Former Uruguayan President José Mujica walked into the conference room wearing a dark brown jacket over a sweater and blue jeans and shook each of our hands. Because we had already researched him, we weren’t surprised by his casual attire. During his presidency, Mujica donated 90 percent of his earnings to charity, lived in a one-story home at the outskirts of Montevideo rather than the Presidential Palace, and was never chauffeured, preferring instead to drive his beat-up Volkswagen Beetle.
“It’s an honor to have you all in Latin America,” he began. He briefed us on Uruguay’s trade with the English Empire during World War II and the education system, which has been public and free for 120 years.
We dove into questions about his involvement with the Tupamaros, a left-wing guerilla group whose violence led to his incarceration for 13 years, along with issues including the promotion of women’s rights, dealing with the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and moving toward environmental sustainability.
When answering my question about his involvement in the guerrilla group, he told me that the ’60s was different world—a world of the Cold War, rather than one of the “third world war.”
“Democracy tends to be a prisoner of money,” he said. “That is a problem we did not have before.”
Mujica continued talking about this current plutocratic system, contrasting it with the time of Uruguay’s approaching dictatorship that prompted people like himself to take drastic measures—sometimes murder—to reclaim what they believed in. Likewise, this fight has to be collective and intergenerational in our civilization, he explained.
“The modern man is stupid. He is manipulated by marketing campaigns that, for example, make him vote for Trump,” he said. We all got a crack out of that one.
Equating wealth with happiness seemed to never cross the mind of the “world’s poorest president.” “Personally, I am worried about economic growth, but I am even more worried about people’s happiness, because we only have one life and it fades away,” he said. “You cannot go to a supermarket and buy years.”