It seems everyone in Montevideo has a personal story of crossing paths with Uruguay’s folksy sandal-wearing president, José “Pepe” Mujica.
Romina Tortorella recalled the time she looked out her Montevideo house window to see Mujica’s light-blue 1987 Volkswagen Beetle, which he recently refused to sell for $1 million to a wealthy sheik. Mujica was eating at a corner deli, so Tortorella, not wanting to disturb the presidential lunch, wrote him a small invitation to see her husband’s home construction work.
Soon the 79-year-old was standing in her parlor and saying he knew her father, who was also a former member of the left-wing urban guerrilla group, the Tupamaros.
“He has six bullets in his body,” Tortorella said of Mujica, who was shot six times while resisting arrest by Uruguay’s old military government, which would imprison him for 13 years. “He has no reason to fear. He is close to the people.”
Even the homeless now have tales of meeting Uruguay’s president. Just this week, during a television interview, Mujica was confronted by a panhandler. When Mujica gave the man a 100 peso bill ($4.25), the panhandler yelled: “I want you to be president forever!”
Mujica is constitutionally barred from seeking a second consecutive term in Uruguay’s presidential runoff election on Sunday (November 30). As Uruguayans go to the polls to elect a new leader, there’s already a sense of nostalgia for this portly flower-farmer who has become a global symbol of modesty and tolerance—even if he is criticized at home for failing to reform a flagging education system, reverse the rise of petty crime, or invest in much-needed infrastructure projects such as harbors and roads.
Mujica’s successor will most likely be Tabaré Vázquez, a doctor from the ruling Frente Amplio (Broad Front—FA) coalition who served as president from 2005 to 2010. Opposition candidate Luis Lacalle Pou, a lawyer and son of former President Luis Alberto Lacalle, is trailing in several polls by more than 10 points. Vázquez left office in 2010 with 75 percent national approval, the highest-ever for an outgoing president—better even than the 65 percent approval the latest polls show for Mujica.
“Vázquez was a great president, but not charismatic,” said Ignacio Zuasnabar, director of public opinion at the Montevideo-based consulting firm Equipos Mori. “Mujica makes you happy, he makes you laugh, he makes you think the world is a better place to live. He would be an excellent father-in-law, but he is not necessarily a great president.”
Indeed, it’s hard not to swoon for Mujica. He donates 90 percent of his presidential salary to charity, and he eschewed the presidential palace in favor of living in his tin-roof farmhouse with his wife, Senator Lucía Topolansky, who is also a leading Uruguayan politician. He used to drive a Vespa to parliament. He has said he is an atheist and a vegetarian, yet he lives in a majority Christian country famous for its prime beef.
Mujica is most well known for his liberalization of Uruguayan society. He legalized same-sex marriage, abortion rights and marijuana production, which got him nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this year. Just as he lives simply, he has also pushed Uruguay to reduce reliance on imported energy by investing in wind and solar power—one of the few areas where business leaders and economists applaud Mujica’s government.
But, as I reported this week for Monitor Global Outlook, many Uruguayans and business leaders are disappointed in Mujica’s lack of attention to the economy in the past five years, and are looking forward to the more direct executive style of Vázquez. Economic growth has slowed to 3 percent from 8.4 percent in 2010, while inflation has risen to 8.8 percent from 6.9 percent during the same period, according to a September 25 research update from Moody’s Investors Service.
“There are a lot of people, even in the Frente Amplio, hoping that Vázquez can complete more transformations that Uruguay needs,” said Zuasnabar. “Mujica is a great man, he lives on a farm and he drives a old Volkswagen. That’s fantastic. But do things, please—this is the feeling of some part of the population, that we need someone that solves problems, not that wins popularity.”