The five-year administration of the “world’s humblest president” is about to come to an end. José Mujica took office as President of Uruguay in March 2010, but never moved into the Presidential Palace in Uruguay’s capital of Montevideo. Instead, he lived on his wife’s farm surrounded by the family dogs.
In addition to “humblest,” Mujica has been called the “world’s poorest president,” the “most radical politician,” the “anti-politician,” “the last hero of politics,” and “a modern day Don Quixote.” Perhaps the most profound accolade he has received, though, has been from his neighbor, who told The Guardian that Mujica “is an ordinary man.”
When he was running for the presidency, Mujica had to disclose his net worth. His personal wealth came to $1,800, the value of his 1987, baby-blue Volkswagen Beetle. Since assuming office in 2010, Mujica has received a monthly salary of roughly $12,000. From this, he lives on $800, which is roughly equivalent to an average Uruguayan’s income. The rest the president gives away to local charities.
In the 1960s, Mujica rebelled against the Uruguayan state as part of the Marxist Tupamaros insurgency, which took Fidel Castro and Che Guevara as revolutionary models. Today the Tupamaros would likely be labeled as a terrorist organization, and Mujica himself robbed banks and shot at police in gun battles in the streets of the coastal city of Pando.
In 1970, Mujica was shot multiple times while fleeing authorities and almost died on an operating table at a Montevideo hospital. He was jailed multiple times in the early 1970s, escaping twice by digging tunnels out of prison. He eventually spent more than a decade in solitary confinement, where he suffered mental disturbances, including hallucinations, and fed crumbs to the rats that shared his cell.
After a period of military rule, Uruguay began holding democratic elections again in 1984. Mujica was released from prison in 1985. In the 1990s, he ran for office as a member of the Movement of Popular Participation, which formed part of a larger left-leaning coalition called the Frente Amplio or Broad Front. He eventually became a senator in 1999 and was known for riding to Parliament on his beat-up Vespa. He later became the Minister of Agriculture in the cabinet of President Tabaré Vázquez, also of the Broad Front.
The Rebel in Office
Mujica became president in 2010, after a convincing victory over a right-wing challenger. Poverty levels, which plummeted during Vázquez’s term, continued to fall, dropping from 19 percent of the population in 2010 to less than 12 percent by 2013. The minimum wage grew by 50 percent during the Mujica presidency. On the other hand, violent crime has also gone up during his term.
The New York Times has called Mujica’s Uruguay “arguably Latin America’s most socially liberal country.” In 2013, Uruguay legalized same-sex marriage, becoming the second country in Latin America and the twelfth in the world to do so. In 2013, Uruguay also became the first country in the world to legalize – and regulate – the sale of marijuana at the national level.
Mujica’s term will end on March 1, 2015, and due to constitutional rules, he cannot run for president again. Tabaré Vázquez, who was just re-elected in November, will take Mujica’s place as president. Vázquez’s re-election, though, means a continuation of most of Mujica’s policies, including the legalization of marijuana. Still, Mujica’s most lasting legacy is perhaps that he completes his term as he began it, as an ordinary man.
Check out the gallery below to get to know the world’s most humble president:
For more Mujica, be sure to watch this VICE documentary featuring a rather red-eyed Jose Mujica discussing marijuana and politics.