Interview. We spoke with the former Uruguayan president about equality, Marxist movements globally and his relationship with Pope Francis.

Pepe and the Pope

Stadiums cheering for the former president of Uruguay Pepe Mujica. We witnessed it twice during his visit to Rome: at the Third World Meeting of Popular Movements, invited by the Pope to the Vatican, and at the Palladium of Garbatella, in a lecture to students organized by the Region’s Vice President Massimiliano Smeriglio for the release of the book A Black Sheep to Power, written by Andres Danza and Ernesto Tulbovitz, published by Lumi.

Ignacio Ramonet described him as a messianic Mujica, “philosopher and politician,” summing up the biography of the former tupamaro: the consistent profile of a man who has come a long way — from the guerrillas, through prison and legal politics, to the presidency — always remaining true to himself. “So,” the journalist quipped, “now we have two popes: Pope Bergoglio and … Pepe Mujica.”

Also Saturday, during the meeting of Bergoglio with the popular movements in the Paul VI Hall, when Mujica appeared in the video feed, the more than 3,000 people present applauded at the open stage. Then, the pope paid him tribute. Pope Francis greeted him and quoted him, talking about the need of the great policy, participatory democracy and the risks when politics is used as a profession instead of living it as a passion. He said: “Those who wants to make money with politics, please steer clear … and also steer clear from the seminar.”

The main topic of the Third World Meeting of Popular Movements was the consistency between words and deeds, and Mujica spoke precisely on this issue and on the crisis of representative democracy, “kidnapped” by the great powers that take its content out and eventually use it to the detriment of the popular sectors. During the keynote speech to the students, he spoke with simple and poetic words. In the end, he explained again the basic concepts of Marxism and the alienation of an atomized and exploited individual, prey to the sirens of consumerism.

Because you are close to Pope Bergoglio, must Marxism give way on Earth, Home and Work?

The Pope’s message is also important for a non-believer like me, who still deeply respects all religions. Humans have a need for transcendence that comes in various forms, but today it is anesthetized or perverted. He speaks of solidarity in a world that wants to build walls, and we have to start practicing it: We already had a Hitler and we may get a Trump, and even Clinton is not exactly a leftist lady.

I am the son of immigrants, my mother was Italian, but now this Europe forgets where it comes from and thinks it needs to build walls to reject those who arrive at the border. Solidarity is not a charitable act, but understanding the effort of the African woman in search of water, I’m concerned. Today, instead, we are caught in a web that shows you things upside down, it makes you dependent on the compulsive possession of objects. We have to put limits, learn to live in moderation. I do not say with austerity, because the word may suggest the austerity imposed by capitalism, forced by structural adjustment programs. I say, however, that there are many things we do not need, we need to recover time. Politics are inherent in our being social, living in society. And it must be chosen for passion, though, not for money. If one really cares about accumulating money, one needs to find a better trade, go into business. Those in politics must live as the majority of the people live.

The Pope says these things. His is a political message. He helps us to ask ourselves about globalization, the need for structural change, he welcomes the reasons of a dissident humanity who wants to be taken into account. He uses mysticism and church resources to spread a universal message against inequality and war. Marxism, of course. But I cannot forget what a comrade once told me, after a trip to Eastern Europe: Their eyes look lifeless.

You have just returned from Venezuela, a country that has put at the center of the constitution and its participatory democracy programs and popular power. What do you think of what is happening and the role of the Vatican?

Venezuela has inherited structural problems, which do not depend on Maduro and neither depended on Chavez before. These issues cannot be solved with a magic wand or quickly: The dependence on a particular type of “monoculture,” oil, the abandonment of other production forms that would have enabled the country to achieve food sovereignty and resist the blackmail and external attacks that we see all around Latin America. Venezuela is a major producer of rum, but also the biggest importer of scotch. … They need to return to the land, negotiate some economic responses with capitalism and push on other more innovative options. Then there is the issue of monetary reform.

The Venezuelan people, the extraordinary people who always has been able to find its own way, has all our sympathy. The pope has done a good thing by facilitating dialogue between the parties. Even if the opposition had a program, it may not solve those structural problems. Anyway, the dialogue helps. People cannot spend time clashing in the streets, they have to work.

You say that Uruguay is a small country, but experimentation is feasible in small places. How can your experiment help the world?

Some social experiences to avoid the market to prey on the earth. A smart thing. An ancient institution has made the State the principal owner of land in the country: not to cultivate the fields, but to lease it at a fair price. The land is not sold, but it is given to work with, and you cannot do transactions without paying a high fee. The land and the integral agrarian reform is a general problem, especially in the south: Earth, Home and Work and participatory democracy.

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