The world’s most humble President

A profile of Jose Mujica, the former leader of Uruguay and a true people’s champion.

June 28, 2015

On the afternoon of October 8, 1969, José Mujica was a wanted terrorist after taking part in an armed takeover of Montevideo, 41 years later he was sworn in as president of Uruguay.

The siege on that October afternoon saw strategic targets all of the city, including banks, the fire department and the police commissary, all taken by force. Mujica led the team that took down the telephone exchange. They cut all lines, every communication channel, without firing a single bullet.

To exchange employees lying on the ground, Mujica delivered a stirring speech: he and his group, known as 'Tupamaros', were fighting for a revolution that would sweep across Uruguay and liberate its people from the dirty politics and declining economy under which they so suffered. It was a revolution inspired, he concluded, by the great Ché Guevara. Mujica met this most famous of guerrillas in post-revolutionary Cuba. The meeting changed his life.

Mujica5.jpg During the late '60s and early '70s Mujica was part of an urban guerrilla organisation called the Tupamaros

At the time the young Mujica – who everyone, even now, calls Pepe – was working for leftwing politician Enrique Erro. Uruguay, with its static economy and skyrocketing inflation, was on the brink of collapse. Workers had few rights. His meeting with Guevara in Cuba, after the Argentine had led the revolution, inspired Pepe and his comrades in the Tupamaros to try and bring down their own establishment. 

There are no official figures but, at its peak, the Tupamaros may have had 2,500 members and an intelligence network bigger and better than the Uruguayan police. They hijacked food delivery trucks and drove them directly to poor neighbourhoods where they distributed the spoils. They took over cinemas during screenings, radio stations during football matches, and used them to spread messages of social justice. They robbed the Financiera Monty, stealing money and account books, which were successfully used as evidence to prove the banking institution was corrupt.

The guerrillas made every attempt to avoid violence and, so meticulous was their planning, usually succeeded. They also had many prominent female members, unusual at the time. After raids they would leave their calling card, a huge poster that read: “The people passed through here.” Time magazine called them "The Robin Hood Guerrillas".

While Mujica's role in the '69 siege had passed without bloodshed, some of Tupamaros raids hadn’t gone as smoothly as his. One shootout ended in the deaths of a civilian, a police officer and three Tupamaros. Police arrested as many as 25 guerrillas, many of them wounded attempting to flee. A worse fate was to lie ahead for Pepe.

Debts unpaid

In jail, Pepe talked to ants and frogs. He often shared what little food he had with the rats. He thought his cell was bugged and that the constant cracking and hissing noises made by the imagined device were sending him deaf. In total, he spent 13 years locked up – mostly in solitary confinement, much of that time at the bottom of a well.

A policeman recognised Mujica in a bar, in March 1970, and the gunfight that followed wounded two officers. The guerrilla was shot six times. He escaped Punta Carretas jail – twice. The second 1971 breakout earned the 105 Tupas who tunneled more than 90 metres out of the prison, up into the living room of a nearby house, a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest recorded prison break.

Man does not govern the forces he has unleashed, but rather, it is these forces that govern man; and life.

When police arrested Mujica again, in August 1972, he was sleeping rough – under his coat was a machine gun and grenade. While he was in prison, the then president, Juan María Bordaberry, led a civilian-military coup which signalled the end of democracy and the beginning of dictatorship in Uruguay. Some blamed the Tupamaros. They were now known not for robbing the rich to feed the poor, but for bombings, kidnappings and callous executions.

During the dictatorship Uruguay had the highest per-capita rate of political incarceration anywhere in the world. Bordaberry kept nine Tupas as hostages. If their comrades took arms again, they’d execute their leaders. “There are social classes that, if you meddle with them, all hell breaks loose,” Pepe said. “But hatred doesn’t make any sense. It’s a poison. you can’t spend life trying to collect debts no one is going to pay. We suffered and we caused suffering. We’re aware.”

The Quiet Revolution

At the 2012 United Nations Conference on sustainable development, Mujica took to the stage. He wasn’t wearing a tie, suit well-worn. And he appeared to be looking for a fight: “Man does not govern the forces he has unleashed,” he told the Rio+20 delegates, “but rather, it is these forces that govern man; and life.” In that one phrase, International politics had found a new star.

By 1985 Uruguay had restored constitutional democracy and released Pepe. A sea of flags waved by supporters greeted him. As the decade neared an end the remaining Tupamaros gave up violence and joined the Broad Front, berating its members from the left. When the party came close to winning the 1994 election, just two Tupas made up the 99-seat parliament. One was Mujica. He turned up for his first day a work on a Vespa. He still spoke and dressed like he was in prison. A parking attendant asked: “Are you going to be here long?” Pepe said: “I certainly hope so.”

As president, Mujica donated 90 per cent of his salary to charity.

“We do not come into this planet simply to develop,” he seethed at Rio+20, “just like that – indiscriminately. We come into this planet to be happy. Because life is short and it slips away from us. And no material belonging is worth as much as life.” Mujica couldn’t have looked more comfortable onstage if he were holding court in his favourite neighbourhood bar. He spoke with pith and precession, as though he’d somehow employed Hemingway as his speechwriter. And, most importantly, he lived the words he said.

In the 1999 and 2004 elections, Mujica was elected and reallocated as a senator. At the second of these, the Broad Front won majorities in votes for deputies, senators and the presidential election. Pepe’s faction was by now the largest within the party.

At Rio+20 he continued: “It is a civilisation against simplicity, against sobriety, against all natural cycles, and against the most important things: Adventure. Solidarity. Family. Friendship. Love... The crisis is really the powerlessness of politics... But today, it’s time to begin to fight.”

As president, Mujica donated 90 per cent of his salary to charity. He lives, as he’s always lived, in a little farmhouse with his wife and their three-legged dog. He drives, as he’s always driven, a beat-up old Volkswagen Beetle. It was until recently his only possession, the sum total of his wealth, valued at $1,800. “If I asked people to live as I live, they would kill me,” he would later say.

But when people found out how he lived, saw how unkempt he was, that he would shout and swear and give speeches without his false teeth, the legend of El Pepe was born. He became the presidential candidate of the Broad Front for the 2009 general election, which he won. His publicist couldn’t find him the day he was to be sworn in as president: he was out on his tractor.

After the night elapsed

Mujica's time in office wasn't all guts and glory. He started his presidency promising to reform the deteriorated education system in a country where public schools are a shambles, and he didn’t do it. However, he did succeed in giving every child in Uruguay a laptop. He legalised abortion, same-sex marriage and the sale of marijuana. If the rightness of these things are not always what he believes in, it’s overwhelmed by his belief in doing what’s right. He called prohibition a “spectacular failure.”

In Uruguay presidents cannot serve consecutive terms. Together with the president who came before and after him, Tabaré Vázquez, the past decade has seen the number of Uruguayans living below the poverty line fall from 39 per cent to under 11 per cent, and extreme poverty from five per cent to 0.5 per cent. The economy has grown by 75 per cent, and, most crucially, the gap between the rich and the poor has closed. The minimum wage went up 50 per cent during Mujica’s term alone.

While Uruguay’s neighbours in South America struggle, it enjoys rising salaries and falling unemployment. It even sells energy to Brazil, a country with a population more than 200 million people larger than its own. Barack Obama’s approval ratings currently stand at 47 per cent. El Pepe left the presidency, earlier this year, with ratings of 70 percent.

“I’m tired of course, but I’m not ready to stop. My journey’s ending and every day I’m a little closer to the grave.

“As a veteran, as an old man, a little advice: life can give us many pitfalls, many blows. We can fail a thousand times – in life, in love, in the social struggle – but if we seek, we have the strength to get up again and start over. The most beautiful thing about the day is that it dawns. It is always dawning after the night elapsed.”