Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Giles Tremlett - José Mujica: is this the world’s most radical president?

Uruguay’s José Mujica lives in a tiny house rather than the presidential palace, and gives away 90% of his salary. He’s legalised marijuana and gay marriage. But his greatest legacy is governing without giving up his revolutionary ideals

Ermo Mannise was just 16 when he met Uruguay’s current president, José Mujica. On a spring day in 1969, Mannise was at home alone with his sister, Beatriz, when the future president burst out of the lift outside their penthouse in Montevideo with a pistol in his hand. “Turn around, shut your mouth and keep your hands above your head!” he barked. Mannise immediately recognised the pinched eyes and thick, wavy brown hair of one of the most notorious members of the daring, violent Tupamaro guerrillas. After his initial sense of panic subsided, he recalled, he felt strangely calm. “I remember telling the young gunman who was with him not to worry, that I wasn’t going to do anything,” the 62-year-old travel agent told me when we met in his favourite Montevideo bookshop, a short distance from the murky waters of the immense River Plate. His sister, who suffered from polio and used a wheelchair, was taken off to another room. “Don’t worry viejita,” Mujica told her, “you’ll be fine, this has nothing to do with you.” The colloquial, affectionate viejita – “little old lady” – was a typical Mujica touch.

Mannise’s stepfather, José Pedro Púrpura, was a notorious judge, with ties to Uruguay’s far right and a stock of pistols. After the gang had left, taking documents and weapons, Mannise told his relatives that he was only upset that the Tupamaros had stolen a typewriter he used for his schoolwork. The following day, the phone rang. “It is us, the same people from yesterday,” a voice said. He suddenly felt scared again. Somehow they knew about the typewriter. If he wanted it back, the voice told him, he could find it in the lobby of a nearby building. “Sure enough, it was there,” he said. “They had left a typed message in it for my stepfather. ‘Careful doctor,’ it read. ‘We are watching you.’” The following year, a Tupamaro unit sprayed their building with machine-gun fire in an attempt to assassinate doctor Púrpura.
Five years ago, in Uruguay’s last presidential election, Mannise cast his vote for Mujica and his Broad Front party, a coalition of leftwingers that first displaced the dominant Colorado and National parties in 2005, with the election of Mujica’s moderate predecessor, Tabaré Vázquez. “I might be expected to feel bitter about him,” Manisse told me. “But he is the only one who practices what he preaches.” A former revolutionary who still professes anarchist ideals has run Uruguay’s government and its booming economy ever since. Mujica remains popular, but presidents cannot serve consecutive terms: the next election, on 26 October, will nevertheless represent a referendum on his pragmatic leftwing government.
He has gained international renown as a truculent truth-speaker: speeches lambasting rampant consumerism at the Rio+20 conference in 2012, and at the United Nations in New York the following year, have garnered 3 million YouTube views. “What would happen to this planet if Indians had the same number of cars per family as in Germany?” he asked the audience in Rio. “How much oxygen would be left?” At the UN, he told the delegates to stop going to wasteful, expensive summits that achieve nothing. Some call him Latin America’s Nelson Mandela, recalling his 13 years in jail. Others see a groundbreaking social liberal, who has introduced the world’s most innovative cannabis legislation as well as gay marriage and legal abortion. Mostly, though, he is famous for the way he lives. The man who most Uruguayans call El Pepe drives a 25-year-old Volkswagen Beetle, lives in a tiny house on a rural smallholding, and gives away 90% of his salary. His deliberately coarse but pragmatic style delights Uruguay’s poor, but also works for part of its middle classes – a trick that other populist Latin American leaders, invoking the great liberator Simón Bolívar, have conspicuously failed to turn. His critics claim that Mujica is more style than substance – a charming old man who put aside both his gun and his revolutionary ideals. In a continent that has become the world’s biggest laboratory for alternative leftwing regimes, each claiming to have found the magic formula, many still cannot decide whether he is a hero, or a sellout.
In the summer of 1969, a police officer knocked on the door of a small Montevideo investment bank, which was partially owned by a government minister. The employees let him in, only to discover he was a Tupamaro... read more: