“Gracias, Pepe,” blare the billboards plastered all over the Latin American country of Uruguay this month. (“Salamat, Peping” would be the Filipino translation of that message.)
Thanks poured on the man often dubbed “the world’s poorest president: Jose ‘Pepe’ Mujica,” wrote BBC’s Rio de Janeiro correspondent Wyre Davies.
Married to Lucia Topolansky, his former corevolutionary, Mujica and his wife live in her ramshackle farmhouse. They work the land themselves, growing flowers. He thumbed down the luxury of the presidential palace.
Pepe gives away 90 percent of his salary to the poor. That’s $12,000 (or roughly 528 in Philippine pesos) to charity. “I have no need for it,” he shrugs.
His donations—which benefit poor people and small entrepreneurs—trim his salary down to that of the average Uruguayan.
“But I don’t feel poor. Poor people are those who always want more to keep an expensive lifestyle,” Pepe gripes to Vladimir Hernandez of BBC Mundo in Montevideo.
“Laundry is strung outside the house. The water comes from a well in a yard overgrown with weeds. Only two police officers and Manuela, a three-legged dog, keep watch outside.”
Few politicians the world over come anywhere close to Mujica’s austere lifestyle. Certainly, not Philippine Vice President Jejomar Binay and his family, with their luxurious Makati penthouse, farms, etc.
Binay is neck-deep in unanswered allegations that he enriched himself in office. Up to now, he scrams at the prospect of appearing before the Senate subcommittee looking into allegations that structures were built at an overprice when he was mayor of Makati City.
As early as 1988, Newsbreak magazine said Binay’s declared family net worth was P2.53 million—then.
By 2008 it had ballooned to P44 million (HK$7.37 million) in declared assets and an estimated P80 million in undeclared land holdings. His earnings as mayor totaled about P5 million. And today?
Binay slices through traffic in an official limousine with a convoy of guards. Mujica tools around in a battered Volkswagen Beetle, sans bodyguards. His Beetle is probably the most famous car in the world today.
The then mint-new Pope Francis sidelined Vatican limousines. Instead, he rides around in a modest car. He took a quick look at the sprawling papal apartments in the Vatican and snorted: “I don’t need all this space.” Instead, he lodged in a spare two-room hostel. Often he queues up in the cafeteria and pays for his meals. He works in a simple office.
Elected president in 2009, Mujica spent the 1960s and 1970s as a guerrilla in Uruguay. He was shot six times and spent 14 years in jail. He was freed in 1985, when Uruguay returned to democracy.
Mujica recalls two years sleeping in an old horse trough. “The day they put me on a sofa I felt comfortable!” he jokes. “I wasn’t even allowed to read a a book for seven, eight years.”
He is perplexed by those who question his lifestyle. “All I do is live like the majority of my people, not the minority.”
Uruguay is often referred to as the most liberal country in South America, as economic and political turmoil threatens to engulf the neighboring giants of Brazil and Argentina. “But, this country of just three million people certainly feels like a refuge.”
Mujica leaves office with a relatively healthy economy and a social stability that its bigger neighbors can only envy.
In addressing the Rio+20 summit, he asked: What would happen to this planet if Indians would have the same proportion of cars per household than Germans? … Can we have the same level of consumption and waste that today is seen in rich societies?
Mujica could have followed his predecessors into a grand official residence. But however large the gulf between the vegetarian Mujica and these other leaders, he is no more immune than they are to the ups and downs of political life.
“Many sympathize with Mujica because of how he lives. But this does not stop him for being criticized for how the government is doing,” says Uruguayan pollster Ignacio Zuasnabar.
The opposition says Uruguay’s recent economic prosperity has not resulted in better public services in health and education.
But Mujica doesn’t have to worry too much. He is not allowed to seek reelection.
When he steps down, as he has, he will be eligible for a state pension—and unlike some other former presidents, he may not find the drop in income too hard to get used to.
Juan L. Mercado was a communication officer for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Bangkok. Thereafter, he was posted in FAO headquarters in Rome, Italy, as attaché de cabinet. He wrote for the Inquirer as a regular columnist from February 2004 until December 2014.
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