He even eschews the official residence, preferring to live in his wife’s rustic farmhouse outside Montevideo. His vehicle is a 1987 Volkswagen Beetle. He told the BBC’s Vladimir Hernandez:
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.
I may appear to be an eccentric old man… But this is a free choice.
Son of a modest farming family, Mujica joined the left-wing guerrilla movement, the Tupamaros, in the 1960s. From then until 1985, when he was freed from prison, Mujica fought against the country’s military dictatorship. He was shot six times and spent 14 years as a political prisoner.
He remained politically active when constitutional democracy was restored and helped to found the Movement of Popular Participation. He was elected deputy in 1994, senator in 1999 and again in 2004, and president in 2009.
At 78, he cannot run for the presidency again, which gives him the freedom to take positions that might cost him votes, such as refusing to veto a bill that legalized abortion and supporting debate on the legalization of marijuana. And when he spoke to Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, he did not have to worry about political fallout when he said:
All afternoon we’ve been talking about sustainable development. And we’ve been talking about bringing huge numbers of people out of poverty. So what are we thinking about in all of this?
Patterns of production and consumption that we have at the moment are those of the rich societies. Now, what would happen to this planet, I ask myself, if the Indians were to have the same number of cars per family as the Germans do? How much oxygen would be left to breathe?
He went on to say:
Does this planet have enough resources so seven or eight billion people 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.
That is the kind of example and rhetoric we need to see and hear from a lot more politicians. Mujica is one of a handful of leaders calling attention to the consequences of our wasteful use of the resources so generously provided to us by a bountiful planet. He gives me hope.
Update, February 28, 2015: Uruguay bids farewell to Jose Mujica, its pauper president