José Mujica

Jose MujicaPhotograph: Agencia Camaratres/AFP

Uruguay’s 2010 presidential election was won by José Mujica and his Broad Front (Frente Amplio) coalition, and since then Mujica has run Uruguay’s government and overseen its booming economy. Uruguayan Presidents cannot serve consecutive terms, so José Mujica did not stand in the country’s election on 26th October 2014.

Broad Front candidate Tabare Vazquez won the run-off vote for the Presidency on November 30th. The election represented a referendum on Mujica’s pragmatic government. For many, Mujica’s legacy will be governing with flexibility, forsaking authoritarianism and not abandoning his revolutionary ideals. Others view him as a groundbreaking social liberal, who has legalised gay marriage and abortion in a Catholic country. He has also introduced the world’s most innovative, controversial cannabis legislation.

Regulating the cultivation, sale, distribution and use of marijuana

Uruguay’s legalization of marijuana

Uncharted territory

In 1960 José met Ché Guevara in Cuba. Back in Uruguay he joined a broad-based band of urban guerillas, the Tupamaros. He survived being shot six times. In 1971 he was jailed for guerrilla raids, ‘Robin Hood’ style robberies and kidnappings – activities deemed altruistic by many. He escaped from prison twice, firstly by tunnelling into someone’s living room accompanied by 100 fellow prisoners.

In June 1973 a cattle-rancher president, Juan María Bordaberry of the Colorado party, led a civilian-military coup in Uruguay, closing down the fragile social democracy. Some blamed the Tupamaros, who had moved from the bullet to the ballot box.

José Mujica was released from solitary confinement and the physical and mental torture of prison in 1985. He is now regarded as the nation’s Nelson Mandela, not just because of the imprisonment, rather for his capacity to forgive and not seek revenge, to learn and adapt.

Known to Uruguay’s 3.3 million citizens as ‘El Pepe’, when President he drove a 25-year-old (t)rusty Volkswagen Beetle, grew his own vegetables and flowers, tended hens and was shadowed everywhere by Manuela, a faithful three-legged mongrel. After living together for 20 years, he married Senior Senator Lucía Topolansky in 2005. Lucia tries to stop her 79 year-old husband from smoking tobacco. It’s a battle the radical former First Lady seems destined to lose. He has never smoked pot. They share domestic chores and live in a ramshackle, one-bedroomed farmhouse on a chakra (rural smallholding. He gave away 90% of his President’s salary, mostly to single mothers. His speeches lambasting rampant consumerism at the 2012 Rio+20 conference, and at the United Nations in New York last year, have attracted 3 million YouTube hits. ‘I am not poor’.  Jose peppered his speeches with slang and exclamations like ‘Es la joda!’ which translates as ‘What the fuck!’ – not the kind of phrase in public use by many Presidents.

Thereagain, when Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond was informed that the SNP had beaten Labour in its heartland seat of Clydebank and Milngavie in 2011, he blurted out “fuck me”, the journalist David Torrance has recorded.

Recently José Mujica hit the world stage due to his efforts to release prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. “Uruguay will take responsibility for dismantling a human disgrace,” he says. “A lot of people shouldn’t be locked up there. They have made a business out of that prison.” Lucia Topolansky also spoke about the people incarcerated in Guantanamo, saying: “I don’t call them prisoners…they have been kidnapped. They don’t have trials. They don’t have lawsuits. They don’t have charges. When the jail is empty, the U.S. should return the territory to Cuba.”

On the global scale Mujica’s concerns are environmental protection and trying to instill peace throughout the world, be it in Syria, Uruguay or North Africa. “The constant that one finds is the tendency to believe in something – in religion, something magic – and this makes me think that humans are utopian, needing to believe in something. Only culture and civilization can create a different humanity. A left-wing vision of the world requires imagining a future utopia, but one doesn’t have the right to forget that the most important thing for every human being is the life they lead now. The fight to make today better must become your central task.”

The 2014 presidential elections in Bolivia held on October 12th have resulted in a third term for serving President Evo Morales and his party, Movement for Socialism. Evo has obtained 60% of the vote, thus avoiding a run-off.

Michelle Bachelet stormed back into the presidency in December’s Chilean elections, taking the largest proportion of votes of any candidate since 1989. The victory of her centre-left Socialist Party in Chile was down to a progressive reform program, which includes raising corporate taxes and overhauling higher education.

The domination of Latin/South American politics by leftist parties – Cuba, Salvador, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Argentina, the aforementioned Uruguay, Chile and Bolivia – continued as Brazil re-elected Dilma Rousseff as President. She was a Marxist guerrilla during her student years. The Brazilian mainstream media was overwhelmingly anti-Rousseff, and tried without success to implicate her in a bribes-for-votes scandal in which kickbacks from oil giant Petrobras bought off politicians and filled election campaign coffers

So how do our careerist social democrats measure up?

Imagine spin-doctor Peter Mandelson tunnelling out of prison! Friend of yacht owners and Herbert Morrison’s grandson, the Prince of Darkness is a role model for Ed Balls, the dead hand at the heart of the British Labour Party nowadays. Peter doesn’t speak with pride about his radical past: he organised a delegation to the 1975 World Youth Festival in Cuba and sold the Morning Star outside Tube stations, for example. Gordon Brown doesn’t evoke the Springbok rugby tour protests that he helped to organise in the 1970s, or the influential ‘Red Paper on Scotland’ which he edited in 1975. Philandering former P&O steward and National Union of Seamen sponsored MP John Prescott now earns £300+ a day if he turns up for twenty minutes at the House of Lords. War criminal Blair adds to his fortune from lecture tours and stints as a Middle East peace envoy. Cherie and Tony are so rich, the prospect of a Mansion Tax and hikes in Inheritance Tax rates won’t affect them. As for the current batch, Ralph Miliband must be spinning in his grave.

One thought on “José Mujica

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s