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“What do you think about President Mujica?” I asked the taxi driver who took us from the airport to our hotel in the centre of Montevideo. “Best president ever” he replied without hesitation. I was not surprised. After all, Mujica’s humility and his image as a father figure have, in many ways, put Uruguay on the map internationally. But not everyone seems to agree. A local businessman is not impressed. “I don`t like him”, he tells me, “he talks to us as if we were children or idiots, I can’t stand him”.
Contrary to what many people outside Uruguay may think, José ‘Pepe’ Mujica’s popularity is not universal within his country. There are people who believe that Mujica is overrated and that his image has made no difference to Uruguay’s standing in the world, let alone within the region.
Pablo Alvarez, a former member of the Uruguayan parliament for the left-wing ruling Frente Amplio, believes that Mujica is not a temporary fashion. “People will talk about Pepe Mujica for many years” he tells me. “He gave back to the people a connexion with politics that was lost before him”, says Pablo. To judge by the frantic electioneering that has erupted in Montevideo in recent weeks, this is indeed the case. The streets of the Uruguayan capital are full of activists of all the political parties vying to have their candidate elected when Mujica’s mandate expires in 2015. For the time being the favourite is Tabaré Vásquez, the candidate of the ruling Frente Amplio, the party of Mujica. For people like Pablo Alvarez, Mujica has not only motivated people from his own party to campaign actively but other parties have caught the bug of political electioneering.
Pablo Abdala, a deputy for the right-wing Partido Nacional does not buy the idea that Pepe Mujica is some kind of a hero. “I don’t think the country has benefited under him but I don’t think either that we have lost, he has not made much difference,” he tells me. Mujica’s personality makes him more noticeable but the status of Uruguay in the world has not changed because of him, argues Abdala.
I quoted to my guests an open letter written by a former Ambassador of Uruguay at the UN, Jorge Azar, who wrote in a local newspaper that Mujica had abandoned the role of president to take up the role of “political comentator”, neglecting his job as an facilitator of policies. Mujica is, Azar says, “a demagogue”. Abdala is less criticial: Mujica is no saint, he believes, but neither is he a demagogue. Pablo Alvarez says: “Mujica is Mujica, he is the president and his image in other countries comes from two elements: his stand in the international forums and also the merits of his own party, the Frente Amplio, with its recognition of equality of women and men or the legalisation of marihuana –things that go beyond Mujica”.
Oscar Bottinelli, a pollster and political analyst believes that Pepe Mujica is not easy to define. He confounds all the paterns pollsters use to collect information about politicians. “ When you ask a question about a president, about his persona, his work, his image, all results seem to be the same. With Mujica this is not the case”, says Botinelli. He explains: We ask how much do you sympathise with Mujica as President? A lot, people say, a lot. What do you think about him as president? He is very good, they answer. How much confidence do you have in Mujica as president? Not so much”. He provokes mixed feelings, insists Bottinelli. Abdala nods in agreement.
What is clear is that he appeals not only to the working class but also to the professional middle classes, says Bottinelli. He adds a new statistic: when his polling agency asked Uruguayans how much they agreed with the direction of Mujica’s government, 70% agreed but the same percentage disapproved the way those policies are implemented.
My guests show the typical respect Uruguayans have for the office of the president, no matter how much they disagree with him and his ideological position.
Bottinelli and Abdala agree that everybody has changed in Uruguay: the people have learned to accept Mujica the way he is, and Mujica is behaving in a more “presidential” way.
Pablo Alvarez is proud of his president. For him, his appeal lays in the fact that “he talks about the things that matter, he has crafted the concept that, if you are a citizen of this republic, you can also be first among equals”.
The streets of Montevideo are full of young activists, most of them belonging to the Frente Amplio: they sing their songs, wave their flags and hand over leaflets. They are having a party. In this ageing country, a president that looks like a retired teacher has shown that politics does not belong to the elites but to those who vote. Even his opponents seem to show some kind of furtive pride in their president. One thing is clear: you simply cannot take your eyes off José Pepe Mujica.
Click here to watch a programme on José Pepe Mujica by Hispan TV presented by Javier Farje, in Spanish.