Uruguay's president José Mujica: no palace, no motorcade, no frills
José Mujica plans adoptions to teach children farming
But the former guerrilla fighter is clearly disgruntled by those who tag him "the world's poorest president" and – much as he would like others to adopt a more sober lifestyle – the 78-year-old has been in politics long enough to recognise the folly of claiming to be a model for anyone.
"If I asked people to live as I live, they would kill me," Mujica said during an interview in his small but cosy one-bedroom home set amid chrysanthemum fields outside Montevideo.
The president is a former member of the Tupamaros guerrilla group, which was notorious in the early 1970s for bank robberies, kidnappings and distributing stolen food and money among the poor. He was shot by police six times and spent 14 years in a military prison, much of it in dungeon-like conditions.
Since becoming leader of Uruguay in 2010, however, he has won plaudits worldwide for living within his means, decrying excessive consumption and pushing ahead with policies on same-sex marriage, abortion and cannabis legalisation that have reaffirmed Uruguay as the most socially liberal country in Latin America.
Praise has rolled in from all sides of the political spectrum. Mujica may be the only leftwing leader on the planet to win the favour of the Daily Mail, which lauded him as a trustworthy and charismatic figurehead in an article headlined: "Finally, A politician who DOESN'T fiddle his expenses."
But the man who is best known as Pepe says those who consider him poor fail to understand the meaning of wealth. "I'm not the poorest president. The poorest is the one who needs a lot to live," he said. "My lifestyle is a consequence of my wounds. I'm the son of my history. There have been years when I would have been happy just to have a mattress."
He shares the home with his wife, Lucía Topolansky, a leading member of Congress who has also served as acting president.
As I near the home of Uruguay's first couple, the only security detail is two guards parked on the approach road, and Mujica's three-legged dog, Manuela.
Mujica cuts an impressively unpolished figure. Wearing lived-in clothes and well-used footwear, the bushy-browed farmer who strolls out from the porch resembles an elderly Bilbo Baggins emerging from his Hobbit hole to scold an intrusive neighbour.
In conversation, he exudes a mix of warmth and cantankerousness, idealism about humanity's potential and a weariness with the modern world – at least outside the eminently sensible shire in which he lives.
He is proud of his homeland – one of the safest and least corrupt in the region – and describes Uruguay as "an island of refugees in a world of crazy people".
The country is proud of its social traditions. The government sets prices for essential commodities such as milk and provides free computers and education for every child.
Key energy and telecommunications industries are nationalised. Under Mujica's predecessor, Uruguay led the world in moves to restrict tobacco consumption. Earlier this week, it passed the world's most sweeping marijuana regulation law, which will give the state a major role in the legal production, distribution and sale of the drug.
Such actions have won praise and – along with progressive policies on abortion and gay marriage – strengthened Uruguay's reputation as a liberal country. But Mujica is almost as reluctant to accept this tag as he is to agree with the "poorest president" label.
"My country is not particularly open. These measures are logical," he said. "With marijuana, this is not about being more liberal. We want to take users away from clandestine dealers. But we will also restrict their right to smoke if they exceed sensible amounts of consumption. It is like alcohol. If you drink a bottle of whisky a day, then you should be treated as a sick person."
Uruguay's options to improve society are limited, he believes, by the power of global capital.
"I'm just sick of the way things are. We're in an age in which we can't live without accepting the logic of the market," he said. "Contemporary politics is all about short-term pragmatism. We have abandoned religion and philosophy … What we have left is the automatisation of doing what the market tells us."
The president lives within his means and promotes the use of renewable energy and recycling in his government's policies. At the United Nations' Rio+20 conference on sustainable development last year, he railed against the "blind obsession" to achieve growth through greater consumption. But, with Uruguay's economy ticking along at a growth rate of more than 3%, Mujica – somewhat grudgingly, it seems – accepts he must deliver material expansion. "I'm president. I'm fighting for more work and more investment because people ask for more and more," he said. "I am trying to expand consumption but to diminish unnecessary consumption … I'm opposed to waste – of energy, or resources, or time. We need to build things that last. That's an ideal, but it may not be realistic because we live in an age of accumulation."
Asked for a solution to this contradiction, the president admits he doesn't have the answers, but the former Marxist said the search for a solution must be political. "We can almost recycle everything now. If we lived within our means – by being prudent – the 7 billion people in the world could have everything they needed. Global politics should be moving in that direction," he said. "But we think as people and countries, not as a species."
Mujica and his wife chat fondly about meetings with Che Guevara, and the president guesses he is probably the last leader in power to have met Mao Zedong, but he has mixed feelings about the recent revolts and protests in Brazil, Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere. "The world will always need revolution. That doesn't mean shooting and violence. A revolution is when you change your thinking. Confucianism and Christianity were both revolutionary," he said.
But he is cynical about demonstrations organised by social networks that quickly dissolve before they have a capacity to build anything lasting. "The protesters will probably finish up working for multinationals and dying of modern diseases. I hope that I am wrong about that."
Active in the Tupamaros revolutionary group, which earned a reputation
as the "Robin Hood guerrillas" by robbing delivery trucks and banks and
distributing the food and money among the poor.
Shot, arrested, jailed and elected
1970 Arrested for the first of four times. Mujica escapes Punta Carretas prison in a daring jailbreak. Shot and wounded numerous times in conflicts with security forces.
Tax justice and social justice in Uruguay
....From an expenditures perspective, the last two left-wing governments have focused on correcting inequality and ensuring the realization of rights, increasing expenditures from 20 to 25%. According to the Directorate General for Taxation, unlike what happened in the 90s, since 2003 Uruguay is growing economically, and since the new tax reform was introduced in 2007, inequality has been reduced and is now at its lowest in the last 30 years.
The DGI Director said, "A society can only guarantee long-term growth if it distributes the fruits of its prosperity in an appropriate manner among all citizens and members. But it can only ensure the conditions for redistribution and for improving equity and social cohesion through securing significant growth rates during a prolonged period". In terms of income, the challenge Ferreri raises is to move ahead in progressivity increasing the weight of direct taxes, not only on earned personal income but also on income capital and business revenues. In terms of expenditures, the challenge is to address issues like innovation, education and developing infrastructure skills. According to this high-ranking officer, this requires encouraging private sector investments to be able to allocate public expenditure towards eliminating inequity.
Minister Eduardo Brenta presented key advances in terms of employment and social security. Firstly, he highlighted legal reforms including the laws on collective bargaining, protection for union organizing, domestic work, 8-hours of work for rural workers and outsourcing. Then, he referred to the improvements in employment, unemployment and salary indicators for Uruguay. The country has reached its highest employment rate in history, with unemployment staying at about 5%, below what is known as the structural unemployment rate, which means that sectors that were formerly excluded from the labor market are now included. The Minister also presented the positive evolution of the real wages (a 40% increase since 2002) and the national minimum wage (that will have grown 108% during the current administration, from 5,000 to 10,000 Uruguayan Pesos). Brenta considered that this situation refutes a paradigm: "Reality has shown that we have managed to grow and at the same time distribute wealth through a set of policies", including tax and labor policies.
However, women and youth still face challenges in entering the labor market and are over-represented in informal employment. The Minister mentioned a series of laws that the government will promote to improve these groups' inclusion in the labor market, including prolonging maternity and paternity leave, creating parental leave and a youth employment law. He also highlighted the need to create a National Care System that "we will probably be able to consolidate in the next term". The Minister sees this as a strategic national goal: "We must not only build equality but also ground that equality in a sustainable economic model (...) because the resources available in Uruguay still lie with women and youth. The country can not afford these resources to not play a significant role in the development process".
Researcher Florencia Amábile presented the findings from the research studies conducted by the Economy Department of the Social Sciences Faculty at Universidad de la Republica, whose goal was to analyze the redistribution effect of household taxes and the social expenditures (2009). The conclusions presented by Amábile show that in terms of inequality, Uruguay is the second country that has reduced the Gini Index the most, but drops to the fourth place in effectiveness. In relation to poverty, Uruguay is placed first both in reduction and in effectiveness. Combining taxes and transfers, "Uruguay has managed very well to combat poverty in terms of effectiveness of its expenditures, but its performance in terms of inequality has not been equally good", said Amábile. In terms of reducing inequality and poverty, even though in-kind transfers for health and education are important, effective spending is achieved through direct transferences (non-contributory pensions :disability and old age pensions, family allowances and other BPS - Social Welfare Bank - subsidies). She highlighted that the households receiving non-contributory pensions are usually childless and with fewer members -.
Even though the international comparison shows that poverty rates have been lowered and social expenditure has contributed to it, poverty has not been eradicated. Only 5% of the poor are not getting any direct transfer. This shows that the persistence of poverty does not appear to be related to lack of coverage or to the per capita value of the transfers. Amábile thinks that policies need to be more focalized and there is also a need to consider if other interventions are required.