Liberal Hero of the Week (honourable mention): José Mujica, President of Uruguay

by Stephen Tall on January 11, 2013

ImageThe Liberal Heroes (and occasional Villains) series has been running on this blog for six months now. During that time, I’ve always said nominations are welcome via email or Twitter. My friends at CentreForum have been assiduous in their suggestions and very tolerant on those occasions when I ignore (or disagree) with them. And then this week I received a nomination. By email. From someone entirely unconnected with CentreForum: from Paul Walter who blogs at Liberal Burblings. Here’s who he suggested…


José Mujica

Former guerrilla who is Uruguay’s president
Reason: For progressing socially liberal reforms while keeping his feet firmly on the ground.

He was profiled this week by the New York Times, which noted his austere approach to political office:

He lives in a run-down house on Montevideo’s outskirts with no servants at all. His security detail: two plainclothes officers parked on a dirt road. In a deliberate statement to this cattle-exporting nation of 3.3 million people, Mr. Mujica, 77, shunned the opulent Suárez y Reyes presidential mansion, with its staff of 42, remaining instead in the home where he and his wife have lived for years, on a plot of land where they grow chrysanthemums for sale in local markets.

Visitors reach Mr. Mujica’s austere dwelling after driving down O’Higgins Road, past groves of lemon trees. His net worth upon taking office in 2010 amounted to about $1,800 — the value of the 1987 Volkswagen Beetle parked in his garage. He never wears a tie and donates about 90 percent of his salary, largely to a program for expanding housing for the poor. …

For democracy to function properly, he argues, elected leaders should be taken down a notch. “We have done everything possible to make the presidency less venerated,” Mr. Mujica said in an interview one recent morning …

… if there is any country in South America where a president can drive a Beetle and get by without a large entourage of bodyguards, it might be Uruguay, which consistently ranks among the region’s least corrupt and least unequal nations.

It’s a bit of a contrast from yesterday’s headlines here in the UK:

MPs call for, in private at least, a 32% pay rise: Parliamentary survey shows majority believes £86,250 would be fair, with third saying final-salary pensions should be retained

But it’s not for his hair-shirtism that Mr Mujica merits an honourable mention as a Liberal Hero. This is why:

His current brand of low-key radicalism — a marked shift from his days wielding weapons in an effort to overthrow the government — exemplifies Uruguay’s emergence as arguably Latin America’s most socially liberal country.

Under Mr. Mujica, who took office in 2010, Uruguay has drawn attention for seeking to legalize marijuana and same-sex marriage, while also enacting one of the region’s most sweeping abortion rights laws and sharply boosting the use of renewable energy sources like wind and biomass.

Forgive the lapse into slang, but ¡Qué guay! (translation here).

* You can view our list of ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

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