Are Our Leaders like Former President Jose Mujica?


A man choses to be thrifty about his income, we call him penniless. A young lady wears clothes she can afford and in fact wears them repeatedly and we regard her as being impoverished. A family of four live in a quiet house, big enough to accommodate the joy, pain and drama of what it means to belong in a home, but not huge and grand as a “cathedral”, we think the family is either poor or the father is incompetent. We cut our coat according to our size and because we are not dripping with gold and lounging in luxury people misrepresent us.

These are just instances… You see, a person’s qualities, principles and character should never be compared with the external perceptions of what we think real value entails. Time and time again, we erroneously associate the word “poverty” to things that don’t quite qualify it. Everyday we describe events or people, sometimes in a derogatory manner, without acknowledging the strength and uniqueness of the individuals concerned.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been running articles about the 21 laws of leadership by John Maxwell which have been our guiding principles, giving us timeless practical insights on what it takes to be a successful leader.

Last week Sunday, the outgoing and highly popular president of Uruguay, Jose Mujica, stepped down and handed over to his successor and fellow leftist Broad Front member, Tabare Vazquez, to take over the direction of the country for the next five years.

Tabare Vazquez, Jose Mujica

The world-renowned Mujica left office with about 65 percent approval ratings, a growing economy, rising salaries and low unemployment making him one of the world’s most popular presidents. 

But Mujica is also known for maintaining a lifestyle that sharply differs from other presidents. Some quarters have tagged him as a poor president because he lives a life less extravagant and less domineering; totally in contrast with the lives of other Presidents around the world. He lives in a tiny house rather than the presidential palace, and gives away 90% of his salary to the poor and small businesses. 

When interviewed, he’s often passed statements like “We still live today as we did 40 years ago. You don’t stop being a common man just because you are president.

“I can live well with what I have. I’m called ‘the poorest president’, but I don’t feel poor. Poor people are those who only work to try to keep an expensive lifestyle, and always want more and more.”

“This is a matter of freedom. If you don’t have many possessions then you don’t need to work all your life like a slave to sustain them, and therefore you have more time for yourself. I may appear to be an eccentric old man… But this is a free choice.”

Here’s a full report published by Wyre Davies about Jose Mujica’s styles of leadership. 

Whatever your own particular “shade” of politics, it’s impossible not to be impressed or beguiled by Jose “Pepe” Mujica.

There are idealistic, hard-working and honest politicians the world over – although cynics might argue they’re a small minority – but none of them surely comes anywhere close to the outgoing Uruguayan president when it comes to living by one’s principles.

 It’s not just for show. Mujica’s beat-up old VW Beetle is probably one of the most famous cars in the world and his decision to forego the luxury of the Presidential Palace is not unique – his successor, Tabare Vasquez, will also probably elect to live at home. But when you visit “Pepe” at his tiny, one-storey home on the outskirts of Montevideo you realise that the man is as good as his word.

 Wearing what could best be described as “casual” clothes – I don’t think he’s ever been seen wearing a tie – Mujica seats himself down on a simple wooden stool in front of a bookshelf that seems on the verge of collapsing under the weight of biographies and mementoes from his political adversaries and allies.

This world is crazy, crazy! People are amazed by normal things and that obsession worries me!”

Books are important to the former guerrilla fighter who spent a total of 13 years in jail, two of them lying at the bottom of an old horse trough. It was an experience that almost broke him mentally and which shaped his transformation from fighter to politician.

‘Inner strength’

“I was imprisoned in solitary [confinement] so the day they put me on a sofa I felt comfortable!” Mujica jokes.

“I’ve no doubt that had I not lived through that I would not be who I am today. Prison, solitary confinement had a huge influence on me. I had to find an inner strength. I couldn’t even read a book for seven, eight years – imagine that!”

Given his past, it’s perhaps understandable why Mujica gives away about 90% of his salary to charity, simply because he “has no need for it”.

A little bit grumpy to begin with, Mujcia warms to his task as he describes being perplexed by those who question his lifestyle.

“This world is crazy, crazy! People are amazed by normal things and that obsession worries me!”

Not afraid to take a swipe at his fellow leaders, he adds: “All I do is live like the majority of my people, not the minority. I’m living a normal life and Italian, Spanish leaders should also live as their people do. They shouldn’t be aspiring to or copying a rich minority.” 

Jose Mujica is outspoken and sometimes brusque, but he can afford to be so.

Uruguay is often referred to as the most liberal country in South America. As economic and political turmoil threaten to engulf the neighbouring giants of Brazil and Argentina, this country of just three million people certainly feels like a refuge.

Mujica leaves office with a relatively healthy economy and with social stability those bigger neighbours could only dream of.

Mujica’s underlying principles are still socialist but he’s a man who has mellowed with age. Some of the most controversial political initiatives from his five years as president – like the legalisation of abortion and cannabis – were done for pragmatic as much as ideological reasons.

I have no intention of being an old pensioner, sitting in a corner writing my memoirs – no way!”

“Marijuana is another plague, another addiction. Some say its good but no, that’s rubbish. Not marijuana, tobacco or alcohol – the only good addiction is love!” says the man who in 2005 married his long-term partner and former co-revolutionary, Lucia Topolansky.

“But 150,000 people smoke [marijuana] here and I couldn’t leave them at the mercy of drugs traffickers,” he says. “It’s easier to control something if it’s legal and that’s why we’ve done this.”

Mujica, who is sometimes described as the “president every other country would like to have,” dismisses all the adulation and attention with a waft of his hand but he is not leaving the stage just yet.

“I have no intention of being an old pensioner, sitting in a corner writing my memoirs – no way!” he barks at me with a grin.

“I’m tired of course, but I’m not ready to stop. My journey’s ending and every day I’m a little closer to the grave.”

Maybe so, but this enigmatic leader remains an inspiration to many and is a reminder that politics is meant to be a humble and honourable profession.

What do you think about this presidential figure?


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