Montevideo-José Mujica, president of Uruguay, has been described as the world’s poorest and most generous political leader; he donates about 90% of his salary to charities, lives in a modest house at his wife’s flower farm, and drives a 1987 VW Beetle.
José Mujica, 77, is an atypical politician. Uruguayans know him as “Pepe” and just about everyone in the country agrees that, in everyday life, he’s a citizen like any other, except he doesn’t have a bank account and has very few debts. He lists an old VW Beetle as his only personal asset, although he also gets to use, as official transport vehicle, a humble Chevrolet Corsa which he calls “the Presidential car”.
By law, Mujica’s annual salary is about US$ 150,000. Pepe keeps 10% of it for personal expenses and transfers the rest to a Foundation administered by the Movement of Popular Participation, his political left-wing organization, which supports small productive enterprises and NGOs working on housing developments for the poor. That leaves Mujica about US$ 1,250 a month.“I do fine with that amount; I have to do fine because there are many Uruguayans who live with much less,”said Mujica in an interview with El Mundo (in Spanish).
Lowest paid politician
How does Mujica’s salary compare with earnings of other political leaders? Assuming that most of the highest-paid political leaders do not give away an important fraction of their salary, and just to mention a few comparative examples, Mujica’s annual take-home pay (US$15,000) is 5.8 percent of David Cameron’s (UK) annual income; 4.2 percent of Stephen Harper’s (Canada); 3.1 percent of B. Obama’s yearly income (USA); 2.9 percent of Kenya’s Raila Odinga; just 2.5 percent of what Julia Gillard of Australia earns, and only 0.7% of the income amassed by Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore.
An example of austerity and solidarity
At a time when many world leaders request or impose austerity on their country’s citizens, Mujica himself maintains a very simple and austere lifestyle. He doesn’t live in the Palace of Suarez y Reyes, the official presidential residence. Instead, he lives in a farmhouse in Rincón del Cerro, a locality in the outskirts of Montevideo, the Uruguayan capital. The farm and the house are the property of his wife Lucía Topolansky, whom Pepe married in 2005 after many years of co-habitation. At Lucía’s farm, the couple operates a vegetable and flower growing business.
During the coldest days of the winter of 2012 (Southern Hemisphere), Mujica offered the use of the presidential residence, normally used for government meetings, to serve as shelter for homeless families. The Ministry of Social Development (MIDES) managed to find suitable alternatives, and the Presidential Palace was not used, but it remains as an option in case of emergencies.
Most recently, just a few days ago, José Mujica took part in a meeting of CEFIR (Training Center for Regional Integration) where he attended a lecture on “Challenges for Mercosur” (the Southern Common Market). He had a bruised nose. When asked about the cause of his injury, he confessed it happened while helping a neighbor to repair a metal roof after a severe wind storm that recently hit Southern Brazil, Uruguay and Northern Argentina.
The former guerrilla fighter
Jose Mujica was a leader of the Uruguayan guerrilla group known as the National Liberation Movement – Tupamaros (MLN). Between 1960 and 1972, the Tupamaros clashed with the Conservative government of Uruguay, but were defeated in 1972. Most Tupamaro leaders, including José Mujica, were jailed and remained in captivity during the military dictatorship that ruled the country between 1973 and 1985.
Mujica spent almost 14 years in a military prison. In 1985, at the end of the military regime, he was released under an amnesty law covering political and related crimes committed since 1962. In 1994, Mujica was elected deputy, and in 1999 and 2004 he was elected senator. On March, 2005 Mujica was appointed by the then President Tabaré Vázquez as Minister of Livestock, Agriculture and Fisheries, a position he held until March, 2008, when he returned to the Uruguayan legislature as senator. In November 2009, he was elected President of the Republic for the period 2010-2015.
In June 13 to 22, 2012, president Mujica attended Rio+20, the 20-year follow-up to the 1992 Earth Summit / United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro under the name “The Future we want”. At this meeting, Pepe gave a simple, eloquent, and moving speech on “Human Happiness and the Environment”, which was deemed as probably one of the best speeches of the conference. The video below shows the speech in Spanish with English subtitles.
Mujica’s “little country”
Uruguay is the second smallest nation in South America by area, after Suriname. With an area of about 176,215 sq km, is slightly smaller than the state of Washington. However, it is the third most developed country on the continent (after Argentina and Chile), with a GDP per capita of $15,656. That’s less than one third of the United States’ GDP per capita, but triple the GDP of Bolivia and its neighbour Paraguay, which have GDP per capita of just $4,843 and $5,548, respectively.
During recent years, despite the financial crisis in many European countries, Uruguay has managed to avoid a recession and has maintained positive growth rates, mainly through higher public expenditure and investment, resulting in GDP growth of 8.5% in 2010 and 6% in 2011.
Under Mujica’s government, Uruguay has become known for low levels of corruption. The country ranks as the second least corrupt country in Latin America (after Chile) in the Transparency International’s Global Corruption Index (25th worldwide), and was listed second in Latin America (after Argentina) in the 2011 International Living’s Quality of Life Index (22nd worldwide).
Current approval rating
Despite his popularity among the most vulnerable sectors of Uruguayan society, and a fairly good image in international circles, Mujica’s approval rating has been on the slide in recent months. In the latest survey (early September), the approval of his job as president fell to 36%, the lowest level since he took office on March 1, 2010. That is a significant drop from the support of 66% he had at the beginning of his administration, which was well above the 51% he obtained when he was elected President of Uruguay.
According to an executive of the polling agency, several factors have influenced the decline in the president’s approval rating. Among those, is the “lack of solution” to issues “of concern” to Uruguayans including security, education, rising inflation and its impact on wages.
President Pepe Mujica will have a difficult task ahead reversing the negative trend in his job’s approval rating. That will certainly demand new measures aimed at fulfilling the goals and aspirations of 3.2 million Uruguayans.