José Mujica: Uruguay’s Marxist president

Say what you like about weed, but it has certainly put Uruguay on the map. Last month it became the first national state to legalise and regulate marijuana production and distribution, prompting The Economist to name it as its “country of the year” (see below), and a horde of journalists to beat a path to the door of its president, José Mujica.

Once they’d got through the security detail at Mujica’s farmhouse – set amid chrysanthemum fields outside Montevideo, and manned by two guards and a three-legged dog called Manuela – most liked what they saw, says The Guardian: “Mujica may be the only leftwing leader on the planet to win the favour of the Daily Mail”, which recently lauded him as “trustworthy and charismatic”.

In an age of austerity, he leads by example. As well as foregoing a state palace, he donates most of his salary to social projects, flies economy class and drives an old VW Beetle. Most Uruguayans know him simply as “Pepe”.

At one time, few would have guessed Mujica would rise to his current position, says The New York Times. “Before he became a gardener of chrysanthemums”, he was the Marxist leader of one of Latin America’s most feared urban guerrilla groups, the Tupamaros.

Renowned for its violence, the group drew inspiration from the Cuban revolution and was infamous for armed robberies and kidnappings. After being arrested in 1972, Mujica spent 14 years in prison, often in solitary confinement “in a hole in the ground”. But it gave him time to reflect.

“I learned that one can always start again.” He chose to go into politics. Elected as a legislator, he was appointed minister for livestock, agriculture and fisheries in 2004, and won the 2009 presidential election with a landslide.

Mujica claims to be the only living world leader to have met Mao; and he and his wife and fellow politician, Lucia Topolansky, fondly recall meetings with Che Guevara. He long ago renounced violence, and can even be claimed as a recruit to capitalism, says The Washington Post. However, he thinks markets have too much clout. “We’re in an age in which we can’t live without accepting the logic of the market”, which is mainly to consume excessively, he says. “If we all lived within our means by being prudent, the seven billion people in the world could have everything they needed. Global politics should be moving in that direction.”

This rhetoric, and his “Bilbo Baggins” lifestyle, have led some to dub Mujica “the world’s poorest president”, says The Guardian. But he’s “been in politics long enough to recognise the folly of claiming to be a model for anyone”.

This will be his last year in power: at 78, he won’t seek re-election next year. But Mujica’s legacy is a progressively liberal country that is one of the safest and least corrupt in the region. Uruguay, as he observes, is “an island of refugees in a world of crazy people”.

How Uruguay became the ‘country of the year’

Mujica often rails against the “blind obsession” to achieve growth through greater consumption, says Jonathan Watts in The Guardian. But, with Uruguay’s economy ticking along at 3% or so, he “somewhat grudgingly” accepts he must deliver material expansion.

Will legalising cannabis production help? Mujica states that his primary reason for decriminalising the drug is social – following a recent rise in violent crime, he wants it off the streets and out of the hands of criminal gangs.

You don’t have to be “an over-aged hippy” to see the advantages of that, says Alex Brummer in the Daily Mail. Still, the cash gains aren’t to be sniffed at either. The US state of Colorado, which has also just legalised the dope business, predicts annual revenues of $578m from sales, generating some $67m in taxes.

If Uruguay succeeds in becoming a ‘New Amsterdam’, the gains from tourism could be even greater. Paraguay, which currently produces most of the region’s cannabis illegally, may eventuallykick itself for missing a trick.

If more countries followed Mujica’s initiative on narcotics, the world would be a better and safer place, says The Economist. What a great country Uruguay seems to be: “modest yet bold, liberal and fun-loving”, it’s a “worthy winner of our country of the year award”.

Sadly, the reality doesn’t always live up to the fantasy, says Benedict Mander in the FT. Uruguay’s government is “struggling to keep inflation under control” and the economy is slowing and “becoming less competitive abroad”.

Meanwhile, the recent resignation of Mujica’s finance minister, Fernando Lorenzo, ahead of a corruption investigation related to the bankruptcy of Pluna, the 75-year-old state airline, has rocked the country. Mujica insists he has “no doubt” about his minister’s “ethical integrity”. But it does put “a bit of a dampener” on a supposedly triumphant year.