At 82 years old, Jose “Pepe” Mujica, ex-freedom fighter, political prisoner and former president of Uruguay, exudes a quiet charisma as he squints into a Skype camera. One is immediately struck by the interior strength which emanates from his easy manner, at once peaceful and tenacious, like the wisdom of Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. Like the South African leader, Mujica spent many years in prison—12 to be exact—after having fought his country’s dictatorship as part of the the Tupamaros guerrillas.
Those years are the subject of a movie, La Noche de 12 Años (“A Twelve-Year Night”), by Alvaro Brechner, which was shown at this year’s Venice Film Festival and which is now Uruguay’s selection for the Foreign Language Academy Award. Mujica who is still renowned as the humblest head of state after his presidential mandate, lives in quiet retirement these days, alternating driving the tractor on his farm and his 1987 Volkswagen Bug for which he is famous. The affection he is showered with at home followed him to Venice last Fall, where he was also the subject of a documentary by Emir Kusturica: El Pepe, Una Vida Suprema (“El Pepe, a Supreme Life”). As he walked around the Lido, crowds waiting in line for screenings would break into spontaneous applause at his passing, although he himself insists, with typical self effacement, “fame is just a fairy tale. We leave this world as we came into it.”
What do you think about the far-right wave that we are experiencing in the world right now? How worried are you?
I am worried, of course, and I think it’s the indirect cost that a part of the world is paying for this so-called globalization phenomenon carried through by trans-national capital and by the financial system, which were too greedy and ended up freezing middle class wage increases. Middle-class income distribution has grown very little or not at all, and this feeling of frustration is why those who are in the middle cannot look up to see who was responsible, so they blame the people underneath. They say it’s because of Mexicans or Syrians or Africans, according to where they are, or Brexit if they’re British. But they fail to realize that it’s actually the trans-national economy that concentrates too much and makes a terrible job of distributing it.
Has the Latin American left failed? And if that’s the case, how can the Latin American left fight this wave?
My dear journalist, we were coming from very far behind. We used to have a lot of hungry people without shelter, with very poor housing, and we managed to turn them into better consumers but we couldn’t make them into full citizens. It’s a very slow process. It’s much easier to solve the food problem, as hard as it is, than the problem of our conscience, and we can’t also cut off the great dependence we currently have in the expanding world of today, where we want to act like first-world consumers without having resolved some basic needs. And this creates some brutal contradictions. The developed world began to move forward 200 years ahead of us, through a lot of sacrifice that the people paid, working for 12 to 14 hours. They capitalized and, well, the colonial period and all that. We came in very late to it. We were running far behind, but not all is lost. This too shall pass. The far right can’t do anything other than further concentrate wealth, unfortunately, and we’ll have to learn to be less dumb and more patient. The terms ‘right’ and ‘left’ are too modern, but the faces of solidarity and conservatism are as old as man’s existence on earth.
What would be your advice for the next four years in Brazil? How will that country face the extreme right-wing wave that just hit your neighbor to the north?
I believe the Brazilian people will find a way to, in part, resist and save the best of themselves. Maybe the pronouncements are worse than the reality. I don’t see how they will resolve some contradictions, like for instance, having a new Economy Minister designate, a Super Minister, to be an extremely open-market liberal and how will it work against the Sao Paulo bourgeoisie, the most protectionist group in all of Latin America. How can that problem be solved? I don’t know. We’ll see how it goes. Words are one thing and quite another are the facts.
Do you feel it’s possible in 2018, in the year of the Trumps and the Bolsonaros, for a political leader to be effective and at the same time have honesty, integrity, ideals and tell the truth?
Apparently the contemporary culture we live in, not the culture we’re taught at school, the one that comes from marketing, the subliminal kind, teaches us that in this world if you don’t become wealthy, you’re a loser. Therefore we shouldn’t be surprised at the proliferation of these big tycoon types at the top, like that story from the auto industry in Japan, where this big mess unraveled. We have to get used to the fact we will harvest the seeds we’ve sown. Humans are also complicated, though, and there will always be people who are fundamentally honest and have dreams and meanwhile will push for humanity to be a little better. You never achieve your dreams entirely; it is like climbing a ladder that may have a broken rung along the way. You have to fix it and continue to move forward. That’s in the end what triumphs are all about. Begin again from scratch every time you fall down.
Do you see in your country now anybody with your level of honesty and clear vision that pushes the country forward and also brings everyone together, as was one of your dreams?
I think Latin America is a group of nations that could have, and failed, but could still become a bigger whole, a greater homeland. We won’t survive in this world without the ability to set aside our differences and try to be one group, because the world is rapidly, although through many back-and-forths, moving toward large common blocks. So unless we get together, we won’t survive, that’s the challenge we have and all of us have. When is the United States going to come to terms that it’s a bilingual nation and recognize their Latin American offsprings and understand that they need our sense of selves for their own sense of self? That’s hard, isn’t it?
Do you have any thoughts about what is happening right now on the border that separates the developed world from the not-yet-developed world—Mexico and the USA?
Look, at the end of World War I, the conditions imposed on the defeated were such that Keynes said “it’s horrible, it will cause a disaster” and that’s what happened. But then, at the end of the Second World War they understood this more clearly and the response was the Marshall Plan, because now they needed to prop up Europe. Why? Because they were afraid that the Soviet bear was on the other side. The problem of the United States now is to lift up Central America in the same way. That’s the answer to this. What’s happening now would be ridiculous if it weren’t so tragic. Why? Because the way people usually migrate to the United States is through the airport, with a tourist visa, and then you find a way to stay. It’s been done by thousands of people and it continues to be done. You get married, get the papers, etc. You all know this, but for that you need money for the plane ticket and all that. Instead they’re spending lots of money on the border to say “No!” when they really need them. Who is going to clean the dirt off the rich otherwise? Who is going to work the land? Who is going to unclog the drains? Please! That’s why what is going on seems to me dramatically ridiculous.
How relevant can the example you set in Uruguay be for the rest of Central and South America, and do you still meet with the present leaders?
The current president is an old friend of mine. He’s doing the best he can. We don’t have a magic wand or a universal antidote. We’re part of the world we live in. What’s clear is that the modern republics should cry to the feudalism and the divine monarchies that we’re basically all human beings, we’re all equal, and the battle is not only to get a majority of the vote if you don’t also share in the same hope and frustrations of the majority. More clearly put? I believe rulers should live like regular people do. They shouldn’t let these remnants of feudalism and monarchy—the red carpets, the clarion calls, the flattering courtiers—get to their heads. We need to get back to the fundamentals of republicanism, but that won’t be easy.
Do you regret the struggle that led you to jail, and what did the 12 years in jail do for you?
Of course. There are several dictatorships on the planet, and Latin America suffered through many dictatorships. We should be well advised to have good memories. Life taught me that you can always do worse. Therefore, fighting for democracy, even if it’s unfair and full of inequalities, is worth it despite all its flaws and despite how far from perfect it may be. You can’t be neutral, history teaches us. It hurts when we see such growing inequality. I’m worried about huge concentrations of wealth because that leads to concentrations of power, that is, political power. We are now on the brink of a technological revolution that will allow us, in the near future, to access and manipulate the minds of the masses. No dictatorship in history was able to have such an asset, a recourse we all know is available, and therefore this fight is far from over. So we should all be engaged and committed to it. I’m very old now, but I’m still hopeful for mankind. Or maybe these are just the dreams of an old man.