Former President of Uruguay Jose Mujica was once considered the poorest, most humble leader in the world. Mujica took office in March 2010, but never moved into Uruguay’s presidential palace. Instead, he lived on a farm that he shared with his wife and several animals, and his official car was a 1987 Volkswagen Beetle. He donated 90% of his monthly salary to charity.
Though Mujca is no longer president, he created his own legacy within the political landscape – one that suggests presidents are not kings, but lowly civil servants, and should behave as such.
It is commonplace to see some presidents of countries living lavish lifestyles, and in some extreme cases, looting their countries’ finances for personal gain. But not Mujica.
He is commonly known as the world’s “poorest” president because of his austere lifestyle.
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.
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.
In 2010, his annual personal wealth declaration – mandatory for officials in Uruguay – was $1,800, the value of his Beetle.
In an interview with BBC, he said:
“I’ve lived like this most of my life, I can live well with what I have
I’m called ‘the poorest president’, but I don’t feel poor. Poor people are those who only work to try to keep an expensive lifestyle, and always want more and more
This is a matter of freedom. If you don’t have many possessions then you don’t need to work all your life like a slave to sustain them, and therefore you have more time for yourself…”
Mujica also has unique views about poverty alleviation. In the 2012 Rio+20 summit he stated:
But what are we thinking? Do we want the model of development and consumption of the rich countries? I ask you now: what would happen to this planet if Indians would have the same proportion of cars per household than Germans? How much oxygen would we have left?
“Does this planet have enough resources so seven or eight billion can have the same level of consumption and waste that today is seen in rich societies? It is this level of hyper-consumption that is harming our planet.
An Arab sheikh recently offered him $1 million for his Beetle. Mujica is currently considering the offer, and says that if he does sell it, he will donate the money to charity.