Meet José Mujica, the president of Uruguay who forswore a state palace in favour of a farmhouse, donated the vast bulk of his salary to social projects, flies economy class and drives an old Volkswagen Beetle.
But the former guerrilla fighter is clearly disgruntled by those who tag him “the world’s poorest president” and – much as he would like others to adopt a more sober lifestyle – the 78-year-old has been in politics long enough to recognise the folly of claiming to be a model for anyone.
“If I asked people to live as I live, they would kill me,” Mujica said during an interview in his small but cozy one-bedroom home set amid chrysanthemum fields outside Montevideo.
The president is a former member of the Tupamaros guerrilla group, which was notorious in the early 1970s for robberies kidnapping and distributing stolen goods to the poor. He was shot by police six times and spent 14 years in a military prison, much of it in dungeon-like conditions.
Since becoming the leader of Uruguay in 2010, however, he has won plaudits worldwide for living below his means, decrying excessive consumption and pushing ahead with policies on same-sex marriage, abortion, and cannabis legalization that have reaffirmed Uruguay as the most socially liberal country in Latin America.
Praise has rolled in from all sides of the political spectrum. Mujica may be the only leftwing leader on the planet to win the favour of the Daily Mail, which lauded him as a trustworthy and charismatic figurehead in an article headlined: “Finally A Politician who DOESN’T fiddle his expenses.”
But the man who is best known as Pepe says those who consider him poor fail to understand the meaning of wealth. “I’m not the poorest president. The poorest is the one who needs a lot to live,” he said. “My lifestyle is a consequence of my wounds. I’m the son of my history. There have been years when I would have been happy just to have a mattress.”
He shares the home with his wife, Lucia Topolansky a leading member of Congress who has also served as acting president.
“As I near the home of Uruguay’s first couple, the only security detail is two guards parked on the approach road, and Mujica’s three-legged dog, Manuela.” a reporter said.