José Mujica: The “World’s Poorest President” Set to Safeguard His Legacy of Change

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COLONIA DEL SACRAMENTO, Uruguay — Colonia del Sacramento underwent turbulent change in its early history. A strategic port founded by conquistadors at the mouth of the world’s widest river, the Rio de la Plata, Colonia was for long the key to unlocking the vast riches of the South American interior. A prized, fortified settlement, it was so coveted Spain and Portugal crossed swords over it seven times between 1680 and 1778.

Colonia is quieter these days, a sleepy riverside town that conserves the stone ruins of its forts, plazas and Spanish monasteries. It has white beaches and cobbled streets that are lined with brightly painted colonial houses, a few of which have been converted into boutique hotels for honeymooning couples. Uruguayan history has been mostly a somnolent affair, interrupted only occasionally by the dreaded violence of military juntas.

But the shifting sands of change are once again evidenced here. On one cobbled lane, two street-vendors share a cannabis joint whilst seated at a pavement curb. In the week their nation’s leader, the lionized José Mujica, steps down from power, the blue, white and red flag of his ruling Broad Front coalition flies high above Colonia’s terracotta rooftops. The charismatic, 79-year-old former guerrilla fighter has done much to bring lasting reform to Uruguay since assuming power in 2010.

A local street vendor, Guille Silveira, sits smoking on a broken bench in front of Colonia’s old prefecture building. It is a handsome, abandoned pile dating from the late 19th century. Its white stucco facade is crumbling and its large, arched doorway locked tight by a metal chain that is tied in an elegant bow. A row of fancy, wrought-iron balconies – there are a dozen or so – decorate its first floor, but they are badly rusting. The building’s windows are smashed. A lip of pavement in front of the building sprouts moss from its cracks. It is a picture of decline. But like many Uruguayans, 29 year-old Silveira talks only of change.

“Take the public hospital here in Colonia,” Silveira says “It was a disaster before Mujica. It was filthy dirty and there was only doctor per shift, who had to attend to everybody.”

He raises his shirt to reveal a jagged scar marking his abdomen. “I had appendicitis and the doctor sent me home after diagnosing gastroenteritis. Two days later my appendix burst. Imagine! Now there are four or five doctors on each shift and the hospitals are clean.”

In a decade of Broad Front rule, fronted first by former president Tabaré Vázquez, between 2005 and 2010, then by Mujica, Uruguay’s public sector has enjoyed greater investment than ever before. Workers’ rights are now strengthened, the role of the state enforced, and the poverty rate slashed from around 40 percent to 11 percent. It is the Broad Front’s stated aim to banish Uruguay, a small nation of some 3.5 million people, of all indigence.

But it is the ground-breaking drug law introduced by Mujica that won global attention. Under their septuagenarian president, Uruguay became the world’s first country to fully legalize the government-controlled production, distribution and sale of cannabis: a lightning-bolt reform that transformed Uruguay into a laboratory for progressive action on the illicit drugs trade and a championed alternative to the discredited punitive model employed by many other governments.

Approved in 2014 by Uruguay’s national parliament, the new laws aim to stem the flood of illegal drugs that mostly flow into Uruguay from neighboring Paraguay. Full implementation still awaits, but when underway it will see the state largely exercise a monopoly on the production, distribution and sale of cannabis. Independent sales of marijuana remain illegal, but growing the plant for personal use is permitted.

New state-administered cannabis plantations seeded on the fertile plains on the outskirts of Montevideo will soon be harvested and their psychoactive crop distributed at a network of pharmacies criss-crossing the country. Uruguayan citizens over 18 years old and legal foreign residents, but not tourists, will be able to register at a state agency and permitted to buy up to 40 grams of cannabis per month at participating pharmacies.

As an alternative to the pharmacy visit, Uruguayans are already permitted to cultivate their own cannabis plants – the law permits up to six plants per individual – for personal use, or join a cannabis club of up to 45 members. Over 500 cannabis clubs, according to Uruguay’s national association for cannabis studies (AECU in Spanish), have opened in Uruguay in the last twelve months.

Mujica has bristled at fears the new laws will transform Uruguay into a soft-drugs utopia. The new legislation, he says, will deprive criminal gangs of drug profits and free up overstretched police resources.

But in sleepy Colonia, amidst stone ruins and cobbled, riverside lanes, where viceroys once strolled and contrabandists operated, ordinary Uruguayans openly smoke the stuff.

Seated on a bench fronting the river, Silveira concurs with his country’s leader.

“We’ve always smoked dope in Uruguay. It’s just that it’s legal now. We don’t know how this will work out, but I think it’s a good thing.

“I got into smoking marijuana when I was a kid and it was dangerous. To get the marijuana you had to enter one of the slums, and the gangs there would offer you all kinds of stuff, including crack cocaine.

“I mean, nobody is going to rob you at a pharmacy. You can go there to buy marijuana just as you go to a supermarket to buy a kilo of rice.

“It’s a good thing in the way it will regulate the quality of what people smoke. What comes into Uruguay now comes in from Paraguay. It’s bad quality, just 30 percent flower, the rest is branches, leaves and whatever other rubbish they mix in with it.

“I’m growing my own marijuana at home and in terms of knowing what you are smoking this works. I smoke 100 percent flower. I take it off the plant, I put in the microwave and I am good to roll.

“But it’s pretty generous and that maybe works against the law. I mean, 40 grams easily lasts me a month.”

He pulls out a cannabis joint from a packet of cigarettes. “I’ve been smoking this since last night. I mean, 40 grams is a lot of dope for one month.”

Up a cobbled hillside from where Silveira is seated, a green plaza rings Colonia’s whitewashed church. The white paint on the church’s exterior is pealing but the twin belfries either side of its wooden door continue to toll. The church’s Baroque interior conserves religious art shipped from Spain and Portugal in colonial times. One ornate piece, painted by an unnamed Jesuit missionary, depicts the Archangel Gabriel in heroic pose, armor-suited and brandishing a sword of flashing fire. In 1735 and in the face of renewed aggression from Portugal, the Spanish had declared the archangel to be Colonia’s Great Protector.

A deep vein of Conservative, Roman-Catholic values runs through Uruguay. Until the leftist Broad Front coalition won power and rattled the markets in 2005, rule in Uruguay had alternated for more than a century between the conservative National and Colarado parties, interrupted occasionally by military juntas. Legislation pushed through by the Broad Front has challenged established values, and found resonance with cross-sections of Uruguayan society who thirst for social and political change.

Since 2010, Uruguay has become the second country in Latin America, after communist Cuba, to fully legalize abortion for pregnancies of up to 12 weeks. In 2013, Uruguay’s congress legalized gay marriage. In line with its progressive human-rights platform, Uruguay last December accepted the transfer of six detainees from the U.S. prison camp at Guantánamo Bay. Following treatment at a Montevideo hospital, they are settling into life in Uruguay, taking classes in the Spanish language.

Mujica has also signaled his desire for Uruguay to provide safe haven to refugees fleeing conflict-torn Syria, a desire met with stiff resistance from his nation’s parliament. He repealed amnesty laws in Uruguay that protected military officers from prosecution for the bloody human rights abuses committed during the country’s last dictatorship of the 1970s, only to see Uruguay’s Supreme Court uphold the original amnesty. Mujica has said he will not challenge the ruling.

Uruguay’s outgoing president has also done much to protect farm workers from exploitation by wealthy landowners. In 2012, he signed a decree regulating the rights of rural employees on issues including a minimum wage, a maximum working week, healthcare and the right to unionize. According to official statistics, rural-worker income has gone up by 40 percent in the last eight years.

“Farm workers now work the same shifts as city workers, that’s eight hours per day,” says Silveira. “And the farm owners now have to provide medical care for their workers and the workers’ families. This never existed before Mujica. Before him, farm workers worked 16 hour days and, basically, they were the property of the farm owner. There was no minimum wage and zero health coverage.”

Yet many of Mujica’s reforms have sparked opposition amongst ordinary Uruguayans.
Standing outside a local school, Clarys and Ruben, a retired couple in their sixties, express their disquiet. “Mujica is a good farmer, but he’s done nothing for us except raise our taxes” says Clarys.

“He is viewed as this saint by the outside world, but he’s another person here. He’s turned Uruguay into a laboratory for drug use. How this will work, I don’t know. What if someone steals my ID and registers as a user under my name?” Many fears are unfounded. As part of efforts to protect cannabis users’ privacy, Uruguayans who opt to purchase the drug from pharmacies will be required to provide fingerprint identification only.

Painted salmon-pink, the school building dates from the colonial era and is named for José Artigas, the gaucho warrior who led Uruguay’s liberation from Spanish rule in the early 1800s. There, José Nicolás, a retired brick-maker, says: “We’re banned from smoking tobacco in public places, but they can now grow marijuana plants on their windowsill. It’s not right.”

On the hilly cobblestoned street by the riverside, Silveira points to the rusting balconies and smashed windows of the dilapidated prefecture, opposite. Little boats bob up and down at a nearby harbor. An adjacent café entertains a couple of German tourists. “The druggies and drunks go in there and they smash everything to pieces.”

Silveira says the emboldened welfare state introduced by Mujica on the back of progressive tax reform has led to welfare dependency and a spike in violent crime. He points his finger to a corner of a street two blocks up the cobbled hillside, in the direction of a Spanish lighthouse that once gave early warning of aggressors and pirate ships and where, today, day-trippers from Buenos Aires, one hour away by boat, now climb the spiral stairs. A local branch of the state bank stands on the street corner.

“On the first Monday of every month, people queue around the block outside that bank. And you don’t see them going to buy food or nappies afterwards, either. As soon as the cheque is cashed they are off to buy drugs or load up with alcohol. It’s the one thing Mujica has done wrong. It’s been a big mistake.”

Mujica has pursued legislation that sometimes runs contrary to the popular will, whilst mostly declining to rule by decree, a tool bestowed on him by a national constitution that favors a strong executive arm. This week, he leaves office with approval ratings of 65 percent according to a recent Ipsos MORI poll.

Widely referred to as the “world’s poorest president,” Mujica won the respect of Uruguayans with his avuncular, folksy manner. He declined state privileges during his five years in office, refusing to reside at the luxurious presidential residence on the outskirts of Montevideo and opting instead to remain on the ramshackle family farm he shares with his wife, Lucía Topolansky. From there he commutes to work each morning to the center of Montevideo in a battered Volkswagen Beetle. Throughout his presidency he has donated 90 percent of his state salary to charities. In Colonia, many who did not vote for his Broad Front coalition say, nevertheless, they admire Mujica the man.

The man charged with deepening his legacy is his Broad Front ally, Tabaré Vázquez, who won the presidential election last November in a second-round runoff.

Vázquez, a 74-year-old oncologist, already served one term as president between 2005 and 2010, and campaigned this time on the question of continuity. It saw him returned to office on a rolling wave of popular support, garnering 54 percent of the vote.

Váquez will be sworn into office for a second time on March 1. But for many, following a leader considered to be unique in South American politics may be an impossible task.

Change comes neither easily nor readily in Uruguay. Away from the labyrinth of stone lanes that forms Colonia’s heart, a ribbon of white-sand beaches stretches for miles along the River Plate. A section of asphalted coastal road skirts the sands and, at its farthest end, accesses the ruins of Colonia’s old bullring.

The bullring is a magnificent sight. Built in the Moorish style in 1910 using reinforced concrete, it has a triumphant arch for an entrance and three tiers of grandstands lined with Arabian arches and columns. A local millionaire financed its construction as the showpiece of a luxury complex that, if all had gone to plan, would have seen Colonia transformed into a Monte Carlo of the south. His ambitious blueprint included the opening nearby of an Olympic-size swimming pool, a casino, a hotel and a race course. Only the hippodrome survives today. The others, like the derelict bullring are now glorious ruins, abandoned when Uruguay outlawed bullfighting in 1912, just two years after building work on the complex ended.

Yet there is a sense of permanency when it comes to the question of reform in Uruguay; the sensation of a mature, vibrant democracy that is ready for the tide of change it is now undergoing.

For Mujica, it has been nearly a lifetime in waiting. The radical president began his political path in the 1960s as a young guerrilla fighter with the Marxist Tupamaros. He was imprisoned by Uruguay’s military dictatorship for 14 years, and subjected to extended periods in isolation. On his release he embarked on a political career which saw him rise to the highest public office and usher in deep social and political change in Uruguay. He has achieved this whilst overseeing strong economic growth. According to World Bank figures, Uruguay’s economy has expanded at an average rate of six percent per year since 2010, bucking downward regional trends.

Vázquez, Uruguayans say, is different. “He is much less a man of the people. He is no Mujica, who is a worker like us, a simple, humble person,” says one Colonia resident of a leader who, throughout his first term in office, continued to attend patients at the private medical clinic he co-owns in Montevideo.

“Vázquez is an arrogant career politician,” says another. “He is like a military general. He will rule by decree, like he did on abortion.”

A devout Roman Catholic, Vázquez during his first term used a presidential decree to veto a parliamentary ruling on the legalization of abortion. He is on record as saying he will look again at Uruguay’s new drug laws. He may change the unpopular decision to permit the sale of cannabis via pharmacies, on the grounds it undermines the primary role of the pharmacy as a healthcare provider.

Yet it was Vázquez who in 2005 pioneered the change since deepened by Mujica. In his first term in office, Vázquez engineered the far-reaching tax reforms – he slashed indirect taxes and introduced a progressive model of income tax – that funded Uruguay’s new public services and aided wealth redistribution. It has sparked grumblings of discontent amongst middle-classes forced to shoulder the tax burden.

Whilst likely to look again at some of the less popular policies implemented by Mujica – some two thirds of Uruguayans oppose the cannabis laws – Váquez has said he will fight to continue the program of deep reform that has transformed the small South American nation into a global beacon for progressive, liberal rule.

Closing in on his ninth decade, Mujica is unlikely to stand for the presidency a second time. But he will remain in politics, pushing for change from a seat in Uruguay’s senate. He also plans to establish a rural-trades school for disadvantaged kids at his family farm. An Arab billionaire has made him a million-dollar offer to buy his VW Beetle, which Mujica has declined. If he ever sells, he says, the proceeds will go to charities.

The Spanish built a protective city wall, loaded with heavy cannon fire, to shield Colonia from attack. It still stands today, blackened by time and clawed by the muddy waves of the River Plate. It recalls battles past. But change is again afoot in Uruguay.

“Today, we are better protected by the state that at any time in my memory,” says Silveira, stubbing out a cigarette on his bench overlooking the river.

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