A year ago, I made a reference to José Mujica, President of Uruguay — a man described as the world’s poorest president; a man, jailed for 14 years in the 1970s as a revolutionary; a man known world-wide as the humble leader of his people. Elected to the country’s highest office in 2010, he refused to move into the presidential palace and continued to live in his one-bedroom farmhouse while the official residence was converted into a shelter for the homeless. (Blog 3/4/14.) As Mujica ends his term this March, the pundits are looking back on his tenure and asking the question, “Was he a good President?” Not surprising, the answer depends upon whom you ask.
To some people, those living in the cities and who count themselves among the upper and middle class, the answer is, ”No.” He failed to implement promised educational reforms or to improve the economy. He did manage to pass laws legalizing abortion and regulating the sale of marijuana, but he was unable to turn his people away from the creeping materialism he abhorred. (“The Too Good To Be True (But Still Pretty great!) President,” by Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic, 2/15 pgs. 30-39.) What he did do, with stirring rhetoric and an impeachable lifestyle, was lift the spirits of the poor. He gave them hope and would have done more if he hadn’t found himself blocked by vested interest which he refused to combat by dictatorial means, as did his predecessor – a man, whom many agree was a better manager and got results.
Like Martin Luther King Jr., José Mujica had a dream. He believed humility and a life lived ethically could serve as an example to his country. But, he failed to anticipate the forces that would work against him, not only within his country but from without. Leaders today live in a global economy. They must confront international challenges which include working with foreign trading partners and dealing with worldwide political events as they struggle to keep their economies stable. Obstructionist legislatures, corporate investors and landed interests are, as journalist Eve Fairbanks suggests, too great in numbers for a single leader to oppose successfully. (Ibid pg. 37.) So many voices shout from the marketplace, she wonders if the voice of dreamers can be heard. And without ears to listen, who can lead?
One historian has already identified Mujica’s legacy as one of simple empathy. (Ibid 39.) A leader could be branded with a worse label. But how is empathy to overcome international competition, greed and growing materialism? If I recall history correctly, saints were burned at the stake, weren’t they?