A Visit with Mujica

Posted by CODEPINK Staff

By Dianne Budd, MD|August 27th, 2014

What if there was an honest politician?  One whose entire life has been lived consistently and lovingly?   Yeah, right.

An American delegation recently met with the President of Uruguay.  Generous, honest, practical, authentic, brilliant, even precious - these were some of the adjectives that arose repeatedly in the group’s description of him.

Jose “Pepe” Mujica is an unprecedented politician. He lives on a tiny farm on the outskirts of Montevideo  raising chrysanthemums with his life partner and his 3 legged doggy Manuela, “the most loyal member of the government” (who, he notes sadly, with her 18 years, is developing cataracts).  He is an atheist who drives an old VW bug & lives on less than $15,000 USD a year, as he gives 90% of his salary (of about $12,000 a month) to groups that benefit the poor, and some small entrepreneurs.  He thinks he might be the only President who rises to let the dog (who sleeps with them, very unusual in Uruguay) out to answer nature.  He has suggested that the Presidential palace be changed into a homeless shelter.   His lifelong concern for justice led him to join the Tupamaros in the 1960s.  The Tupamaros are a group that, from its inception, acted as Uruguay’s Robin Hood in feeding and supporting the poor, as they believe that poverty is  a political issue. Their slogan  "Words divide us; action unites us" could be the motto of the Mujica government.

In the 60s and 70s the rise of militarism and dictatorship in Latin America (under the direction of the USA) infected Uruguay.  Inspired by the Cuban Revolution the Tupamaros arose.   As more and more constitutional rights were being stripped away under the guise of anti-Communism (sound familiar?) the Tupas orchestrated many clever actions, always careful to not damage the people.  This earned them worldwide recognition.  As they succeeded in revealing government corruption, thus embarrassing the elite, the police became increasingly brutal.  Uruguay became the most tortured country on earth with 1 in 50 falling victim to the increasing violence and repression.  The Tupamaros responded with kidnappings and targeted assassinations. In 1970 they executed Dan Mitrione who had been sent from Washington to teach the Uruguayan military how to torture without killing (so the torture could continue).   Unfortunately the victim was, in addition to being a trained torturer, also the father of 9 children and the tide of public opinion began to change.

During these years Jose Mujica was arrested multiple times, imprisoned and tortured because of his beliefs.  In 1972 he was one of 9 political prisoners selected for extreme castigation and cruelty.   For more than two years he was confined, alone, to the bottom of an old trough. In isolation and such extreme deprivation, he experienced horrid mental and physical effects.  Despite this he is now guided by a powerful humanism and great love. Mujica radiates warmth and sincerity.   He believes in "Ni vencidos, ni vencedores"  (no winners or losers) and that "it is a mistake to think that power comes from above, when it comes from within the hearts of the masses".

A fortunate group of norteamericanos recently had a personal meeting with this unique world leader.  Led by Andrés Thomas Conteris, an activist with Nonviolence International, Closegitmo.net  and Democracy Now! en Español, the assemblage of 17 folks  met with President Mujica on 13 August 2014.

The group was put together by Task Force on the Americas at the suggestion of Medea Benjamin co-founder of CODEPINK and author of  10 Reasons to Love Uruguay's President José Mujica.  Their goals for this trip included learning more about Uruguay’s recent progressive changes including recognition for same-sex marriage, abortion rights, and the legalization of marijuana.  In recent years this small country has focused on reducing poverty and redistributing the nation’s wealth , while encouraging growth.

After meeting Mujica, participants’ impressions frequently overlapped.  He was repeatedly noted to be “so real, so humble, so pragmatic”.  One group member noted, “his sparkling eyes spoke so lovingly”.  Another participant,  Janice Sevre-Duszynska, said  “You could trust him with your life”.

President Mujica values practicality.  He weighs Uruguay’s place in the world, and in Latin America, when making decisions and uses this awareness in his approach to issues, especially noting the importance of working with the rest of Latin America. Despite its size, he believes that Uruguay can set an example for other nations to follow. He hopes that by clearly communicating Uruguay’s willingness to repatriate Guantanamo prisoners, he will do exactly that.

Contentious issues that the group discussed with Mujica included the School of the Americas and Haiti.  Although he noted the SOAs’ sordid past, he is not planning any changes in Uruguay’s policies concerning it.  Last year Uruguay sent 3 students to the SOA, renamed WHINSEC.  Part of his rationale appeared to be that he feels the SOA is less important, less significant, now than in past decades, and that its influence is continuing to diminish.  Part of that decrement, according to Mujica, is because China is training more Latin American troops, and partly because of the relatively greater importance of groups such as the OAS. He referred to the SOA as a “travel agency” for the military, and noted that troops sent there are paid 3 x what they receive at home.

The need to work with the country’s neighbors was part of the decision regarding Haiti. Uruguayans are currently in Haiti as part of the UN peacekeeping troops. These troops have a reputation for repressing the Haitian people, and  Mujica  is committed to bringing all Uruguayans home. The group was told that Uruguay went into Haiti, in some part, because Brazil did.  The President believed that had Uruguay and Brazil not gone into Haiti, the USA would have, and he wanted to play a role in preventing that.   One third of Uruguay’s original Haitian force are home, 8 to 9 hundred remain.

Mujica is, of necessity, a complicated leader - but one whose policies are reality based. In contradistinction to recent US presidents Mujica doesn’t “talk to God” (GW Bush) or deal with drugs by “just say(ing) NO” (Reagan).   He instead saw legalizing marijuana as a chance to “steal the marijuana market from the narcotic traffickers”.  Recognizing that the use of MJ is less dangerous than alcohol or cigarettes, he, without encouraging its use, chose to create economic opportunity for Uruguay instead of denying its widespread use that allows traffickers to make millions.

In stating “our politics are very simple” he reflected on the recognition of gay rights.   Again, I can’t help but compare. Our (USA) ex-Presidents seemed to have made decisions based on myth and bigotry.  Ronald Reagan viewed homosexuality as "an abomination" on religious grounds, and Richard Nixon said that homosexuality  "destroyed the Greeks". *   Instead, President Mujica has chosen extant biology in deciding to recognize gay marriage. “You have to deal with reality”.  Not to mention kindness and equity.

Mujica’s awareness of Uruguay’s place in the world does not keep him from taking big actions.   In macho Latin America, this leader sees the importance of the right to abortion.  He views it with the humanism and authenticity he is known for.  He spoke to the group of the complexity of abortion, the need for support for women making this difficult decision - whatever decision they make.  He also noted that abortion, and the necessity of abortion, is a poverty issue; a health issue, yes, but largely a poverty issue.

Many members of the group were impressed by his obviously powerful intelligence.  He spoke without notes, remembered every question from a long series, and answered then in order of their being asked.  His impressive memory touched the group leader especially, as Mujica remembered  Andrés’ cousin who was murdered by the Contras in Nicaragua who Reagan labeled “freedom fighters”.  President Mujica recalled his name, Marcos Conteris Iglesias, and his death, in August 1985.

This unique man, the leader of a very special South American country truly sets an example, both personally and politically, for all of us.

- Dianne Budd, MD

Punta del Este /San Francisco

*  Nixon also said:  "I don't even want to shake hands with anybody from San Francisco!"

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