He lives in a farmhouse on the edge of town. He raises chrysanthemums with his wife. He donates 90 percent of his salary to programs that expand housing for the poor and support small businesses. His name is Jose Mujica and he is the president of Uruguay. Mujica has been called the poorest president in the world, but his is a conscious choice to live on approximately the national wage. In his words: “I don’t feel poor. Poor people are those who only work to try to keep an expensive lifestyle, and always want more and more.” Sound familiar?
Mujica has openly spoken out against the Western ideal of limitless growth. He argues that hyper-consumption is the leading threat against our planet, and that growth does not need to be achieved with consumption. Mujica’s ascetic lifestyle surely has its roots in his 14 years of prison, most of which were spent in solitary confinement. He fought with the Tupamaros, a violent guerilla group active in the 1960s and 70s, and was captured in 1972.
Since his election in 2009, Mujica has spurned the trappings that generally come with the office of President, residing in his wife’s modest home, selling off a seaside presidential residence (using the profits to fund agricultural education for youth), and driving an old Volkswagon. He has also promoted liberal social policies, such as signing a bill that waives criminal penalties for first trimester abortions. Part of a continent that traditionally has extremely restrictive abortion laws, Uruguay is paving a road for women’s rights. Mujica has also vocalized support for the legalization of marijuana, to the detriment of his polling popularity.
Uruguay is also actively recruiting renewable energy sources. Investment in wind energy, in particular, has been steadily increasing, and there are plans for 21 new wind farms that will supply 30 percent of the country’s electricity supply. In an attempt to offer low-cost power generation, Mujica plans on signing a decree requiring the national power utility to purchase 200 megawatts (accounting for approximately 2 percent of Uruguay’s total energy) of solar-generated power at $90 per megawatt hour, the world’s cheapest rate.
Beyond a liberal social agenda and progressive energy policies, Mujica has also led the small nation towards economic prosperity, maintaining positive growth rates even in face of the global financial crisis. Much of this growth comes in the form of increased public expenditure—which in the long term is more sustainable, for example, as people use the effective public transportation system instead of regularly buying new cars. Of course, Uruguay’s economic growth may be counter to Mujica’s personal philosophy of austerity, and it remains to be seen if his philosophy can trump the global consumer culture fueled by billions of dollars of advertising. Perhaps not, but at least we have a model on how a president should live. As President Mujica says, “If you don’t have many possessions then you don’t need to work all your life like a slave to sustain them, and therefore you have more time for yourself.” His perspective offers an entirely new model for defining global poverty.