“The donkey is an intelligent animal because it never forgets where it can eat.”
– Farmer, Ex-Guerrilla and current Uruguayan President José “Pepé” Mujica, in an interview with La Brecha.
The smell of fried food and sausage sandwiches filled the Montevideo air as José “Pepe” Mujica assumed the presidency of Uruguay on Monday, March 1st. Street vendors lined the inauguration parade route selling Uruguayan flags to the boisterous crowd which cheered, “Olé, olé, olé, Pepe, Pepe.” Mujica, a former Tupamaro guerrilla who was imprisoned and tortured under the country’s dictatorship, stood in front of the multitude with his wife and vice president as he led the crowd in singing folksongs that were outlawed during military rule, La Nación reported.
Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano told Página/12 the period opening up with the inauguration of Mujica “is born blessed with the enthusiasm of the people, the fervent hope of the people, and this is something to take care of, to be very careful to not defraud. It is a day of celebration but also of compromise.”
Among other campaign platforms, Mujica has promised to focus on the development of new housing projects for the country’s poor, reactivate the train system, expand the access and quality of education, and participate actively in regional integration with other South American nations. Presidents from Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela attended the inauguration.
Mujica lives with his wife outside the city at a farm where he grows vegetables and flowers. María del Rosario Corbo, a 44-year-old neighbor of Mujica, spoke to IPS News of the new president, “He’s just an ordinary guy: you see him on his bike, his motorcycle, working among his flowers… He’s going to strengthen the focus on the poor, giving them a helping hand.” The president will also be donating most of his presidential salary to a program for homeless people.
Mujica appointed two other former imprisoned guerrillas in his government including Luis Rosadilla as the Minister of Defense and Eduardo Bonomi as the Minister of the Interior. The bloody Uruguayan dictatorship lasted from 1973 to 1985.
Manuela Nieves, a housewife present at the inauguration with her daughter, told Página/12, “because of the all the years of suffering, we now deserve that the left continue to be in the government. Mujica represents the people. He will continue on the path of [former president] Tabaré but with a different heart.”
The new president pledged to get rid of extreme poverty in the country and focus on Uruguay’s neglected rural areas; 93% of the population live in urban areas. At the same time Mujica emphasized that he wants to strengthen the private sector, increase wealth and attract investment to the country. Uruguayan political science professor Juan Andrés Moraes told IPS News, “Mujica says his government will be more like [Brazilian President] Lula’s than the administrations of Evo Morales or Chávez. Basically, Mujica himself sees the differences clearly.”
Mujica said since becoming a politician years ago has learned to “embrace serpents,” making compromises in order to get things done in politics. The fact that the the vice president is Danilo Astori, the former finance minister under previous president Tabaré Vazquez, indicates that economic policies are not likely to change significantly with the new administration.
For all of the new president’s charisma, populist persona and leftist background, his presidency is likely to be characterized by moderation. In a recent gathering with businesspeople from Uruguay and Argentina, Mujica described himself as a “wild cat that has turned into a vegetarian.”
BENJAMIN DANGL is currently based in Paraguay and is the author of “The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia” (AK Press) and the forthcoming books: Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America (AK Press) and, with co-author Chris O’Brien, Bottoms Up: A People’s Guide to Beer (PM Press).Email: Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com.