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Marco Werman: Now to a president who’s as humble as they come. José Mujica was president of Uruguay until yesterday. He stepped down after a single five-year term in office, a term marked by his extremely down to earth style.
Uki Goñi: This man is a guru, and the fact that he’s the head of state that refuses to dress in the pomp and ride in a limousine--he’s riding in this ancient Beetle Volkswagen that he’s got.
Werman: Journalist Uki Goñi recently saw that ancient blue VW Beetle when he interviewed the outgoing President Mujica at his home outside of Montevideo.
Goñi: It was unlike any other head of state I’ve ever interviewed. He lives literally in a three-room country shack, if you will, with a corrugated iron roof. When we arrived, it’s down a dirt road, and his little three-legged dog came rushing up the little dirt path to say hello, and then he came out in sandals and set up two metal chairs in his garden, which is basically a dirt patch almost. It’s awesome.
Werman: Were there any secret service people there protecting him or was it just him and his wife?
Goñi: I don’t know if I should say this, but when we arrived with the presidential secretary, we came from downtown Montevideo, he’s about 20 minutes outside of the city, and the secretary said “Please don’t take any pictures of the security,” not because of security concerns but “just we’re embarrassed” because security was just two guys standing on a dirt road.
Werman: What were some of his major accomplishments during his five years as president?
Goñi: That’s the hard backbone of it because while he’s sitting there in his sandals and this three-legged dog in this dirt patch of a garden, he says “And by the way, we’ve reduced poverty down from two digit figures to low single digit figures We’ve increased trade; the foreign investment is some of the highest in Latin America.” So, he has really tremendous accomplishments on the economic front, despite being a socialist, if you will, populist government.
Werman: We’ve heard a lot about the social changes, like marijuana and abortion legalization. Would you say that Mujica in five years has really made some changes to the political infrastructure in Uruguay?
Goñi: The way he puts it, “If we were a small country in Europe rather than in South America, we’d be considered the most liberal country on the planet.” He’s legalized abortion, they’re the only country that has done so in all of Latin America. He’s liberated the sale of marijuana. But you have to bear in mind that Uruguay is an exception in Latin America. It’s always been an extremely liberal country--a strong separation of church and state. There’s no Christmas holiday in Uruguay. Since the turn of the early 20th century, it was renamed “Family Day” and Easter week has been renamed “Tourism Week.” They never criminalized the consumption of any drug and now what they’ve liberalized is the sale of marijuana, but consumption has never been penalized. Divorce was made legal in the early 20th century with the added fruit on the cake that if the divorce is sought by the woman, all she has to do is ask for it and it’s granted automatically by the judge. It doesn’t get more liberal than that.
Werman: Uruguay also has three million and a half people, so it’s a little easier to govern. To really understand where Mujica comes from, you have to go back to his time as a revolutionary--13 years in prison during the dictatorship in Uruguay in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Tell me about his revolutionary past.
Goñi: I think it’s not unfair to call him the Nelson Mandela of South America because he was in prison for 13 years and a number of those were spent in solitary confinement, in a hole in the ground. He was subjected to the most incredibly horrible treatment a human being can be subjected to and he came out not seeking punishment for his captors or his torturers. As he said to me, “If you spend your life trying to collect debts from the past that nobody is willing to pay, you’ll lose your life.” I asked him about that, I said “How is what you’re doing today connected to the revolutionary ideals you had when you were a young man?” and what he said basically if you paraphrased him was that when he was young he believed in violence, but now after enduring what he did, those 13 years that he lost in his life, he says life is too valuable to sacrifice it for political ends. So, he’s trying to do the same but it’s going to take much longer, but it’s going to have to be through peaceful means, it can’t be done by violent means anymore.
Werman: Did Mujica talk to you about his legacy? How does he want to be remembered?
Goñi: I don’t think he’s thinking of how he’ll go down in history right now. He’ll be a senator in congress, so I think he’ll be busy trying to defend the advances that were made during his administration and I think that’s it. He doesn’t have children, it’s just him and his wife and his three-legged dog and his little country house. He plans on being active--he’s not thinking in terms of how he’ll go down in history.
Werman: Journalist Uki Goñi, who recently visited outgoing Uruguayan president José “Pepe” Mujica at his home and profiled him for The Guardian newspaper. Thank you very much Uki.
Goñi: Thank you.