Monday, 2 March 2015

Amazing: a good political story. But then it's about an amazing character

You might not have spotted a significant political moment yesterday.

A man with enough humility to make anyone proud, José “Pepe” Mujica was certainly the world’s humblest politician. Yesterday he passed on the presidency of Uruguay to his elected successor Tabaré Vázquez who, as it happens, was also his predecessor. Vázquez has an excellent track record: he and Mujica between them have made their country the most successful in the region.

But it’s Pepe who’s extraordinary. This is a time when, in Britain, two of our most senior politicians, both former Foreign Secretaries, one from each of the two main parties, fell into a ridiculous trap: journalists posing as representatives of a fictitious Chinese company persuaded them to offer to work on its behalf for sky-high fees (one suggested £5000 a day), with no concern as to whether their duties as members of Parliament would allow them to take on such a commitment (one suggested that he was free 95% of his time).

Pepe Mujica at work
By way of contrast to this cupidity, Pepe gave up 90% of his salary as President, asking for it to be paid to a range of charities supporting poor people and small businesses. He and his wife, a Uruguayan Senator, refused to move in to the Presidential palace, but stayed in their modest farm on the edge of the capital, Montevideo, where they make a little money growing chrysanthemums, and live with their three-legged dog.

What makes this still more remarkable is that Pepe wasn’t always so peaceful. In the mid-sixties he joined the Tupamaros guerrilla organisation, a movement we would no doubt regard as terrorist today. In 1970, he was involved in a gun battle which left two policemen injured and himself riddled with six bullets. His life was only saved by a highly competent surgeon who put dedication to his professional duties above any political views he may have held.

Despite three escapes, each leading to recapture, Mujica spent thirteen years in gaol, two of them at the bottom of an old horse trough. The experience wrecked his health, mentally as well as physically.

As President, not only did he build on the economic success of Vázquez, he also legalised gay marriage and oversaw the legalisation of abortion. He even introduced a government-backed cannabis market. I saw him interviewed, and it’s clear he regards cannabis as an abomination. But there are so many users and it makes no sense to leave them as prey to criminal drug dealers. Legalising the trade makes it controllable.

There are so many morals to this story it’s hard to know where to begin.

Perhaps the first is to do with rehabilitation. In Europe or the United States, Mujica would have been in gaol for the rest of his life, or possibly executed. But Uruguay amnestied the Tupamaros after the restoration of democracy, so it was able to enjoy this extraordinary man’s enlightened presidency.

As the cannabis story showed, he can recognise that there are others who see things differently from him, and they deserve protection too. The mere fact that he disapproves of the drug they consume doesn’t mean the government has to suppress it, or oppress them. He’s right to point out that it’s not disapproval that matters but control, and that’s a lot easier within the framework of law.

Finally, he showed that success doesn’t have to mean ostentation and the flaunting of wealth. His trademark was the 1987 blue Volkswagen Beetle he insisted on driving instead of an official car. He served his people, and did it for a modest income.

Great picture from the Independent
Such a common scene: security agents by a Presidential car –
but with a beat-up blue Beetle instead of the black Cadillac?
Practically all the things he did would spell electoral disaster in most of the apparently advanced democracies. Why, he even showed up for the investiture of his successor in his usual black suit, with no tie, and wearing brown rubber-soled shoes.

And here’s the question. Who’s got it right? The people of our wealthier nations or those of Uruguay?

Here’s a clue to the answer. Today’s Independent quotes Charo Baroni, a 66-year-old housewife, saying “he’s the best president we’ve ever had.”

How many ordinary electors of our nations would speak so warmly of their leaders?

Thanks for everything dear old man
How many of our politicians get that kind of a send off?


Anonymous said...

why is it the british press & media didn't think fit to talk/ write about this chap until very recently?


David Beeson said...

To be fair, I did read a profile of him in the Guardian a few years ago. But there hasn't been much, indeed.