Jose Mujica, Guerrilla Turned Gardener

Jose Mujica, Guerrilla Turned Gardener

By Lorena O'Neil

Uruguayan President Jose Mujica speaks during an interview at his house in Montevideo on June 25, 2013.
SourceMario Goldman/AFP/Redux


Uruguayan President Jose Mujica shuns luxury and gives away 90 percent of his salary — wealth is hardly what he’s all about.

By Lorena O'Neil

When is the last time you gave away your presidential palace to the homeless? 

OK. Fair. You don’t have a presidential palace. (Unless you’re Obama, in which case, hi, Mr. President. Thanks for reading.) But even if you did, would you give it away?

Jose Mujica, the 78-year-old president of Uruguay, did just that. During his term, he included the presidential palace on the list of state shelters for the homeless. He’s been president of the country of 3.3 million people since 2010 and has raised a lot of attention for his austere lifestyle and speeches about the danger hyper-consumption is causing our planet. Before Pope Francis made headlines for his simple lifestyle, Mujica — known as Pepe — was setting the “put your money where your mouth is” trend. 

I’m called ‘the poorest president,’ but I don’t feel poor.

— Jose Mujica

“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,” he told the BBC. ”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.”

Beetle photographed from the front during the day

President of Uruguay, Jose Mujica’s car, in his home in the outskirts of Montevideo, Uruguay.

Source Luiz Maximiano/laif/Redux

With a kind, mustached smile, pot belly and full face framed by an equally full head of gray hair, Mujica looks like a character. And indeed, his life story is one for the history books — and for the movies. In the ’60s and ’70s he was an urban guerrilla fighter for the Tupamaros, a leftist armed group inspired by the Cuban revolution. They were real life Robin-Hood guerrillas who pulled off armed bank robberies and kidnappings, then distributed the stolen money and food to the poor. He was shot six times and spent 14 years in jail, much of it in solitary confinement, with a few years spent at the bottom of a well talking to frogs and insects.

After his release from prison in 1985, when constitutional democracy was restored in Uruguay, he went into politics and was elected to the senate, selected as the minister of livestock, agriculture and fisheries.

Now that he’s president, Mujica’s humble lifestyle is unchanged. He donates 90 percent of his salary to social programs and keeps about $800 a month. He drives an old Volkswagen Beetle and is known for his casual way of dressing. He lives with his wife, Lucia Topolansky, quite the political badass in her own right. She’s a fellow former guerrilla fighter who spent 13 years in jail — and is now a senator. The couple grows chrysanthemums on their farm to sell, and she shares Mujica’s austere approach to life. Topolansky says her husband had to get up and make his maté before he was president —and he still has to get up and make it.

His policies have not made Mujica a darling to all of Uruguay’s citizens.

”The thing is, I have a way of life that I don’t change just because I am a president,” he told Al Jazeera. ”I earn more than I need, even if it’s not enough for others.”

Since Mujica took office four years ago, Uruguay has cemented itself as the most socially liberal country in South America. In December, it legalized the production and sale of marijuana, a move Mujica explained is about legalizing and regulating drugs in order to weaken cartel violence. The nation has also legalized gay marriage and abortion

These policies have not made Mujica a darling to all of Uruguay’s citizens. While beloved by many for his folksy charm, Mujica’s critics dislike his policies on pot, and some are angry he did not veto the legalization of abortion bill. Uruguay doesn’t allow a president to seek two consecutive terms, so Mujica can’t run for re-election this year. Even if it were possible, he wouldn’t want to, referring to a consecutive presidency as “monarchic.”

Mujica is best known for his policy on marijuana and it has earned him much attention, not only in Uruguay but around the world. The Economist named Uruguay country of the year in 2013 for implementing gay marriage and regulating cannabis, referring to these laws as “path-breaking reforms that do not merely improve a single nation but, if emulated, might benefit the world.” The Mujica administration has also vastly improved the use of renewable energy sources such as wind and biomass. 

I am trying to expand consumption but to diminish unnecessary consumption … I’m opposed to waste — of energy or resources or time.

— Jose Mujica

Uruguay’s economy grew at an estimated annual rate of about 4 percent, although the IMF expects that number to drop this year, citing ”persistent inflation pressure and strong increases in labor cost” as key risks for the cattle-exporting country. If it were up to Mujica, however, countries wouldn’t consider economic growth a priority. His speech at the United Nations’ Rio+20 conference on sustainable development in June 2012 spurred many debates on the progeny of the market, competition, material growth and globalization.

Man to left holding a watering tin can with plants of marijuana all in the foreground

Juan Vaz checks the temperature in his indoor cultivation in Montevideo December 6, 2013.

Source Andres Stapff/Reuters

”I ask you now: What would happen to this planet if Indians would have the same proportion of cars per household as Germans? How much oxygen would we have left?” he asked at the summit. “Does this planet have enough resources so 7 or 8 billion can have the same level of consumption and waste that today is seen in rich societies? It is this level of hyper-consumption that is harming our planet.”

In an interview with the Guardian, Mujica acknowledged that as the country’s leader he must materially expand Uruguay. “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.”

His wish? That the 7 billion people in the world live within their means, so that everyone could have what they needed. “Global politics should be moving in that direction,” he says. “But we think as people and countries, not as a species.”