In the shadow of Sunday’s presidential election in Latin American powerhouse Brazil sits Uruguay. But while a country of just 3.4 million people, big things are afoot here, too. Voters will choose a successor to President José Mujica, who won unprecedented global admiration over his past four years in office.
Mr. Muijica lives an austere lifestyle for a president, residing in a simple farmhouse next to a chard plantation and donating most of his salary to a low-income housing program. He has overseen radical social changes, including marijuana and abortion legalization, and reduced poverty during a period of healthy economic growth.
“Government is not like a grocery store or a business; you can’t check the balance sheet,” says Mujica in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “But in general terms I'm satisfied” with my work as president.
Succeeding President Mujica, who is constitutionally barred from running for a second consecutive term, will be a difficult task for either of the two frontrunners. They are more conventional political personalities, who also have a record of being more conservative on social issues.
“No president will have the same notoriety [as Mujica],” says Daniel Buquet, a political scientist here. “He is unrepeatable.”
Mujica, popularly known as Pepe, has an approval rating of nearly 60 percent, according to a recent poll.
In the interview at his farmhouse here on the outskirts of Montevideo, Mujica wears a black beret and sandals with thick wool socks. He says his greatest achievement has been extending the record of the economic growth for the ruling center-left Broad Front coaltion while also reducing inequality and poverty.
“All sectors of society increased their income,” Mujica says of his presidential term, which finishes in March. Manuela, his dog with only three feet, brushes against his leg. “But those who saw the biggest increase were the poorest […] In a very unjust continent – the most unjust in distribution of wealth – we’re the country that most distributes it,” he says.
In recent years Uruguay has been the top South American country in the World Bank’s Gini index, which measures income distribution.
Uruguay’s foreign investment friendly economy has grown at an average of 5.8 percent in recent years. Before the Broad Front came to power for the first time, in 2005, the poverty rate was around 40 percent, but it has dropped to less than 12 percent today. Wealth is more evenly distributed now than at any point in the last 30 years, according the government.
Ever since the 1950s – when Mujica was a political activist who supported striking meat packers – improving the lives of poor people has been at the heart of his political ideology.
He may be lauded for his lifestyle and his policies, but his presidency has not been without its problems.
He has been criticized for leading what is sometimes viewed as a disorganized government, including when it oversaw the closure of Uruguay’s flagship airline in 2012. He often makes crude, honest statements in public, and regularly contradicts himself. “His character is like a double-edged sword,” says Mr. Buquet. “He generates a lot of empathy, but he’s inconsistent and imprudent, so he’s also controversial.”
Uruguay's next leader
Tabaré Vázquez, the candidate for the Broad Front in this election, was president prior to Mujica, and from 2005 to 2010 laid the foundations for Mujica’s government. “Tabaré left everything in place for Pepe to continue,” says Luis Martínez, a janitor, referring to moves by Mr. Vázquez to expand the welfare state, including subsidies for poor people and a program that gave laptops to school students. Mujica built on those foundations by taking the Front's social democratic policies a step further, including placing heavy emphasis on intervening in salary negotiations between businesses and unions.
Subsequently, on Sunday, Uruguayans will not be judging Vázquez through the prism of Mujica; rather; they will be deciding if they want the decade-long policies of the Broad Front to continue, according to Adolfo Garcé, a political analyst here.
Vázquez, whose chief election promise is a new healthcare program, leads in the polls over the young candidate from the right-wing National Party, Luis Lacalle Pou. However, the outcome is expected to be close enough to lead to a runoff next month.
If victorious, Mr. Lacalle Pou’s government could put the brakes on the social agenda that flourished under Mujica, including a fiercely debated marijuana legalization law that gives the state control over production and sales of the drug. Mujica personally pushed for the law.
“If the National Party wins, there will be a halt to social reforms,” says Mr. Garcé, referring to laws legalizing abortion and same-sex marriage. Lacalle Pou, who is backed by middle-class voters disgruntled with the quality of public services like education, also opposes portions of the marijuana law. He would backtrack, too, on Mujica’s offer of asylum to Guantánamo Bay detainees.
“Guantánamo is a barbarity,” Mujica says. “When there is a government that wants to rectify a disaster, I don’t think we can turn away,” he says, referring to the Obama administration’s request for host countries for released detainees.
Despite Mujica’s global popularity, not all of his reforms have been welcomed at home. Many Uruguayans oppose the marijuana law because they think it is too liberal. And some marijuana legalization activists aren’t pleased either, saying the law is Orwellian because it places a limit on the amount of marijuana people can buy and obliges smokers to sign up to a federal register.
Mujica is wary of accusations of authoritarianism, like those aimed at other leaders in the region from Argentina to Venezuela. He was concerned, for instance, that a bill to reform some aspects of the media would be a tool for restricting freedom of expression.
But the marijuana law is different, he says. “They’re right,” he says of the activists that have criticized him. “But they are my children. And I’m not going to gift them something that turns them into druggies with their eyes popping out of their heads.”
Mujica, who during the interview often seems more philosopher than politician, also recognizes that his austere lifestyle may have alienated him from some voters. “Uruguayans are dominated by the subliminal messages of the contemporary market,” he says, lamenting a culture of consumerism, especially in exclusive coastal resort cities popular with tourists and the country’s elite. “I am a ghost in solitude.”
But many people here extol his humility. “I don’t care about the policies,” says Gastón Córdoba, a waiter. “He lives up there on his farm; it’s fantastic. There’ll never be another like him.”