Let’s play a word association game. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say “humility”?
Chances are it’s not “heads of state”.
To be sure, the conduct of government leaders across the globe would suggest a general eschewal of such virtues. A few egregious examples: the late Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan erected a gold statue of himself that rotated in accordance with the position of the sun. Former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin proclaimed himself “Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea”, while former US president George W Bush claimed to receive battle commands directly from God.
Recurring Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has boasted of sleeping with eight women in one night, in addition to self-identifying as “the Jesus Christ of politics”.
Amidst these tendencies of the global political class, Uruguay’s Jose “Pepe” Mujica looks like a veritable freak of nature.
President since 2010, the 79-year-old Mujica lives in a one-bedroom farmhouse, attends official meetings in sandals and donates 90 percent of his salary to charity.
The doting owner of a three-legged dog and an avid grower of chrysanthemums, he drives an old Volkswagen and rejects the notion that he is poor: “Those who describe me so are the poor ones … My definition of poor are those who need too much. Because those who need too much are never satisfied.”
That’s all very endearing, you might be saying, but what’s Pepe actually done?
For starters, he made Uruguay the first nation in the world to legalise the production, sale and consumption of marijuana. The point of decriminalisation is to minimise the drug trade’s lucrative returns, which depend heavily on its illegality. In theory, this will deal a blow to drug cartels and their exploitative and bloody business, while offering an alternative to the current militarised approach embodied by that obscenely expensive venture known as the US war on drugs.
Mujica has also attempted to ameliorate the devastating effects of other bellicose US projects. Earlier this year, he offered Uruguay as a refuge for six Arab detainees from the illegal US detention center in Guantanamo Bay.
The drug war has failed miserably at curtailing the international drug trade, but it has managed to contribute to all manner of tragic statistics – such as the more than 60,000 deaths that reportedly took place in Mexico in the six-year period following the 2006 launch of the Mexican chapter of the war.
Mujica has also attempted to ameliorate the devastating effects of other bellicose US projects. Earlier this year, he offered Uruguay as a refuge for six Arab detainees from the illegal US detention centre in Guantanamo Bay. A Washington Postblog provided the following summary:
“The detainees are no longer linked to terrorism charges, but can’t be repatriated – four of them are Syrian – because of fears surrounding their safety as well as continued activities once they go home.”
Of course, were the US genuinely concerned about the detainees’ safety, it presumably would not have wrongly imprisoned them in an institution synonymous with the wanton violation of human rights. As for the fear of “continued activities”, the relevance of the word “continued” is a mystery given the specification that the individuals in question have been cleared of charges.
Last month, meanwhile, the UN High Commission for Refugees applauded Mujica’s plan to grant residence in Uruguay to 100 Syrian children orphaned by that country’s civil war. Each child will reportedly be accompanied by at least one relative and may initially be housed at the summer mansion generally reserved for the Uruguayan president.
Two hundred Syrians out of a total refugee population of several million is negligible. But consider a Guardianreport stating that, between the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011 and April of 2014, a mere 121 Syrian refugees had been resettled in the US. This is the same US, of course, that boasts over 90 times the population of Uruguay and a lot more space and that – unlike the South American nation – has actually had a hand in exacerbating the Syrian crisis.
According to Mujica’s wife, Uruguayan Senator Lucia Topolansky, the purpose of the Syrian refugee project is to “motivate all the countries of the world to take responsibility for this catastrophe”.
The power of example
But to what extent can diminutive Uruguay serve as a role model for progressive and humanitarian efforts?
Its potential certainly shouldn’t be underestimated. For one thing, Mujica’s drug policy is already influencing the outlook of major regional players in Latin America, including Argentina and Mexico. This could eventually threaten the unbridled perpetuation of the drug war, which has been a prime source of profit for US capital and corporations – not least the private security firms and arms industry players whose products and services are heavily relied upon.
It could also threaten the maintenance of the narco-bogeyman in Latin America that has facilitated regional militarisation by the US.
While effectively challenging imperial interests in sustaining the war on drugs, Mujica has been criticised by the Uruguayan opposition; a 2013 Al Jazeera article quotes opposition politician Alfredo Solari as stating: “Neither our government nor the rest of the world should experiment on Uruguayans.”
Obviously, more nefarious forms of “experimentation” could be discussed in this context – such as the treatment to which swathes of the Latin American citizenry have been subjected over past decades by US-backed regimes. Mujica himself, a former Marxist guerrilla, was imprisoned for 14 years starting in 1972. A decade of this was spent in solitary confinement, sometimes at the bottom of a well. The crimes of the guerrilla outfit had included robbing banks and businesses and distributing cash and food to the poor.
As Mujica has acknowledged, his empathy vis-a-vis Guantanamo detainees is in part a result of his own experiences.
Mujica has also continued to defy imperial and corporate hegemony in other realms, and Uruguay is currently being sued by US tobacco giant Philip Morris for its relatively strict smoking laws.
The president has furthermore spoken out on the incompatibility of hyper-consumerism and human happiness, the deleterious effects of socioeconomic disparity, and the necessity of wealth redistribution.
A May AP article notes: “Some opponents have accused Mujica of angling for the Nobel Peace Prize after his fellow [government] coalition members sent in a nomination. Mujica told The Associated Press recently that he is not interested in that honour and doubted he could be a contender, but added that if he did win, he would use the prize money to build 50 houses for Plan Juntos, his government’s subsidised housing programme.”
So let’s suppose, hypothetically, that the humble Mujica may in fact possess some sort of an ego, as humans tend to. Ego in the service of justice is still a lot cooler than ego dead-set on destroying it.
Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.