The Economist recently interviewed José Mujica, Uruguay’s president, at his farmhouse outside Montevideo. Here is an edited transcript of the conversation.
The Economist: You are reaching the final stretch of your five years as president. What do you think you’ve achieved in these five years, what did you want to achieve that you have not, what’s the balance-sheet?
President Mujica: A balance-sheet is for traders. Those of us committed to politics fight. Because if we start to think about balancing things, we would go crazy. We always dream to do much more than we can. And if you don’t try and look a long way ahead, you do very little in the short term. What I want to say is that there is a central issue in contemporary economies and societies, which is to grow by distributing. To try to avoid an excessive concentration that ends in paralysis. Or the opposite: to want to distribute quickly and a lot, to halt the prospect of growth, because it decreases investment. No society has a definitive recipe for this. To find a middle path between these extremes is very difficult and we hardly got close. We have lowered poverty and indigence considerably and increased employment. If I look back, we are very happy. But if I look at the current picture of my society, I cannot be happy, there is still more to be done.
We need to put more emphasis on distribution, but what’s missing is to be able to invest a lot more in public goods, like a substantial improvement in schooling but that needs money. We paid teachers very poorly; we are now paying them better, but not enough so that it’s a career which commits them to the profession. And with reluctant teachers or those who seek other ways to make a living, we fail.
We are failing, too, in that leaving poverty statistically is not the same as leaving poverty mentally. This is a cultural change. And cultural changes are more difficult than material changes; they take a lot of time. I believe that we are on a promising path. But not so much as to say that we’ve arrived. We have to continue with a policy of heavy investment, and to get over once and for all the dog in the manger syndrome that has been very damaging in Latin America.
The Economist: Alan García [Peru’s president in 2006-11] said this same phrase in Peru. And he was much criticised for it by the left there.
President Mujica: Yes, in order to understand this, in the colonial and semi-colonial history of Latin America—as in Africa—the damage that foreign investment has done has contributed to creating an enormous prejudice. Because it was fundamentally a scheme to make quick money to send back home and very few worried about the public good. They did things that in their home countries they wouldn’t. And this created a cliché and helped generate this prejudice, that all that comes from outside is bad, that they are going to loot us. And I believe that we have to rise above this. Not all that comes [from outside] is marvelous and you have to know how to choose. And this is not a problem of foreign investment, it is our problem, it is our responsibility. And there we have made a lot of mistakes, but I believe that we have also learned. You have to look at each case on its merits. Evidently there are things that because of technology, because of the capital that is needed, and because of the market situation, we can’t develop on our own. And in these cases, we have to have recourse to international investment.
For example: we are not to blame that the world market for cellulose is very concentrated in very few companies, which are those that have not only the capacity to produce, but also to control and sell in the market. If we wanted to do it alone we would have to sell wood abroad as a cheap raw material. The logical thing is to industrialise it in the country and add all the value we can. That’s logical from the point of view of global production and also from Uruguay’s point of view.
The Economist: Every day on your way from here to your office you pass very poor settlements. Evidently they are the result of the economic crisis 10-12 years ago. But one also feels—and this is true of Argentina too—that these countries that had achieved a degree of prosperity and a largely middle-class society are now suffering a social dualism. I agree with you that what is needed to reincorporate this group of excluded people into society is education. It seems to me that the Broad Front [the ruling centre-left coalition] has not been able to do much in that regard. Uruguay had a very good educational system and it is deteriorating. And now there are the issues of union opposition to the evaluation of teachers and paying them according to performance.
President Mujica: Of course. We have to overcome a vicious circle. Because there are things that educational specialists tell us, and we have to take them very much into account. But there are also things that our people are telling us. For example: vocational training, which is crucial for school-leavers, has grown by 40% in the past five years, and it hasn’t grown more because of a lack of places. People queued up, while they dropped out of classical secondary education. This tells us that many boys today, when we explain to them about the Athens of Pericles or Akhenaten [an Egyptian pharaoh] and such like, they get bored and ask us for skills to earn a quick living. If people don’t feel that education is clearly useful in a relatively short timeframe, and this applies in the most neglected sectors, they don’t have patience. They are looking at the opulence that modern society has brought, they’re looking at the shop window as it were, and they are impatient. It is because of this that they often do stupid things.
We need to change the mould. We tried, but we failed; because there is a strong belief in Uruguay that education should be a global, integrated system, directed from above and for me this doesn’t fit the modern world. Perhaps there doesn’t have to be one educational system, but various, because we are in a world that demands specialization and diversity.
The Economist: You mean to say you want to change the curriculum and give more autonomy to individual schools?
President Mujica: Yes. A lot of autonomy, initiative and freedom.
The Economist: The issue of the legalisation of drugs is one that The Economist has campaigned on for 25 years. So we agree with your initiative to legalise marijuana. For you, was this more of an issue of security or of individual liberties? Or both things? Do you think the law will stick?
President Mujica: Look, it began essentially as a security issue. We have spent many years repressing and spending money to fight drug-trafficking. We have had glorious successes, but trafficking continues to increase. In other words, this policy has failed for many decades. And it’s common sense that if you want to change you cannot keep on doing the same thing: you have to try other ways. We came to the conclusion that this is an addiction, you have to treat it on the one hand through the police, but then you have to treat it as an illness. You can’t treat an illness in [conditions of] illegality. In Uruguay there must be 150,000 sporadic consumers, but they are clandestine. We oblige them to be clandestine. When we can treat them it’s already late, it’s often irreversible; and moreover frequently they have committed related crimes to get money. It is pure loss for society.
What are we proposing? We are proposing a market logic: if we can’t beat them through policing, we are going to try to steal the market from them so that this ceases to be a business. But we’re not trying to foster an addiction. We have no truck with the idea that planting marijuana is good and that it’s less harmful than cigarettes and all of these things that are said. No, no, I believe that no addiction is good… This is the question, to be able to limit [consumers] to a certain quantity, and when they go over that to consider them as having an illness and treat them.
The Economist: Uruguayan society still does not accept this approach, no?
President Mujica: Society is scared.
The Economist: Are you confident that the law will be fully implemented?
President Mujica: We’ve already gone through many things. In this country there was a president [José Batlle y Ordoñez] who had to invent a university for women to study at in 1910 because of the prejudices of society. They insulted him when he allowed women to seek divorce, they accused him of destroying the family and suchlike. Uruguay had the stroke of genius in the 1910s of nationalising the production of alcohol. And for 50 years the state produced and distributed alcohol. And the state used those revenues for public health. Prohibition and other nonsense that they tried in other places didn’t occur to people here. We are the heirs of this historical tradition. It’s the same with abortion, this same attitude. We are not in favor of abortion; we can’t be philosophically. But women, many women, for many reasons practiced abortion clandestinely. And we think that it is much healthier to make it legal, and try to care for them and help them, because many women, if we help them, may change their mind. Especially young women who are isolated and without the help and support of their family. Legalization, then, on the contrary, is a means of decreasing the quantity [of abortions].
The Economist: On these issues Uruguay is in the vanguard of Latin America…
President Mujica: Yes, because it is a very secular country.
The Economist: How do you weigh public opinion against what you believe is right? [Public opinion does not favour the legalisation of marijuana]
President Mujica: On these issues one can have dual criteria. Politicians tend to submit to the majority view, because electorally it’s the most profitable. But when one is convinced of a certain path, sometimes you must take pioneering decisions and have the political courage to navigate in the minority, with all the costs that this implies. I don’t mean to say that one should fight public opinion, but nor should one be enslaved by it.
Because otherwise societies don’t progress. All vanguard ideas are always in a minority when they emerge. This is part of the human condition. You shouldn’t abuse this either, because you can’t live immersed in fantasy. There’s a useful conservativism in the human species; it is not possible to live from adventure to adventure, permanently subject to change, because that also imposes wear and tear on societies. But nor should you dig in, affirming 100% of what our grandparents affirmed, without changing anything. These are two extremes which it seems to me need to be avoided.
The Economist: In your experience as a guerrilla and then in jail for so long in such difficult conditions, what were the most important lessons that you learned?
President Mujica: Well, the most important lesson is that you can’t compare one period with another. The world that we are living in now is very different than the one we were living in during the 1960s. There have been terrifying changes, for both better and worse. This is a period that is terribly rich in uncertainty… The cold war was an orderly world compared with what we have now…Now when one looks at the Middle East it makes one’s head spin. In this framework, it is fantastic what technology has done to help humanity progress: it has transformed all forms of war into a disaster for the weakest. I have reassessed all of this, and throughout history man has been a bellicose animal, terribly predatory; I don’t believe in that poetic idea that ecologists put forth that ancient man didn’t attack nature. They were barbaric; they chopped down all of Europe’s trees, almost transforming it into a desert. They transformed Spain into a desert. Sometimes to hunt an animal they set the entire forest on fire. According to anthropologists in the 35,000 years that it took humans to get from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, they killed off 30 orders of big animals.
Apart from that, the constant that one finds is the tendency to believe in something—in religion, in something magic—and this makes me think that humans are utopian, fantastically utopian, needing to believe in something. We haven’t left pre-history then. Only culture and civilization can create a different humanity. We cannot, today, propose war as a solution; whatever negotiated peace, however patched up, any fragile accord on the edge of a precipice is much better than a war.
The Economist: But when I hear your reflections about, for example, how to manage or interpret public opinion, leadership and respect for checks and balances, you are talking like a democratic statesman. You are valuing the system of government that you rejected in your guerrilla past. This seems to me to be a form of self-criticism.
President Mujica: Liberalism has the idea that democracy is its invention, that liberalism had to come about for democracy to exist. In an Aymara village, this still goes on, they make an annual reckoning and the village governor is chosen. Who said that this is not a form of democracy? Democracy is old, very old; it is an attitude of man…Democracy is an imminent attitude, but one that has always been in crisis with authoritarianism. So democracy can never be considered to be finished or perfect, the end of history does not exist, historical steps exist. Maybe today conditions are being created–thanks to digital mass-communication—that are going to foreshadow a kind of democracy that today we cannot imagine.
The Economist: But today you are defending what you used to reject as “bourgeois democracy”.
President Mujica: Of course I defend it. I defend it and I criticise it. What do I criticise? That it promises a degree of equality that it does not fulfill in practice. This is why you are in a very simple house of the Uruguayan President, who has the idea of sobriety as a tool, and of republicanism because the majority of my people live like this. And if democracy has to represent the majority, as a symbol I understand that those who have the highest responsibilities should live as the majority does, not the minority.
We have become feudal and the monarchy has come back in a different form. Presidents—the red carpet, those who play cornets, vassals on the bridge, all this paraphernalia which is not republican, because republics came into the world to reaffirm this: that men are basically equal.
The Economist: Do you think that in the past five years Uruguayan society has become less materialistic because of your example?
President Mujica: Society is immersed in a culture of consumerism, we are all immersed, and it is difficult for society to see this. But there will come a time when people have had enough. When people start to have a lot, they tend to run out of time to be happy and then they begin to reassess the small things in life. Freedom has two planes: one is of an individual kind, that to be free I have to have free time. If all of the time I am working to produce things that I need to be able to consume it will be difficult for me to be a free man.
The Economist: You are indeed giving Uruguayans an example of simplicity and austerity. But do you believe that material progress is also needed for your people?
President Mujica: It is necessary, but it is much slower and more difficult because of the number of things on which the consumer society causes us to squander energy. This is a challenge for the world. I don’t believe that there is an ecological crisis; I believe that there is a crisis of governance. There are issues of world importance that need to be addressed, that no one country can address alone. For example: man is destroying the climate, but man also has the capacity and intelligence to reverse this trend.
I believe that the wealthiest should pay to eliminate world poverty and incorporate them in consumption, but the consumption of useful things. It’s a nonsense that we throw away so much and we make useless things to throw away when there are women walking 5 kilometers to fetch two pitchers of water. But there is nowhere to propose and debate these things.
When I was in prison I would read Scientific American. I remember that people were talking about taking advantage of the melting of Alaska to create a river between the Rockies to bring sweet water to California and the Mexican desert. You know how much it cost? The military budget of the US. I remember that people were also talking about creating a sea in Siberia, in Stalin’s time they dreamed of this nonsense, then it was impossible. Now, surely, it is possible. But global treaties are needed. A continent of plastic bags is beginning to form in the Pacific. How are we going to challenge this barbarity?
The Economist: How do you define yourself politically? As a socialist, utopian, reformist, social democrat , leftist?
President Mujica: The philosophy of my heart is libertarian. I don’t like the idea of the exploitation of man by man. I believe that one day human civilization will overcome this somehow. But that is not to say that I favour the state as the owner of everything, no, no, no. I can’t conceive of that. I lean a lot towards self-management, with all of the risks it entails for any important institution. It is not exactly the state that should manage things, it’s the people that have to manage them.
The Economist: But you are governing a market economy and a liberal democracy…
President Mujica: Yes, and I have to make it run as well as possible.
The Economist: …and you seem to be comfortable with that.
President Mujica: Of course, because the door is open to keep fighting to improve it and to overcome the injustices it involves. The enormous advantage of democracy is that it doesn’t believe itself to be finished or perfect. And the second enormous advantage of democracy concerns the possibility of peaceful coexistence, even when people disagree, and that means to respect those who think differently. And this makes society liveable. I think those are unshakeable values.
The Economist: And given these values, when you look at Cuba and Venezuela what do you think?
President Mujica: That they have their challenges and their paths. Because I cannot look only at those values, I have to look at the fact that peoples have the right to self-determination rather than be governed from outside. You gave me two examples that are not very significant. The Muslim world is out there and has other codes. I can assure you that I have nothing in common with those fat guys who cover themselves in jewels. But what I am clear about is that they have their culture and I must respect it, which does not mean that I am in agreement with it.
The Economist: There is a tension between respect for other cultures and some universal values. In today’s world and today’s Latin America where there are many that believe democracy is a universal value, are you…
President Mujica: Democracy?
The Economist: Yes
President Mujica: Yes, but that doesn’t mean “our” democracy. But if I were convinced of the dictatorship of the proletariat and that democracy requires equality to be effective, and that if equality is not assured, democracy does not exist—we could debate this for three days.
The Economist: There’s a permanent tension between freedom and equality, but…
President Mujica: Both are difficult. Both have many challenges and chimeras. Because equality is not egalitarianism. Nature spurns egalitarianism, nature makes similarities. And I can’t conceive of a Pol-Potian path to equality…
The Economist: That’s a relief. In Venezuela, there are many people…
President Mujica: Venezuela is suffering the consequences of excessive polarization and the tendency to reason in black and white: you’re with me or against me. And this is a consequence of the hate that polarization generates. I don’t like that, it’s bad and damaging.
The Economist: Many people believe you are the only person who might be accepted by both sides as a mediator to reduce polarization and assure a democratic future for Venezuela.
President Mujica: Look, mediating is one thing (pauses). What I can say (pauses). I will always try to help in whatever part of the world, on principle, not to simulate conflict, not to throw fuel on the fire and try to sow this idea: if we can work together on what we are in agreement about, we will work well and fast. But if we spend our lives fighting about over we are in disagreement about, life will pass us by.
The Economist: If they call on you, would you accept?
President Mujica: Of course, in Venezuela or wherever else. I went to speak with the FARC in Cuba, trying to help and to forecast the difficulties that they were going to face, because in such long conflicts like in Colombia, there is a contradiction that you can see coming: truth, justice, peace. If you want to know the truth and you also say that you are going to submit to justice those who give you the truth, it’s going to be difficult that they give it to you, or that [the conflict] ends.
Look at South Africa, look at what Mandela and his people did, sometimes the confession of crimes is a kind of exorcism of evil and a way to establish a path that allows disagreement, to coexist. If not, I don’t see how peace will be found.
The Economist: You have good relationships with the Obama administration in the United States. How do you see the role of the US in today’s Latin America?
President Mujica: They lost the game. They are very wrapped up in their own problems. Maybe they considered Latin America to be assured territory, or they underestimated it, I really don’t know what happened. But, for example, organizations that were totally loyal to the US, like the OAS, now are not. In votes, the US is often alone with Canada. They will say that this doesn’t matter, and yes it doesn’t matter much in the short term. But I don’t believe that it is a problem of this administration, it is the fruit of a very short-sighted policy over a long time.
Because Latin America, with all of its defects, began to look at itself. We always looked at Europe or the US, and now we are beginning to look to each other. We have our differences, we have different visions, but we are building something, a sense that we cannot wait for solutions from outside and that we are responsible for our own history. And in some way it doesn’t make sense to blame others.
But there are new challenges. This world is not what it was. China has become the biggest customer, not only of Uruguay, but also of Argentina, of Brazil, of Paraguay. No Latin American country can refuse Chinese trade now. And now it comes with the lure of financing and public works and development and joint plans—with China’s dimensions. At the time when we are trying to get a free trade agreement with Europe, but Europe is looking inward, embroiled in its own problems, it doesn’t see the geopolitical importance that this has. What we are asking for from Europe is to balance the scales, because we cannot renounce the East, but we want to construct an interdependence that allows us to manage our affairs with more freedom in a world that is globalizing more and more. Look—they come to offer thousands of scholarships a year for training new leaders and politicians from all parties. China’s strategy is intelligent and global.
The Economist: What role would you like the US to play in the region, then?
President Mujica: Many years ago in Uruguay, in Punta del Este, the Uruguay Round [of world-trade talks] started, after the old accords of the GATT. With all of the difficulties, there were people who worked in favor of an open world, an ever-more open world in which customs borders didn’t paralyze us or create difficulties. This path, which was very difficult, has in practice been abandoned for a bilateralism that led to a cloud of free trade agreements—there are 350 active and maybe 200 more requested—which demonstrates that this is not free trade. It’s chaos. Because most free trade agreements are not free trade, they are something else, they don’t have anything to do with free trade. We are a very long way from an open world and I don’t like that, the trend of creating big poles in contrast to other poles is dangerous for the world. This is going to fill us with tension. Because of the global importance it has, the US should work to be a bridge, and seek the integration of the world, and not be a blocking country because, over time, without meaning to be, this could be very dangerous, when on the other hand there are two other superpowers and the Muslim world, that sometimes we forget. I think it’s unacceptable for there to be an economic alliance of Europe with the US plus the whole Pacific rim, trying to include Japan, leaving China, India and Latin America out. This would be to prepare a catastrophe.
The Economist: What are you going to do after your presidency ends in March next year?
President Mujica: I am going to set up a rural-trades school in that shed over there, which they’ll lend me, because I like the land, and I’ll try to teach this vocation to the kids…I’ll go to the Senate from time to time if I’m elected, more than anything to give advice, as all old people advise even though nobody listens. Years later they will say, “he was right”.
The Economist: When you were in jail, I suppose that there were long periods when you thought you would never get out.
President Mujica: No, I always thought that I would get out at some point. You can see that I’m a rather stubborn character. I thought I would get out and carry on being a political militant. And you know that’s what I did within two hours of getting out and I’ve carried on doing it ever since.
The Economist: Was it very difficult for you to recover from your experiences in jail?
President Mujica: There’s a rule: it affected less those with the greatest political commitment. There are reserves of resilience. But I’ll tell you something. I went seven years without being allowed to read a book. I didn’t know it but a lot of what came later was the fruit of how much I thought, thought and rewound. It’s a strange thing, it seems as if man sometimes learns more from pain than from good times. I wouldn’t be who I am today, I wouldn’t have developed the political persona that I have today if I hadn’t lived such tough years. For this reason I never get tired of saying to young people that those who are defeated are those who cease to fight, it’s always worthwhile to start over in all aspects of life, not just in politics. I believe that life is a marvelous adventure. And it’s worthwhile to start again 20 times over. If I hadn’t lived those dark, horrible years (pauses). But they gave me a lot. For example, I do not hate. Do you know what a luxury it is not to hate?
The Economist: You were always atheist, no?
President Mujica: No, I was an altar boy when I was little. I belong to the Christian world and I have political admiration for the Catholic Church. Political admiration –why? Because together with language, the Catholic tradition is what we Latin Americans have in common. I realise we’re in a time when the image of the Catholic Church is not that great, but there you have it, this is a terribly Catholic continent.