David Suzuki: Uruguay’s "poor" president Jose Mujica should be an inspiration for other world leaders

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      When bright young idealists share their environmental concerns with me, I encourage them to get involved in politics. That’s where decisions have to be made about the severe ecological problems we face.

      Have you noticed, though, how often idealism gives way to a sense of entitlement to all the perks that come with political office? It’s amazing how being elected to serve the people is often turned on its head: we’re expected to support elected leaders without protest or question. And what happens to many who leave government? Lucrative board memberships and business deals.

      Some politicians take a different road, though. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter stepped down after one term, was roundly ridiculed by popular media, yet continued to dedicate his life to promoting justice and eliminating poverty around the world. Nelson Mandela is another incredible role model who sets a high bar.

      But something particularly unique is happening in South America. I only recently learned of Jose Mujica, a remarkable man who became president of Uruguay in 2009.

      He’s a radical activist who, in the 1960s, joined the left-wing guerrilla group known as Tupamaros, formed by sugar-cane workers and students. The organization was crushed after a military coup in 1973. Mujica was shot six times and imprisoned for 14 years; he claims incarceration solidified his thinking. In 1985, constitutional democracy was restored to Uruguay and Mujica was released. He ran for office and was elected president in 2009.

      And what a politician! He’s a vegetarian who lives in his wife’s ramshackle farmhouse where they work together in the fields growing flowers. He turned down the opportunity to move into the presidential palace in Montevideo, preferring to stay on the farm, which is linked to the capital city by a dirt road. Under Uruguay’s law, elected officials must declare their personal wealth. In 2010, Mujica’s was $1,800, the value of the 1987 Volkswagen beetle he drives. When he added a share of his wife’s assetsher house, land and tractorit brought his declared family wealth to $215,000.

      Mujica receives $12,000 a month as president but donates 90 percent of it to the poor and small businesses. “I can live well with what I have,” he says. “I'm called ‘the poorest president’, but I don't feel poor. Poor people are those who only work to try to keep an expensive lifestyle, and always want more and more.”

      He added, “This is a matter of freedom. If you don’t have many possessions then you don’t need to work all your life like a slave to sustain them, and therefore you have more time for yourself. I may appear to be an eccentric old man... But this is a free choice.”

      Mujica attended Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, in June 2012, where he stated: “We've been talking all afternoon about sustainable development – to get the masses out of poverty. But what are we thinking? Do we want the model of development and consumption of the rich countries? I ask you now: What would happen to this planet if Indians would have the same proportion of cars per household as Germans? How much oxygen would we have left? Does this planet have enough resources so seven or eight billion can have the same level of consumption and waste that today is seen in rich societies? It is this level of hyper-consumption that is harming our planet.”

      Mujica says most world leaders have a “blind obsession to achieve growth with consumption, as if the contrary would mean the end of the world.”

      He’s hit a bit of a bump in popularity, dropping below 50 percent for refusing to veto a bill legalizing abortion before 12 weeks (as all his predecessors did) and supporting a debate on legalization of marijuana use that would give the state a monopoly over its trade. Mujica points out: “Consumption of cannabis is not the most worrying thing; drug-dealing is the real problem.”

      Mujica isn’t worried about the drop in popularity. It’s part of politics, and besides, he’s 77 and can’t run again in 2014. He’s a good role model with wise, enduring values, and an inspiration for people around the world.



      James G

      Mar 5, 2013 at 5:04pm

      Jimmy Carter stepped down after one term? I am farily certain he was running for re-election in 1980 and was (unfortunately) defeated by Ronald Reagan.

      David Catriel

      Mar 5, 2013 at 6:14pm

      I am against his political thinking but I believe that in spite of his past he is a NEW man to be admired and followed.


      Mar 5, 2013 at 6:31pm

      David, you're kind of a world leader. How much do you give back?

      Jose Chung

      Mar 5, 2013 at 8:03pm

      Jimmy Carter "stepped down" after one turn? Is "stepped down" a euphemism for being soundly rejected by the American people and losing in a landslide to Ronald Reagan? Jimmy Carter was a horrible president and has spent the decades since hugging thugs like the late dictator Hugo Chavez.


      Mar 5, 2013 at 8:53pm

      India is trying to get enough cars for everyone,so is China(37,000 per day)on the road with 38,000,000 already there,people and leaders want to better themselvs and have what the wealthy americans have,not live in poverty.We better ouselves so we can enjoy living,that is our goal,if you took that away why work harder if there is no gain.

      Paul Rodrigues

      Mar 5, 2013 at 10:42pm

      Now this is a true leader of a country. This fella would get my vote to run the friggn planet! I think I wanna move to Uraguay! Harper Hope you read this.

      Uncle Jacxk

      Mar 5, 2013 at 11:52pm

      Perhaps David S. should follow the same example.

      Don't charge $50,000 for a canned speech and vacate his 7 million mansion in Point Gray.

      Perhaps, turn it into a home for disabled children.

      Walk the talk, dear David!!


      Mar 6, 2013 at 5:29am

      - He is not a vegetarian
      - Tupamaros were not sugar-cane workers
      - He donates 90% of his salary to his own Political Party


      Mar 7, 2013 at 10:14am

      Mujica's great, but he's not actually a vegetarian. See Uruguay is such a meat focused society that he described himself as vegetarian in speeches but what he meant to say was that he's 'harmless' or 'non-threatening' or even 'lovable' revolutionary. Unfortunately it got translated literally in the english press.


      Mar 10, 2013 at 5:03pm

      Mujica is not vegetarian. He lives in one of the countries with the best meat in the world, would be an offense for Uruguayans.
      But it is true donates 90% of his salary and his wife donated part of yours too. They get profit from their farm products, mainly flowers