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I will confess that I have been very surprised with Uruguay’s outgoing president, José “Pepe” Mujica. In contrast to the typical head of state and/or government, Mujica has been an obvious outlier, commuting to office in his VW Beetle, brewing his own coffee, refusing to wear a tie even in high-level meetings, and even referring to the ceremonial presidential sash as something that weights too much (figuratively speaking, of course). In fact, he is on the public record regarding the pomp and circumstance of office as something “awful.” You just do not see Dilma Rousseff, Enrique Peña Nieto or even Nicolás Maduro thinking like that, although Mujica’s predecessor, Tabaré Vazquez, chose to live in his regular home and not in the presidential palace. But even so, Mujica is the Pope Francis of world leaders: frugal and loving it.

He also became a trend on social media thanks to his speeches at the 2012 Rio +20 Summit and the 2013 UN General Assembly, denouncing human degradation under neoliberalism. So many others, like Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, have taken the stage before him to make the same denunciation in one form or another, but they have not been as eloquent as Mujica was at Rio +20:

Are we ruling over globalization or is globalization ruling over us? Is it possible to speak of solidarity and of ‘being all together’ in an economy based on ruthless competition? How far does our fraternity go?

I am not saying any of this to undermine the importance of this event [the Summit]. On the contrary, the challenge ahead of us is of a colossal magnitude and the great crisis is not an ecological crisis, but rather a political one.

Today, man does not govern the forces he has unleashed, but rather, it is these forces that govern man; and life. Because we do not come into this planet simply to develop, just like that, indiscriminately. We come into this planet to be happy. Because life is short and it slips away from us. And no material belonging is worth as much as life, and this is fundamental.

Being able to actually practice what he preaches on the world stage is, without a doubt, one of the traits that will earn Mujica a place of honor in the pantheon of Latin American contemporary statesmen (if there is such a thing), but I think that he represents much more. He is the anti-Chávez: wholly committed to liberal and socioeconomic democracy at the same time rather than choosing the former over the latter. Even if he has befriended Chávez himself, he has not become like him. For instance, unlike President-for-Life Chávez, he did not decide to run for another presidential term, meaning that he will give away that “heavy” presidential sash to Vazquez, who has been recently reelected as president.

Mujica is a living testimony of a turbulent period in Latin American politics, characterized by the impact of the Cuban Revolution in the region and how its political and military establishments reacted to it. But he also embodies the period of third-wave democratization that came right after. He is no first-comer to electoral politics, having joined a social-democratic party before 1959, but after visiting Havana in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution he was convinced that Uruguay should do what Cuba did. He then joined the National Liberation Movement (a.k.a. Tupamaros) and set out to accomplish his goal. By the 1970s, with the Tupamaros becoming more violent and more brazen (even kidnapping and murdering an FBI agent) and the Uruguayan military intent on exterminating them after its take-over of the government, Mujica became a prisoner and was subject to horrid conditions, almost going insane. By the time Uruguay entered its democratic transition, Mujica was released from prison and formed a legal political party with other former Tupamaro inmates. He later became deputy, senator, and Vazquez’s Minister of Livestock, Agriculture, and Fisheries from 2005 to 2008. In all, the turn-around has been so unlikely that Mujica himself said about it that “[n]ot even the greatest novelist could have imagined what happened.”

What motivated the former hardcore guerrilla fighter to renounce revolutionary violence and embrace liberal democracy? A line from his 2009 presidential victory speech may give an indication that he went through a long period of “political learning” during his imprisonment: “There are those who believe that power is up above, and they don’t notice that it’s actually in the hearts of the great masses. Thank you! It cost me an entire life, perhaps, to learn this.” In short, as he once said, being imprisoned convinced him that revolutionary violence does not lead to lasting change. If so, this is not the only case of reinvention behind bars: Nelson Mandela transformed in prison from a firebrand to the figure who reunified South Africa. But Mujica’s transformation has not been imitated by anyone in Latin America (Lula was not a guerrilla fighter; Rousseff’s guerrilla past is not clear-cut; and Hugo Chávez did not fire a weapon outside military training, not even during the coup he led). At the same time, established Latin American leftist parties like Uruguay’s Broad Front (to which Mujica belongs) took the experience of military repression as an incentive to go through something similar, so Mujica’s change of mind is not entirely a purely individual matter.

The most striking result of his political learning is evidenced by a handful of public statements. In July 2009, during his presidential campaign, he hinted that he would not support “the stupid ideologies that come from the 1970s – I refer to things like unconditional love of everything that is state-run, scorn for businessmen and intrinsic hate of the United States.” Then, he insisted on the following:

I’ll shout it if they want: Down with isms! Up with a left that is capable of thinking outside the box! In other words, I am more than completely cured of simplifications, of dividing the world into good and evil, of thinking in black and white. I have repented!

I guess that proponents and apologists of the Latin American radical left may respond to these words by thinking of the distinction made by André Gorz between reformist and non-reformist policies, with the former improving the lot of the masses without even touching existing political and economic structures. Basically, so goes the critique, if you are willing to just reform rather than creating new, fairer structures (as Chávez has), you sold out to the enemy or are a namby-pamby leftist. I like to think, though, that Mujica is (arguably) an example of Aristotelian practical reason applied to Latin American governance. It is about recognizing that any extreme is bad. Because the isms of the 1970s are stupid, it makes sense to play by the rules of economic globalization by promoting foreign investment. Because man has to govern the forces of globalization, it also makes sense to offer impoverished families a dignified place to live (under a government policy initiated by Vazquez and funded in part with most of Mujica’s salary). And although Uruguay has not implemented participatory institutions like Venezuela did, it was under Mujica’s watch that same-sex marriages were legalized nationwide (in 2013). Dealing with the US follows a similar logic: Because the intrinsic hate of the US that was common to the Latin American left in the 1970s is stupid, Mujica agreed to bring to Uruguay a handful of Guantanamo detainees, but because being a US lackey is also counterproductive, he had the guts to write President Obama demanding the release from federal prison of Puerto Rican independence activist Oscar López Rivera.

It is this capacity of being his own man and thinking on his own rather than following a chavista or US-based herd mentality what I admire the most about Mujica. It is pragmatism, but not for the sake of electoral convenience. It is not about winning over the proverbial median voter by behaving like a centrist. It is about something deeper. As he confided to a VICE Magazine interviewer:

We human beings are gregarious. We can’t live alone. For our lives to be possible, we depend on society. It’s one thing to overturn a government or block the streets. But it’s a different matter altogether to create and build a better society, one that needs organization, discipline, and long-term work. Let’s not confuse the two of them.

I feel sympathetic with that youthful energy, but I think it’s not going anywhere if it doesn’t become more mature.

Enough said.