year-old graduate from Montevideo University who worked for the National Statistics Institute before finding work in one of the many newly invested foreign companies in the capital, 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 taken decisions that have caused divided opinion. A huge proponent of last year’s historic 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 bill that would allow citizens to grow and sell a regulated quantity of marijuana. His original advocacy for the bill led to his lowest public support rating in September last year, where, according to pollster Cifra, his support dropped 11 percentage points on the previous year to an all-time low of 37% public approval. He has since loosened his support for the bill, suggesting the “time is not ripe.”

“Mujica really practices what he preaches and lots of people really love him because of it. It’s rare, but needed more than ever”

But as Agustina Russo, a young journalist living and working in the capital 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 of that will be in the 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, and while his politics will no doubt ripple into Uruguay’s future, it is his message and example that must reverberate further.

Speaking at last year’s Rio+20 sustainability conference, Mujica stressed: “Development cannot fly in the face of happiness; development should promote human happiness, love and human relations between parents and children and friends. Life is the most important treasure we have and when we fight, we must fight for human happiness.”