The World’s ‘Poorest’ President May also be the Richest: Meet José Mujica
For some time now, I have longed to see an example of someone in a position of monetary privilege who doesn’t live a lifestyle to match. Show me a multi-million dollar lottery winner who continues to live in a modest house, or an uber-wealthy businessperson who lives a middle-class lifestyle, I thought.
The best example I could come up with was billionaire Warren Buffet, who still lives in a house he bought in the 1950s for $31,500. But then I found out he also owns a multimillion dollar home in Laguna Beach, and owned another there that he has since sold. Not exactly what I had in mind.
But apparently I’ve been in the dark for a few years now. I just learned that a bona-fide example of someone who exemplifies what I’ve been seeking – Uruguay’s president, José Mujica – was elected in a landslide victory in the 2009 election, taking office in 2010.
Mujica’s Definition of Poor: Always Craving More
Mujica, who earns the equivalent of US $12,000/month, shunned the Presidential Mansion to continue to live in his modest house on a dirt road in a rural area outside Montevideo. He chooses to have a simple lifestyle, he says, so he has time to live how he wants to live.
More impressive is the fact that he donates around 90% of his monthly salary to causes that benefit the poor, and small scale entrepreneurs. This brings the amount he lives on, approximately $800/month, to that of the average Uruguayan’s. While that may be modest, he doesn’t feel poor. Mujica believes it’s not what one has, but having an endless craving more, that makes one poor.
Not Acting Presidential Enough in Some Eyes, but an Inspiration to Others
Mujica’s past gives clues to why he chooses to live how he does in the present. He is a former leader of a leftist guerilla group, Tupamaros, that used (admittedly violent) Robin Hood-like strategies on behalf of the poor. His activities with the Tupamaros landed him in prison for 14 years, where he says he spent much time in solitary confinement.
While his days of violence are in the past, his leftist leanings live on, and are clearly reflected in the policies he supports today, including same-sex marriage, abortion rights, renewable energy, and (to the chagrin of many Uruguayans) legalization of marijuana.
Not surprisingly, Mujica has his critics, including those who feel he doesn’t “act presidential.” But, as one Uruguayan acknowledges, Mujica is someone the common people can identify with. And I can’t help feel he is demonstrating the best type of leadership of all: living through example, with choices that reflect an understanding that a simpler life is better for the Earth, for the larger human community, and doesn’t have to equal a sense of deprivation.