Why we need more leaders like the former President of Uruguay

Written by Marina Lademacher

It’s pretty much a given that our political leaders, Presidents, or Prime Ministers are in a financial bubble of their own, soaring high above the common plebs while wearing bronze leather trousers or laughing about how little taxes they pay. And yet, it is this very expectation that politicians will lead extravagant lifestyles that allows them to get away with it. It seems quite ironic really that those meant to understand and act on behalf of the common interest have no idea what its really like to live like a commoner, nor the financial struggles of life inherent in our unforgiving and unjust capitalist world.

Not so humble

Meet the ultimate revolutionary leader, former President of Uruguay, Jose Mujica. Known as the ‘world’s humblest President,’ or ‘Pepe’.


Mujica as leader of Broad Front, a 7-party coalition ranging from centre-lefts to socialists, was President of Uruguay’s government between 2010-2015. A former guerrilla fighter, he spent 13 years in prison for opposing the Uruguayan military dictatorship of the 1970s and 80s (including 2 years in an emptied horse trough) and once survived 6 gun-shot wounds. If you’re still unconvinced as to his supernatural qualities, do read on. When he resigned from office, his approval ratings nationwide were near an unprecedented and staggering 70%. 70 PER CENT. Imagine that level of political approval in the UK or US?! It just wouldn’t happen. Heck, Trump’s barely hovering above the 30% mark, and it’s only been a couple months. Why he is so popular can be explained by simply, really. Aside from the fact he looks like a real-life teddy bear with a face that you can’t help but feel kind of sorry for, he’s just damn ethical. Let me enlighten you with some inspirational facts.

The maverick president donated 90% of his $12,000 monthly salary to charity, especially those benefitting poor people and small entrepreneurs. This put him on equal level with the average wage in Uruguay- $775 (£485) a month. Shunning an extravagant lifestyle and rejecting the grand presidential palace, he continues to live on small farm with his wife and 3-legged dog, Manuela.

“I’m called ‘the poorest President’, but I don’t feel poor. Poor people are those who only work to try keep an expensive lifestyle, and always want more and more. This is a matter of freedom. If you don’t have many possessions then you don’t need to work all your life like a slave to sustain them, and therefore you have more time for yourself.”

A man who mixes idealism with pragmatism, his social legacy is great for Uruguayans: legalising gay marriage, abortion and marijuana (an allowance of 40 grams a month from innovative government-backed pharmacies, for each person). The cannabis he cites practical reasons, saying “150,000 people smoke marijuana here and I couldn’t leave them at the mercy of drugs traffickers.” He’s also famed for his attire, opting for casual clothes for official ceremonies and rarely ever sporting a tie. And yet for all today’s shunning of liberalism, Mujica presided over a booming economy (while Brazil/Argentina are sinking) that has seen unemployment fall to historic lows and workers’ salaries rise. Maybe Corbyn should have been left alone for his suits after all.

Mujica’s presidential campaign was run under the admirable slogan ‘An honest government, a first-class country’. If The Donald truly wishes to ‘Make America Great Again’, he’d be wise to inject some of Mujica’s philosophy into his scandal ridden government.

A meeting of great minds.

The world’s humblest president undoubtedly deserves that name and more. But ‘more’ is antithetical to Mr Mujica’s philosophy. “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 acutely observes. “Speaking the language of the people” or being an “anti-politician”- labels that correctly belong to this lovely leader but have somehow found their way into the campaign rhetoric of right-wing racists faking allegiance to the masses but beholden to the richest.

At a UN conference in 2013, Mujica called on the international community to strengthen efforts to preserve the planet for future generations and highlighted the power of the financial systems and the impact of economic fallout on ordinary people. He urged a return to simplicity, with lives founded on human relationships, love, friendship, adventure, solidarity and family, instead of lives shackled to the economy and the markets. And during his first speech as President elect, he said “it is a mistake to think that power comes from above, when it comes from within the hearts of the masses (…) it has taken me a lifetime to learn this.” This vision of populism is what we urgently need.

Once offered £1 million by an Arab Sheikh for his 1987 VW Beetle, he politely declined. Uruguayans report he frequently gives hitchikers lifts, too.

To expect our politicians to be earning that of Average Joe is unrealistic. But to expect greater charitable efforts is hardly revolutionary. It’s common decency. Rises to MPs salaries are justified on the basis of attracting the best talent to Westminster. If that was the case, there’d be a discussion of political finance reform, seeing as prospective MPs lacking in hefty savings struggle with the high costs of electioneering. Furthermore, when they already earn (on average) short of 70K a year and benefit from the perks of travel allowances, subsidised meals, gold-plated pension schemes and dodgy expense claiming loopholes, 69% of MPs saying they are underpaid does suggest they are “living on a different planet”. Perhaps if they did get a pay raise the likes of Osborne et al would be less tempted to sell their souls to the corporate world. But maybe we just have the wrong people in power.


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