South America’s unsung political hero - Monocolumn | Monocle


A daily bulletin of news & opinion

9 August 2012

Contrary to popular belief, the best leader in the world is not Barack Obama. Sorry to break it to the Germans but it’s not Angela Merkel either. François Hollande? Not a chance. The greatest head of state these days is José Mujica, Uruguay’s president.

Better known by his nickname “Pepe”, the Uruguayan is responsible for putting his small nation of only 3.2 million inhabitants on the international map. Since he took office in 2010, journalists and locals have been raving about his forward-thinking policies, like his most recent proposal in which he announced the government will legalise and control the sale of marijuana. It’s a measure to fight the cartels that are now becoming a widespread problem in a country not used to dealing with drug wars.

As progressive as his ideas may sound, Mujica is not just another leftist character in Latin America’s political scene. He’s the personification of what true socialism should be, far from Chavez’s populist speeches and Kirchner’s demagoguery. He was a member of the Tupamaros, a leftist armed group that opposed Uruguay’s dictatorship during the 1970s (Mujica was in prison when the military junta was toppled in 1973). After a democratic transition, Mujica was named the official candidate for the Frente Amplio in 2009 and was elected president with 52 per cent of the votes, the first former guerrilla member to reach that position.

When he assumed his new role, Uruguayans knew that politics weren’t going to be the same. Mujica swore to take his country to new heights, while living a modest and exemplary life; his house is a farm in the outskirts of Montevideo, he drives a 1987 Volkswagen Beetle and donates almost 90 per cent of his salary to charity, earning him the nickname of the world’s poorest president. “There are many Uruguayans that live with much less,” he said in an interview with El Mundo newspaper. But his unpretentious lifestyle hasn’t slowed him from signing noteworthy international trade deals (25 per cent of Uruguay’s foreign trade comes from meat exports to 100 countries).

He’s also stimulated regional ties. At the latest Mercosur meetings Mujica invited Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador to join the union to strengthen the political and economic block. His latest meeting with Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff resulted in the signing of several bilateral-agreements that include the free circulation of goods, services and people between both countries. Mujica’s growth numbers have earned him international accolades; Moody’s recently elevated Uruguay’s investment rating soon after Standard & Poor’s raised the country’s grades, quoting its positive economic prospects.

Mujica is the new face of South America’s left wing, invigorating the movement with a hard-working government that puts people before egos, turning revolutionary ideas into pragmatic actions that lead to positive results. In a summit held in 2010 in Punta del Este, Mujica invited foreigners to invest in his country. “We need businesses to prosper in our nation, companies that pay taxes and generate wealth,” he said. “Otherwise we’ll be left with just the dreams.”

Two years into his government with constant economic growth figures at around 6 per cent, it seems that Pepe’s dreams are coming true.


sign in to monocle

new to monocle?

Subscriptions start from £120.

Subscribe now





Monocle Radio


  • The Menu