He may be “the poorest president in the world” by income, but Uruguay President José Mujica may also be the most popular world leader by virtue of his humility.
Rather than set himself apart from the people, Mujica lives like one of them, residing in the same farmhouse as before he was elected to office.
In nearly 5 years of his term as president, Mujica has made progressive changes to Uruguayan society—fighting poverty, promoting social freedom and economic growth, maintaining peace—by remaining down-to-earth in his influence.
Enduring Poverty and Prison
José "Pepe" Mujica was born in 1935 outside of Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay. Mujica was 5 years old when his father died, leaving a small family farm in bankruptcy.
Raised by a single mother and immigrant grandparents, he recalls the “dignified poverty” of his childhood; he helped his family earn their main source of income from the farmers’ market and from selling flowers in the neighborhood, house-to-house by bicycle.
Mujica never finished high school. During his teens, he participated in a number of youth political groups and quickly assumed a leadership role in the socialist revolutionary movement.
Mujica joined the militant organization the Tupamaros in the mid-1960s, and from that point on, gave his life to the fight against a violently oppressive government regime.
As a guerilla leader, Mujica was gunned down while resisting arrest, and nearly died in the hospital. He was arrested on several occasions, once escaping with over a 100 fellow Tupamaros through a dug-out tunnel.
After he was caught again in 1972, Mujica spent the next 14 years as a prisoner. The conditions of his solitary confinement were so unbearable that he suffered from chronically poor physical and mental health.
To survive his isolation, Mujica “made friends” with the rats in his cell by sharing his meager bread ration.
Rising in Political Influence
Mujica was released from prison in 1985 when democracy was restored in his country.
Through his charismatic ability to connect with people at the level of their lived experience, Mujica quickly rose in the ranks of a new political party, the Movement of Popular Participation, and helped this group to grow in influence through the 1990s.
Mujica was elected deputy, then senator, and went on to serve as the Minister of Agriculture, all the while earning the public’s confidence as a leading political voice.
Despite his violent past and prison record as a former terrorist, Mujica was elected president of Uruguay in a landslide victory in 2010.
Humble Character, Heroic Change
Mujica has proven to be a powerful politician, achieving radical changes in his government’s policies, including some of the most contentious social issues: legalizing gay marriage, abortion, and marijuana.
He has made headway in redistributing the post-colonial economy of Uruguay to reduce dependence on foreign investment and increase employment and production in his country.
As he works to strengthen his nation’s position in the global market, Mujica models a simple farming lifestyle. He still grows flowers on his family’s land, taking great care with his garden, his Volkswagen Beetle, and his three-legged Chihuahua.
While presidential leaders around the world live in mansions, ride in heavily guarded limousines, and pocket annual salaries equal to hundreds of thousands of dollars, Mujica reportedly lives with his wife on only $800 a month, giving away 90% of his income to local charities and directly to people who need it.
He practices what he preaches: by choosing to live in a shack instead of a palace, Mujica stands for democratic equality on his own homestead.
As he nears the end of his presidential term, Mujica is gaining international attention for his austere lifestyle and his bold policies, in particular, his reform of drug regulation.
The world will be watching to see whether this courageous idea will work in action. Meanwhile, Mujica is facing some push back against his administration, even against his own public image and popularity.
His response is to do what he’s always done: to live according to his core principles, at home and at work.
Lessons from Pepe
Poverty, prison, and politics are an unlikely combination, but they are part of the recipe for success in Mujica’s story.
Mujica never forgets where he came from as he works to build a better future for his country. He climbed to the top of the political ladder by refusing to put himself above anyone else, by connecting with the needs of people as equals.
His exceptional way of life might seem paradoxical at first—a poor farmer and powerful politician, an ex-guerrilla fighter and peace advocate — but Mujica stays true to his path by fighting for his beliefs in public, in private, and in each of his various roles.
Here is one of the most inspiring speeches I have ever seen. José Mujica is my hero.