Translate page with Google

Story Publication logo February 6, 2015

Jose Mujica Was Every Liberal's Dream President. He Was Too Good to Be True.


Media file: uruguaypresidentcredit.jpg

Uruguayan President José Mujica, who lives in penury and drives a battered VW Beetle to better...


The man was old and rumpled, no tie over his blue-and-white striped shirt. His eyes squinted; his hair looked like it was slicked back with kitchen grease. He ascended the podium in the United Nations General Assembly hall clutching a sheaf of papers. Before him sat the diplomatic orthodoxy, sleek in Amal Alamuddin hairdos and Savile Row suits.

Ostensibly, José Mujica, as president of Uruguay, was a fellow member of the global elite. But if his attire didn't make it clear that his allegiances lay elsewhere, what he was about to say would. Most U.N. speeches are pure boilerplate. The address Mujica was about to give on September 24, 2013 was something else entirely.

"We have sacrificed the old immaterial gods and now we are occupying the temple of the market god," he said, reading from his papers in Spanish. "This god organizes our economy, our politics, our habits, our lives. It seems we have been born only to consume." Mujica looked up, then pinned the delegates with accusing eyes from behind a pair of brown granny glasses. As he continued, his high voice rose to a keen. "We have a civilization arrayed against free time that doesn't pay," he cried.

"There's marketing for everything! There's marketing for cemeteries, for funeral services, for maternity wards, for fathers, for mothers, grandparents and uncles! ... Everything is business! ... The average man of our time wanders between financial institutions and the tedious routine of offices ... He dreams of vacations and freedom. He dreams of being able to pay his bills, until one day, his heart stops."
As a young man, Mujica had fought with an anti-capitalist guerrilla movement, then spent more than a decade in prison under the repressive military dictatorship that ruled Uruguay in the 1970s and early '80s. He was 74 years old when Uruguayans elected him their commander-in-chief in 2009. From the start he eschewed the normal rites of power. He declined to move into the presidential dwellings in Montevideo, preferring to remain on his ramshackle commune on the outskirts of the capital, where he continued to farm chrysanthemums with his wife. He drove himself around in an old VW Beetle and donated nearly 90 percent of his presidential salary to charity.

In Uruguay, Mujica's personal austerity made him an object of fascination. His U.N. speech, though, started a global Mujica cult. It's so rare that politicians say anything that feels real. The 45-minute cri de coeur that he delivered before the General Assembly had the astonishing quality of seeming so word-for-word true yet simultaneously so unsayable—so against the ordinary logic and boring jargon of contemporary speeches about world problems—that it was as if somebody had taken a knife and slashed through the flimsy set-painting that serves as the backdrop to our politics, revealing the real, crumbling world behind it.

"We promise a life of consuming and squandering. But this is a countdown against nature, against future humankind," Mujica thundered. "It is a civilization against simplicity, against sobriety, against all natural cycles, and against the most important things: Adventure. Solidarity. Family. Friendship. Love … The crisis is really the powerlessness of politics ... But today, it's time to begin to fight."

In the months that followed, reporters from The New York Times and Al Jazeera and even a TV crew from South Korea jetted to Uruguay to learn more about this unusual prophet, who received them in the dumpy kitchen he cleans himself. Here was a president who was not only a living antidote to the culture of materialism—"You don't stop being a common man just because you are president," he told the Guardian—but also an extraordinarily eloquent advocate for those same principles, a philosopher king without modern parallel. Gawker published a piece under the headline "Uruguay Has the President of Your Dreams." Normally cynical friends of mine, investigative journalists and lawyers, posted articles about Mujica on Facebook with the fawning epithet: "My hero!" On YouTube, the U.N. speech raced past a million views. "I'm in tears," one commenter wrote. "If such a person is ... a president, then there is hope for humankind."

In this age of rapidly increasing inequality and technological ubiquity, the Armani-clad lizard-beings who run things offer assurances about a state of affairs that is inherently disturbing. The suspicion is that they are buttering us up only to eat us later. People hunger for radically different, plain-speaking, human leaders, leaders who can speak directly to the sources of their existential anguish and fear of an uncertain future. That's why footage of Elizabeth Warren talking smack to Tim Geithner, or Pope Francis carrying his own luggage, is shared so wildly, and why American liberals are wary of Hillary as she leaves the high-priced lecture circuit and prepares for a possible second presidential run. Progressives, in particular, long for leaders actually living their values.

Mujica is the ultimate such figure. And with his tenure ending in March­—Uruguay prohibits consecutive presidential terms, and a successor is set to take over—he also presents an ideal test case for how such leadership bears out in practice.

When I started to read about Mujica, I noticed that few of the many articles written about him considered the tangible effects of his tenure on his country. Was he able to create the deep change he calls for in his speeches? Last year, I went down to Uruguay to find out. I booked two weeks in the country and scheduled more than two dozen interviews. But it only took a day or two before the Mujica myth began to come apart.

"He's a wonderful person. But he's not a good president," a member of Mujica's own left-wing political coalition confided to me. "Sometimes we confuse the two."

Uruguay is a place of strange contrasts. In a grim slum, you find a pauper polishing his vintage 1928 Chevrolet, its swooping lines and tuxedo-black finish like a vision of Gatsby's parking lot. (One of Uruguay's traditional nicknames is the museo rodante, "the museum of old cars," earned through a taboo against upgrading an old but still usable vehicle for anything too flashy or new.) Meanwhile, the country's notables frequent downscale bars. Eduardo Galeano, the world- famous writer, loves the shabby-chic Café Brasilero on Montevideo's Ituzaingó Street. Downhill toward the Rio de la Plata, at the Santa Catalina, a grubby beer hall selling cheap shots and greasy pizzas, you can sometimes find Mujica himself, his gray hair mussed and his gnarled feet clad in beat-up leather sandals, tucking into a humble lunch. Historically, Uruguay has had the lowest inequality and the most cohesive society in Latin America. The relatively rich and the relatively poor live side-by-side, and the signifiers indicating which are which are often blurry.

Or they have been blurry. Inequality and poverty climbed in Uruguay in the early 2000s, and the proudly anti-materialistic country is developing a taste for high-end brands. A billboard exhorting you not to be caught without Ray Ban sunglasses welcomes you to Punta del Este, a resort town teeming with condo developments boasting on-site spas. New Audi dealerships are popping up, and mechanics crash online courses to bone up on the expensive imports. "They have to," a salesman informed me. "It's a necessity!"

One afternoon, the Uruguayan journalist Mauricio Rabuffetti took me on a tour of the year-old Nuevocentro shopping mall, erected in a middle-class neighborhood of Montevideo. A riot of blinking "sale" lights and pumping music, the complex has six banks lining the entryway like sirens, beckoning shoppers to sign up for lines of credit. Clad typically in a flannel shirt and Mujica-esque stubble, Rabuffetti commutes an hour a day to Montevideo from his home in a rural village that he shares with his wife and two young children. He wants his kids to grow up in nature, surrounded by the sort of deep silence that leaves you sensing yourself sharing the world with the grasshoppers rustling in the yard.

"I agree with absolutely everything Mujica has to say about materialism," he told me. "I believe inequality and consumerism are damaging to society. It was exciting and fascinating to me, then, that this man became our president. But he has done nothing!" Rabuffetti was about to publish a book-length version of his grievance titled José Mujica, La Revolución Tranquila.

Several years ago, Rabuffetti did a stint working for Agence France-Presse in Washington. "I could not believe how materialist your country is," he told me with an apologetic smile. When he came back to Uruguay in 2011 after a tour in Rio de Janeiro, he was startled to see his own society hurtling in the same direction, even as Mujica delivered his anti-materialist sermons. "Look at the empty bookstore," he told me as we stood by Nuevocentro's central escalator. Across the way, beside an electronics store selling $9,000 HDTVs, the little bookseller was sepulchral, its cashier reclined in his chair, reading a newspaper with that air of a shopkeeper resigned to no business.

"Now let's count how many cell phone stores we can see, standing right here. Three? Four? More and more, when I go to a party, people just want to talk about what phone they have. It goes against everything Mujica talks about, but he has been powerless to do anything about it. It's a paradox: Under Mujica our society has become much more consumerist than it was before. … It wasn't supposed to be like this."

Other Uruguayans I spoke with said the same thing. "I wouldn't say anybody here has been inspired by Mujica to live a simpler life," Daniel Weiss, an architect, told me—happily for him, since his business is to design luxury condo complexes.

More than a century ago, Uruguay was ruled by another president determined to change the country's course. But José Batlle y Ordóñez—popularly known as Batlle, pronounced "BAH-zhay"—fared better. Before he came to power, Uruguay was cowboy territory, a thinly populated no-man's land between Brazil and Argentina patrolled by pseudo-warlords called caudillos who waged bloody turf battles. (The fighting eradicated nearly the entire indigenous population, so that modern Uruguayans are overwhelmingly white, descended from Spaniards or Italians.) A stout, feathery-mustached idealist and the scion of a political family, Batlle spent time as a young man working as a journalist in left-wing Paris. He returned to Latin America fired by ideas of liberté, égalité, and fraternité. When he was elected president in 1903, Uruguay still had an underdeveloped central state. An ambitious leader had free rein to reinvent the country nearly from scratch.

Within a few years, Batlle had built perhaps the most perfectly rendered socialist society the world has ever seen. He taxed big landowners to boost worker's pensions and championed unions. He made health care a universal right and university education free; the country's literacy rate soared to 95 percent.

"His idea," Gerardo Caetano, Uruguay's foremost historian of the Batlle era, explained to me, was that "you can't have liberty without equality." There is no psychic liberty, in other words, for the poor unless they can imagine themselves equal to the privileged. One of the many new laws Batlle implemented to correct perceived social imbalances gave women greater rights to request divorces than their husbands. The logic was that "men are more powerful," Caetano said, "so to treat men and women equally would result in an outcome that still favored men."

Much as American character is still subconsciously shaped by Abraham Lincoln, who imprinted on our national psyche the notion that sacrifice leads inevitably to glory, so is Uruguayan character shaped by Batlle. When I met a prominent Uruguayan economist, Gabriel Oddone, in his downtown Montevideo office, he apologized before we took our seats in leather-backed chairs for the furnishings being too nice: that's Batlle's influence, the reluctance to show off any possessions that might elevate you above your brethren. Caetano, the historian, had decorated his own austere workspace with a single photograph of a union march. Batlle's Uruguayans made money, thanks to the world's demand for their exports of meat and wool. But the national self- conception always emphasized honoring the working class and valuing the nonmaterial.

Rabuffetti and I left the shopping center and headed toward our next stop, a slum on the city's northwest side. Visiting writers have noted that Montevideo's ghettos are not as dismal as the favelas of Brazil, but in the waning late afternoon light, Nuevo Paris looked morose enough. Crumbling houses gave way to cinder-block shacks with black garbage bags for curtains. As the sun receded, it lit up the structures' aluminum roofs and cast the mud paths between them into deep shadow, giving the place the look of a landscape ravaged by a volcano, spots of fire in a lake of black.

The drive made Rabuffetti visibly angry. His knuckles blanched around the car's steering wheel. It wasn't just that Mujica had not managed to curb Uruguay's accelerating consumerism. Worse, he said, Mujica also had done little to alleviate inequality in concrete ways.

"He's always saying he's a fighter, he's a fighter," lamented Rabuffetti. "So his failure here is something that's very hard to understand—and hard to forgive."

The clues to both Mujica's wild appeal and the disappointments of his actual leadership lie in his biography. Seven years after Batlle passed away in 1929, Pepe—Mujica's lifelong nickname—was born to a poor second-generation family descended from Basque and Ligurian immigrants. His father, a washout in business, died bankrupt when Mujica was eight. Little Pepe had to go to work in a bakery and sell flowers to support the family. Swashbuckling local left-wing politicos became his new father figures. Some anarcho-syndicalists working in a butchery near Mujica's house were so bold that they held up their employer's delivery trucks, seized the meat, and distributed it to the poor.

Mujica was wowed. Not only did his radical neighbors fill a void left by his ruined father, but their Robin Hood deeds also appealed to his tender personality. Acquaintances told Walter Pernas, one of Mujica's biographers, that when he was a small boy, he once insisted on offering "all his toys to the neighbors."

In the late '50s, as Mujica was finding his direction, Batlle's socialist paradise was beginning to fracture. With the Second World War and the Korean War over, the global demand for Uruguay's agricultural exports crashed. Massive inflation set in. Buoyed by "power to the people" movements around the world, students took to the streets to protest the plight of suffering farm workers. The government cracked down in response, triggering yet more student uprisings. Step by step, even the most unified nations can go to war with themselves. By the mid-'60s, Uruguay—once called the "Switzerland of South America," a country so pacifist it used its few soldiers to pick up litter on beaches—sank back into the bloodshed it thought it had left behind.

The guerrillas came first. They called themselves the Tupamaros, after a Peruvian indigenous rebel named Tupac Amaru II. Mujica, now in his twenties and rapidly rising in Uruguay's left-wing political world, joined their crusade. The goal was to humiliate the government by disrupting Uruguayan life. Tupamaro antics could be comic—the group once spray painted "everybody dances or nobody dances" on a nightclub wall. But they could also be violent. The guerrillas bombed a Bayer plant in 1965 and held and tortured hostages in a makeshift jail euphemistically christened the "People's Prison." The Tupamaros' reputation among the Uruguayan populace was similarly split. Some people—like the residents of a small city called Pando, which the rebels invaded to rob banks while disguised as members of a funeral cortège—feared and loathed them. Others saw them as heroes, much as Mujica had judged the anarchists growing up.

With his lanky physique and expressive black eyebrows, Mujica came to represent Tupamaros' romantic side. Shot six times by the police in a bar, he was thrown into prison and broke out twice—once by convincing a schizophrenic inmate kept near a potential tunnel site that he was an alien god come to burrow to the underworld.

In the end, though, the Tupamaros helped bring about a right-wing order far more hellish than the one they had protested. Purportedly to preserve order, President Juan María Bordaberry in 1973 instituted a military dictatorship and locked up the rebels for good. Over the following decade, the country had the highest per capita political incarceration rate in the world. One in every 500 Uruguayans spent extended time in prison, and one in every 50 endured police interrogation, often accompanied by torture. Prison warders did subtly sadistic things like screen the first 89 minutes of a soccer game and then cut off the feed before the final whistle.

During their twelve-year imprisonment, the Tupamaros' leaders, a group called The Nine, worried that the experience was leaving Mujica permanently damaged. He howled at noises that weren't there and obsessed over procuring a tiny portable toilet for his cell. But after the dictatorship's end in 1985, Mujica emerged as the most eloquent among them, the Tupamaros' resident sage. As the group readjusted to freedom, most of its members wanted to avoid returning to guerrilla warfare, though what course to pursue instead was unclear—right-wingers still maintained control over much of the government. Mujica argued for an entry into traditional party politics and staged public forums known as mateadas, confabs held in village squares over calabash gourds full of strong mate tea. He'd retained his childhood egalitarian passions, but prison had made him more philosophical and deepened his rough-hewn physical allure. He rapidly developed a following among poorer workers, and in the mid-'90s entered parliament. Then, in 2005, he received an appointment as agriculture minister.

It was in that post that Mujica won national acclaim, speaking in almost biblical terms about how government policies affected the common man. For post-dictatorship Uruguay, his language was healing, a triumphant return to the country's traditional values of humility and shared responsibility. Mujica's biggest fight as agriculture minister was to ensure poor Uruguayans' access to asado, the traditional dish of beef rib grilled over an open fire. Unable to afford the meat, the lower classes often ate less expensive cuts off the neck.

"Neck is unacceptable," Mujica told a reporter. When some butchers began selling more affordable asado, people lovingly nicknamed it the "asado del Pepe." A 2007 poll showed that he'd become far and away the country's most-liked government official, and he decided to run for president.

A Tupamaro in charge of the country? Prior to Pepe's rise, Uruguayans' enduring suspicion of the group might have made such an idea unthinkable. But Mujica had an almost irresistible charisma. Hearing Uruguayans describe it reminded me of the way a Republican friend once recounted the experience of sitting in a conference room with Bill Clinton: He'd thought he despised the man, but in his presence he couldn't stop staring. His heart thrilled in his chest; it felt like a physical enchantment.

"If [Mujica] stops speaking, everyone who's listening waits," Adolfo Garcé, an Uruguayan political scientist, told me. He had been among the Tupamaro skeptics. But at a 2008 political event, he was unable to tear his eyes away from Mujica, even while the other politicians spoke. "Even the times he is in silence, some profound expressions cross his face," Garcé remembered. "When he wants you to love, he knows how to do that."

Love, in his own telling, is Mujica's default setting. Thanks to his time in prison, he told an Economist interviewer last summer, "I do not hate. Do you know what a luxury it is not to hate?" As president, that has meant giving every member of his team a hearing and making them feel good about their ideas, to hurt nobody with his words. It has meant a refusal to make enemies, and a habit of yielding to outside parties who opposed his attempts at reform. Love for all men turned out to make for an ineffectual management style.

Mujica focused his 2010 inaugural speech on a call for a radical overhaul of Uruguay's schools. Public education has powerful symbolic value in the country. The nation's founders declared schooling a tool for "unity," and few parents historically sent their kids to private schools other than for religious reasons. Uruguay's public school system has also been effective: The country's literacy rates far outpaced Argentina's and Brazil's throughout the twentieth century. In the last decade, though, test scores have declined, and more and more Uruguayan families have begun choosing private schools.

Mujica pledged to fix that. "Like in school, every morning, our leaders in government must be forced to write, 'I will busy myself improving education,' a hundred times," he said. "Because everything we draw from society comes out of the well of education."

He never got very far past the writing. First, Mujica floated an upgrade to Uruguay's technical university system, to expand opportunities for poor teenagers who couldn't pursue an academic program after high school. As a leader reared on the fundamental right to earn a basic living, the proposal was incredibly important for Mujica. But enacting it required passing laws through the notoriously fractious Uruguayan Congress, which is filled with heroes of the labor movement. And that, two education specialists told me, was more than Mujica and his schools minister—a distrusted, low-profile former Tupamaro— could manage. They drafted a proposal, only to withdraw it after encountering pushback from the teachers' union. Ultimately, Mujica did establish a single new technical college. It offers three degrees, two in "milk production."

A similar lack of political will and strategic savvy doomed another educational reform effort to give more autonomy to the principals of troubled schools to design their own curricula. More than 400 professors weighed in on the plan, but union opposition squashed it, too. Over the course of Mujica's term, the decline in test scores and the flight from public education continued apace.

The story was the same on other policy fronts. Mujica wanted Uruguay's public railway utility to operate under private-sector rules to boost efficiency; nothing happened. He tried to pass a new tax on the big landowners to help the poor, but failed to ensure that the legislation would be constitutional. The Uruguayan Supreme Court struck it down.

"If he had taken the opportunity to consult more specialists in law, he wouldn't have failed," said Garcé, the political scientist. "But Mujica isn't too worried about the legal aspects of things."

One morning over coffee, I spoke to a former Mujica staffer named Conrado Ramos. A budget wonk who looks like a sad Hugh Grant, he had been in charge of an effort to reform the Uruguayan public sector.

"Mujica said he would make it a priority," Ramos recalled. But that was part of the problem: Mujica's pan-enthusiasm placed everything, and consequently nothing, at the top of his agenda. From time to time, Pepe would wheel unannounced into Ramos's office and "get excited," unfurling beautiful language about the big changes needed. "But he doesn't know how to plan." Mujica appointed as Ramos's boss the disinterested son of a former Tupamaro and appeared to forget the issue. After several fruitless years, Ramos quit in frustration, embarrassing the administration.

Mujica did win some acclaim for the passage of laws legalizing abortion and regulating the sale of marijuana. But when I convened a dinner of artists and activists to talk about his presidency, they refused to give him credit even for those advances. Both bills had been in the works for years, they claimed; he had simply let them happen. I showed the group a Guardian article calling Mujica "the world's most radical president." They burst into contemptuous groans.

Last January, Bill de Blasio took over as mayor of New York City. The election was a landslide; the hopes invested in him near messianic. "When New York City Democrats head to the polls ... they will have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rewrite the narrative of their city ... Mayor de Blasio might have a real chance to begin stitching the city's tattered social contract back together," the Nation effused in its August 2013 endorsement. It didn't take long for the backlash to start: protests in the streets over Eric Garner, the police union snubbing and work slowdown. Around de Blasio, The New York Times concluded last month, hangs an "atmosphere of sullen insubordination."

It's a pattern: We keep creating saviors whom we expect to single- handedly restore lost values. Then we lash out at them when they inevitably fall short.

"I want a hero," Lord Byron begins "Don Juan," written in 1819. "An uncommon want / When every year and month sends forth a new one, / Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant, / The age discovers he is not the true one ..." So the cycle by which we erect and dismantle saviors isn't new. But it has been amplified, partly as a result of the increasingly complex nature of global society and power itself.

In his 2013 book The End of Power, the writer Moisés Naím catalogues the ways leaders of institutions—whether political, commercial, or cultural—have become increasingly circumscribed in the transformations they can effect. For Mujica to have realized anything like his radical vision of a society freed from want, respectful of nature, and liberated from greed and the isolating tedium of "air-conditioned offices," he would have needed not only to fix the country's public schools but to transform them into incubators for a new kind of citizenship that dramatically favors the collective over the self. That he came nowhere near that is partly his fault, but also owes to constraints that Batlle never faced when imposing his early twentieth-century makeover of Uruguay. Today, there's the global financial system, which demands that presidents attract corporate investment—driving materialism—so their countries remain economically stable. There are obstructionist legislatures. There are moneyed interest groups.

Over the phone, Naím and I spoke about a recent trip I took to Israel, where I'd been struck by how much conservatives' complaints about Benjamin Netanyahu—that he'd been unable to turn his country from a polity riven by fissures and self doubt into a united community confident of its moral purpose—echoed the Uruguayan progressives' language critiquing Mujica.

"It's very telling that in these two countries, with such a different history and geopolitical context, you have people in the streets saying things that are more or less interchangeable," Naím observed.

We are aware—sometimes directly, sometimes only vaguely—of the constraints leaders now face. Yet our response is to want more out of them, not less. We're searching for the one figure who can break the binds. We want someone simply different enough to plot a new direction for a world that often feels full of deadly momentum toward existential decay and harder to steer than the hurtling Titanic.

Because actual experience tends to reveal the limits of candidates' power, we're also drawn to heroes with less and less experience, blank slates onto which we can project our fantasies for change. When Mujica was elected president, he wasn't very tested as a politician. He'd gained fame as a parliamentarian partly for riding to the chambers on a workingman's scooter. His lack of experience was exactly his appeal—as it was for Obama and de Blasio, as it is for Elizabeth Warren. But the instant the election is over, these same leaders are judged according to different standards. Mujica ran for and won the Uruguayan presidency essentially as a persuasive bar philosopher. But when I asked Graciela Bianchi, a school-reform activist and former Mujica supporter turned critic and opposition parliamentarian, what had led her to turn against him, she sniffed, "He's a bar philosopher."

In fact, there is a politician in Uruguay who accomplished some of the kinds of goals people hoped Mujica could tackle. His name is Tabaré Vazquez. An oncologist, he preceded Mujica as president and will succeed him again come March. In 2005, he inaugurated the first left-wing government since the country's dictatorship and took great strides toward restoring the Uruguayan social safety net, rebooting Batlle's national health care system, expanding welfare, and making Uruguay the first nation in the world to fully implement the One Laptop Per Child program.

He managed these successes thanks to a political persona as authoritarian and charmless as Mujica's was gaily anarchic and alluring. With a ruff of silver hair, Basset Hound eyes, and a smile just on the wrong side of lascivious, Vazquez exudes the unsettling aura of a Mr. Rogers impersonator who performs in porn. He rarely consults others on political decisions and projects arrogance in his certitude. Faced with the same constraints all modern presidents face with their power, he just goes around them. When Vazquez decided to ban smoking in public buildings—"something that was really important for him as an oncologist," Rabuffetti, the journalist, said—he didn't involve Congress at first. Instead he used Uruguay's version of an executive order. The unilateral move prompted a flurry of outrage about personal liberties, and the Uruguayan legislature could have subsequently overturned it. But ultimately, the policy established a new status quo that its opponents decided they didn't want to waste time and political capital to fight.

The Uruguayans I spoke to admired Vazquez's efficacy—hence the second term they just extended him. But they are not entirely satisfied. His biographer called him "distant and silent." Two people who've worked with Vazquez used the same word when I asked them about him: "Asshole." He gets things done, but he does not stir the soul.

So is the lesson of Mujica that we should suppress our attraction to charmers and truth-tellers and more rationally choose as our captains tough managers and bloodless wonks? On the third-to-last day of my trip, I went to a place in Uruguay that suggests the answer is not so simple. It was the barrio I drove around in with Rabuffetti, and this time, I didn't just pass through. Instead, I followed a gravel path off the main road as it turned to dirt, then mud. It led past some of the most derelict houses I'd ever seen, one made of old "for sale" signs. Rheumy-eyed cats padded listlessly through runnels of sewage. At the end of a hopscotch course of puddles sat a little shack owned by a woman named Pilar Almirón.

I'd met Almirón's 14-year-old son at a struggling public school I'd visited a few days earlier. He and his principal wanted to take me home so his mother could explain Mujica from her neighborhood's point of view.

"Of course he understands us better," Almirón said, blinking perplexedly, as if my question itself—whether Mujica had been good for the poor—was not even worth asking. She'd received me in a dark but startlingly pretty anteroom in the shack she'd built, its floorboards mere planks over the slum's oft-liquid earth. Eagerly, she showed me paintings she'd done on the shack's walls—stylized fairy images reminiscent of Tinkerbell—and the new wardrobe and table in her bedroom. The wardrobe she'd recently been given through a work-for-housing program sponsored by Mujica's government. The table she'd subsequently made on her own.

She gave Mujica credit for both interventions: Living in elective poverty himself, he appreciates the importance of something seemingly as simple as a clean place to keep one's clothes. "Nobody knows how hard you work," he told a group of poor Uruguayans in September. "Poverty is not in the pocket. It's in the mind. You can be poor in the pocket but still have your honor." Mujica's mission, in such remarks, was to protect the self-worth that even Uruguay's least well-off have treasured for a century in Uruguay, so easily assaulted by the infiltrating billboards and their message that only those who can afford that new phone or that new car have value at all. "He believes everyone has the right to a home with dignity," Almirón said.

Once, Mujica had come to visit the neighborhood and seen Almirón's shack. He'd asked her a question that had stuck with her ever since, affecting how she thought of herself and her five boys and girls: "Does every child of yours have a mattress of his own?" Almirón had never considered this. She works at a slaughterhouse and has barely enough to get by. But, she explained, "Mujica thinks every kid has the right to privacy with his own fantasies." She had started saving for those beds.

The policymakers and opinion-setters I'd spoken to had been so spittingly certain that Mujica's presidency had failed Uruguay's poor. The poor (and four teachers I spoke with who work with them directly) believe the opposite. I spent a couple of days touring lower-income schools and neighborhoods, and the view of Mujica I encountered was as different as the view of a city from street level versus looking down from atop a skyscraper: Everyone, without exception, believed Mujica had improved their lives. Seeing a man who looked like them and lived like them—who even invited them to barbecues at his commune—occupying the land's highest office had made them feel human again. By noticing them, by speaking to them rather than about them, Mujica had reincarnated them. "We are poor people," Almirón told me with a note of defiance, "but we are people at the end of the day."

One of the weightiest responsibilities a president holds is the ability to characterize, by speech and example, his society and the meaning of the lives that are in his charge. We acknowledge this when we feel that it mattered that George W. Bush failed to visit New Orleans for two weeks after Hurricane Katrina. That it mattered when Obama said the seven little words "Trayvon Martin … could have been my son," just as it mattered that he then failed to speak as powerfully post-Ferguson. One of the activists I invited to dinner in Montevideo was a 60-year-old lesbian community organizer. Even as she complained about Mujica's sloppy management and policy failures, she added that Uruguayan society did somehow feel different under Mujica's tenure. She seemed a bit sheepish admitting it: It was unquantifiable. But Mujica's habit of talking about every person's fundamental humanity and his willingness to "say absurd things" had made her feel she no longer had to be "politically correct." Another gay activist piped up that while his avant-garde hairdo might have led him, in the past, to be wary of bicycling along the Rio de la Plata—Uruguayans' traditional respect for people of different economic stations has not always extended to people with different lifestyles—he now rode freely, and noticed more gay men he knew cycling it, too. "Mujica's legacy, if it exists," Caetano, the historian, told me, "is simply empathy."

There's something wrong with the way we respond to figures like Mujica. We place our faith in them—fall in love with them—for what they say and the incorporeal impact they have on our national consciousness. But then, not only do we judge their performance on entirely different metrics, we also stop listening to them. Inspirational leaders issue a call to us, not a promise for us. They invite us to see ourselves differently, to open ourselves to a new way of being. If, after casting our ballots, we don't buy books instead of new cell phones, don't use less gas, don't do more to stitch back together the social fabric of our own neighborhoods—if, rather than answer the call, we retreat safely back to our old cynicism—then whose fault is that?

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues