While some of us are appalled at the trend of US president’s arrogating to themselves increasing powers so that they approach that of imperial leaders, with president Obama’s preposterous claim of having the legal authority to murder anyone anywhere in the world being the most extreme manifestation of this tendency, there is a country whose leader is moving in the opposite direction.
We are so used to seeing a country’s political leaders surround themselves with all the trappings of office (palaces, motorcades, elaborate security, obsequious and groveling underlings, and the like) that we have come to think of that as the natural order of things and so the life lived by Uruguay’s current president Jose Mujica can come as a shock.
He lives in a run-down house on Montevideo’s outskirts with no servants at all. His security detail: two plainclothes officers parked on a dirt road.
Mr. Mujica, 77, shunned the opulent Suárez y Reyes presidential mansion, with its staff of 42, remaining instead in the home where he and his wife have lived for years, on a plot of land where they grow chrysanthemums for sale in local markets.
His net worth upon taking office in 2010 amounted to about $1,800 — the value of the 1987 Volkswagen Beetle parked in his garage. He never wears a tie and donates about 90 percent of his salary, largely to a program for expanding housing for the poor.
His donations leave him with roughly $800 a month of his salary. He said he and his wife, Lucía Topolansky, a former guerrilla who was also imprisoned and is now a senator, do not need much to live on.
The 77-year old leader was once the head of the Tupamaros guerilla group and spent 14 years in prison, more than a decade of it in solitary confinement. He says that in order for democracy to function properly, elected leaders should be ‘taken down a notch’.
“We have done everything possible to make the presidency less venerated,” Mr. Mujica said in an interview one recent morning, after preparing a serving in his kitchen of mate, the herbal drink offered in a hollowed calabash gourd and commonly shared in dozens of sips through the same metal straw.
In terms of the usual measures of a country, there is nothing exceptional about Uruguay. It ranks in the middle on economic and social indices, 79th out of 226 in per capita GDP, 65th out of 190 on the WHO’s health index, and 57th out of 111 in the quality of life, all of which are pretty good for a country that is not rich. It is a world soccer powerhouse, though, having twice won the World Cup, are the current Latin American champions, and at present is ranked #2 in the world, astounding for a country with a population of only 3.25 million.
But Uruguay also currently ranks among the least corrupt, least unequal, and most safe countries in the region. According to a recent poll, Uruguayans “are among the most supportive of democracy and by far the most satisfied with the way democracy works in their country.”
This is surprising because its leader is obviously crazy, a danger to his people, and destroying his country with his bizarre ides about what a democracy should look like and how a country’s leaders should live and behave. If his model spreads to other countries and their people start to expect the same kind of behavior from their leaders, who knows what might happen?
There is nothing more dangerous to the transnational oligarchy than a model of government in which economic and social gaps are narrowed. Why has the US not invaded Uruguay, overthrown Mujica, and replaced him with someone who likes palaces and motorcades, would cut taxes on the rich, reduce social services, privatize everything, and make the rich richer and the poor poorer? Isn’t that the model of democracy we uphold?