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Ten Reasons to admire the world’s most humble head of state

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President José Mujica of Uruguay (2010-2015), a 78-year-old former anti-imperialist guerrilla who spent 14 years in prison, constantly tortured and mostly in solitary confinement, once visited the United States to meet with President Obama and speak at a variety of venues.

He told Obama that Americans should smoke less and learn more languages. He lectured a roomful of businessmen at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce about the benefits of redistributing wealth and raising workers’ salaries. He told students at American University that there are no ‘just wars.’

Whatever the audience, he spoke off the cuff and with such brutal honesty that it was hard not to love the guy. Here are 10 reasons you, too, should love President Mujica.

1. He lived simply and rejected the perks of the presidency. Mujica refused to live at the Presidential Palace or have a motorcade. He lived in a one-bedroom house on his wife’s farm and drove a 1987 Volkswagen.

‘There have been years when I would have been happy just to have a mattress,’ said Mujica, referring to his time in prison. He donated over 90 per cent of his $12,000/month salary to charity so he makes the same as the average citizen in Uruguay. When called ‘the poorest president in the world,’ Mujica says he is not poor. ‘A poor person is not someone who has little but one who needs infinitely more, and more and more. I don’t live in poverty; I live in simplicity. There’s very little that I need to live.’

2. He supported the nation’s groundbreaking legalization of marijuana. ‘In no part of the world has repression of drug consumption brought results. It’s time to try something different,’ Mujica said. So, Uruguay became the first country in the world to regulate the legal production, sale, and consumption of marijuana. The law allows individuals to grow a certain amount each year, and the government controls the price of marijuana sold at pharmacies. The law requires consumers, sellers, and distributors to be licensed by the government. Uruguay’s experience aims to take the market away from the ruthless drug traffickers and treat drug addiction as a public health issue. Their experiment had reverberations worldwide.

3. He was not afraid to confront corporate abuses, as evidenced by the epic struggle his government waged against the American tobacco giant Philip Morris. A former smoker, Mujica says that tobacco is a killer that needs to be brought under control. But Philip Morris is suing Uruguay for $25 million at the World Bank’s International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes because of the country’s tough smoking laws that prohibit smoking in enclosed public spaces and require warning labels, including graphic images of the health effects.

Uruguay is the first Latin American country and the fifth nation worldwide to implement a ban on smoking in enclosed public places. Philip Morris, the largest cigarette manufacturer in the United States, has huge global business interests (and a well-paid army of lawyers). Uruguay’s battle against the tobacco Goliath also had global repercussions.

4. He supported the legalization of abortion in Uruguay (his predecessor had vetoed the bill). The law is very limited, compared to laws in the United States and Europe. It allows abortions within the first 12 weeks of the pregnancy and requires women to meet with a panel of doctors and social workers on the risks and possible effects of an abortion.

5. He’s an environmentalist trying to limit needless consumption. At the Rio+20 Summit in 2012, he criticized the model of development pushed by affluent societies.

‘We can almost recycle everything now. If we lived within our means, by being prudent, the 7 billion people in the world could have everything they needed. Global politics should be moving in that direction,’ he said. He also rejected a joint energy project with Brazil that would have provided his country with cheap coal energy because of his concern for the environment.

6. He focused on redistributing his nation’s wealth, claiming that his administration has reduced poverty from 37 per cent to 11 per cent. ‘Businesses just want to increase their profits; it’s up to the government to make sure they distribute enough of those profits so workers have the money to buy the goods they produce,’ he told businessmen at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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‘It’s no mystery, the less poverty, the more commerce. The most important investment we can make is in human resources.’ His government’s redistributive policies include setting prices for essential commodities such as milk and providing free computers and education for every child.

7. He  offered to take detainees cleared for release from Guantanamo. Mujica has called the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay a ‘disgrace’ and insisted that Uruguay take responsibility to help close the facility. The proposal is unpopular in Uruguay, but Mujica, who was a political prisoner for 14 years, said he is ‘doing this for humanity.’

8. He was opposed to war and militarism. ‘The world spends $2 billion a minute on military spending,’ he exclaimed in horror to the students at American University. ‘I used to think there were just, noble wars, but I don’t think that anymore,’ said the former armed guerrilla. ‘Now I think the only solution is negotiations. The worst negotiation is better than the best war, and the only way to ensure peace is to cultivate tolerance.’

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9. He had an adorable three-legged dog, Manuela! Manuela lost a foot when Mujica accidentally ran over it with a tractor. Since then, Mujica and Manuela have been almost inseparable.

10. In September 2013, Mujica addressed the United Nations General Assembly, with a very long speech devoted to humanity and globalization. The speech called on the international community to strengthen efforts to preserve the planet for future generations and highlighted the power of the financial systems and the impact of economic fallout on ordinary people. He urged a return to simplicity, with lives founded on human relationships, love, friendship, adventure, solidarity and family, instead of lives shackled to the economy and the markets

Mujica’s influence goes far beyond his country of only 3 million people. In a world hungry for alternatives, the innovations that he and his colleagues championed put Uruguay on the map as one of the world’s most exciting experiments in creative, progressive governance. Source

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