¨President Pepe¨. Said like that, it sounds like an election slogan. But as José Mujica is about to end – on March 1 – his term as president he is more ¨Pepe¨than ever. ¨I´ve been in the profession for half a century and I´ve had the opportunity to meet and/or mix with a broad range of leaders from Ronald Reagan to Raúl Alfonsín to Fidel Castro, Mickhail Gorbachev, Lula, Francois Mitterrand, Sandro Pertini, Michelle Bachelet and Carlos Menem¨ but ¨Pepe¨ is cut of a different cloth; he´s decidedly something else. The Argentine Arturo Illía is the only known politician who can come close to the democratic spirit and unaffectedness of Mujica but he was far from having the same theoretical arsenal and vital political experience.
On February 11 at 10 in the morning the Swiss journalist Camilla Landböe, photographer Oscar Bonilla, the kind interview manager Federico Fasano Mertens, the Uruguayan presidential press secretary Joaquín Costanzo and I arrived to Pepe´s very humble, flowery ranch, a few kilometres outside Montevideo. The president comes out to meet us, wearing a shirt with the sleeves rolled up, cowboy pants, sneakers with the laces only half tied up and a baseball cap. He greets us, shakes our hands and we sit down under a tree. He grabs a thermos and begins to brew mate for the whole group. Every now and again he interrupts to ask Bonilla to lend him some tobacco and paper so that he can roll a smoke.
Although this description suggests otherwise, there´s no sense of posing or picturesqueness from ¨Pepe¨Mujica. He breathes, perspires and transmits authenticity. It´s been shown in his life, through all of his life and above all it´s in what he does and what he says. I´ve never met politicians, least of all presidents, that express themselves with such freedom about the limitations and problems of his governments and about his own supporters and allies in language that is a mix of deep intellect and a man on the street. ¨Pepe¨ is one of those rare marxists that has understood Marxist humanism and tries to put it in place each day. In any case he is cultured and profoundly honest, sincere. You can agree or not with all or part of what he says but it is impossible not to be amazed before such a character.
¨Pepe¨ , President of the Eastern Republic of Uruguay.
CG (Carlos Gabetta): Let´s start with formalities: What´s the appropriate form of address? Do we call you President, Mr Mujica, José or…..
JM (José Mujica): Pepe… and we use the familiar form of address (tú or vos)
CG: Thanks, Pepe. Let´s start then. For a man like you, who has fought for decisive political, economic and social changes in the 70´s; for a revolution and has paid the price for it with, among other things, 15 years in jail… What does it mean, years after all these experiences, to be the elected president, to find yourself fronting a centre-left coalition with colleagues that have different ideas and with the responsibility of government?
JM: Men, like any living thing, very much love life. Then we wanted a perfect world. After we suffered a lot, for a lack of speed, because they caught us (laughs), not because we were heroes. But that´s when we started to reassess the role of life, nothing more and nothing less….It´s worth fighting so that people have a little more comfort in their lives, a better home, better health, better education and pass their time on the planet in the best way possible. But nothing is more beautiful, more valuable than life…And that´s the way it is in capitalism, the way it was in feudalism and for the primitive man..and that´s the way it will be in socialism. Like life there is nothing else…That´s what we learnt in those years, that life is the most valuable thing and the second most valuable is society.
That´s why now we´re taking things slowly, but surely, trying to underpin transformations that are relatively slow because a consensus must be reached; they are not definite because the only definite is death.
CG: What you say could be understood, translated, as an adaptation of reality.
JM: One never stops adapting to reality, that´s how complex it is…It´s a way of seeing the world…some see it through a religious prism, others a merely ideological one…I feel more and more related to the old philosophers like Seneca, like Epicurus, like….
JM: Yes….Of course, there are convictions, an intellectual trajectory which one is never going to give up, but we mustn´t be schematic….I think that man, like the animal that he is, for the wiring we have within, is gregarious. He´s not a feline, he is anthropologically socialist. In what sense? He needs community to live. He cannot live isolated, he has a deep dependence on the social group. He has lived more than 90% of his human existence in primitive conditions; he made no distinction between what is mine and what is yours. Property, competition and all that came later. The development of civilisation shaped individuality; the notion of the greedy individual is modern, capitalist. We are capitalists because of our historic education, because we are living in this moment of the development of civilisation.
CG: A few days ago I read a quote of yours ¨we are going to have war until nature forces us to be civilized¨….
JM: Yes, that´s where we´re heading. Capitalism, like everything, is contradictory. On one hand are injustice, inequality, wars; but the selfishness that it carries within itself is a formidable force that has developed science, technology, all that, right? Capitalism has given us many blows but it has given us 40 years more life on average in the last century…what do you think? Now it seems that it has given all that it can of itself; It stands to reason that democratic socialism will replace it but stages of history are long. Capitalism was developed for three centuries without political democracy.
CG: Did you once say something like ¨there´s no point regretting problems, we must confront them¨.
JM: Yes, the matter is finding the way to….
CG: Exactly, once you´re in a government which you are leading, how do you resolve these contradictions?
JM: You negotiate what you can, trying to contribute to making society as equal as it can be, permanently controlling fiscal and social policy, motivating workers´unions to discuss the wages of their labour forces. Because, there is no doubt that the greatest distributive element in society, at least nowadays, is the salary. It´s not the only one and it does have a limit because if I stick my hand too much in someone´s pocket, what he has to invest, he doesn´t invest and at the end I have less to distribute. Look, the human and practical results of rushed socialism experiments; at the end there was less to share out.
CG: They were also undemocratic experiments…
JM: Of course, when everything is scare you fall into repressive ferocity…but the worst of that socialism is the bureaucracy. ..you start to depend not on the producers but on the overseers….Capitalism has problems that we recognise, but there is always something to learn even from its opponent. We must learn from intelligence, not from stupidity.
CG: How far has the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) advanced and what still needs to be done?
JM: The problem is that we have a legacy, which is normal. Since the 40´s in Uruguay – the dates can be arbitrary – democracy has been distorted, we fell into patronages, into using the state to prop up a lot of people, too many people and by doing that we lessened our competitiveness. In order to have ¨protectionism¨ for those who work, we created a category of civil servants who are practically untouchable and who have their futures guaranteed. They start to work for the state and in forty years they retire and nobody touches them, they do what they wish. The state lost its vitality and obviously the trade unions defend these ¨gains¨ and by doing this turned themselves into defenders of the status quo which handcuffed the state…To touch this in Uruguay is akin to starting a revolution…So, we are still at the halfway point. El Frente tried to invigorate things being less demagogic, trying to use and to do things a little bit better, but we have to transform the state, carry out the revolution. We have the instruments, but we have to come to agreement: beyond energy, communications and all that the state has the country´s main bank in its hands; 60 % of banking transactions are in the hands of the state and we (frente amplio) are bringing to an end the slogan that ¨the bank must be nationalised¨.
What´s the point of nationalising the bank? The state bank has to function on its own in a way that the private banks don´t have any other option but to accept the rules of the game. That is one of the challenges that we have coming up.
CG: Like Chile and in contrast to Argentina, in Uruguay the crimes of the dictatorship in the 70s enjoyed an expiration law, voted for in a plebiscite.
JM: I think that the Uruguayan people were afraid and also in a good mood to some degree so they decided to ¨gargle with thumb tacks¨…Difficult, tough, but they prioritised tranquility.
CG: But later the Supreme Court declared that some aspects of this law of forget was unconstitutional, they called it out to some degree. How did your government deal with this matter?
JM: The problem is complicated. On one hand, the criminals aren´t going to accuse themselves. On the other hand they have left behind very few clues, I would say none, with what we have,so that justice is fully applied, would take a very long time. Truth and justice are usually contradictory and there´s a problem in political division and the fights, the hate, that is generated in society when things go on for too long.. Look at Argentina, they started off well but later on they carried out such a generalised and mass action that 30 years have passed and there are so many knots and frayed edges..In Uruguay no..We had violence and a dictatorship but the people decided to forget about it, if you like. Now we will see how everything is resolved institutionally by the Supreme Court.
Finally, speaking of justice and not just in respect to the crimes of the dictatorship, Uruguay has a legal system in keeping with the past but not with the necessary changes of the present. If in Uruguay you want to introduce a land tax, they´ll end up telling you that it´s unconstitutional. Like all of the world and all through history, jurisprudence was thought up by and implemented by the dominant classes, the conservative classes. We´ve got to deal with this; we haven´t changed it. We (Frente Amplio) should have put forward a constitutional reform, because if we don´t change the legal instruments, later you´ll find yourself with these contradictions, with a formidable brake. Justice, this lady with her eyes covered by a blindfold and with scales in the hand…that doesn´t exist, because justice reflects the weight of the classes that dominate in a society. Legal instruments are subjected to history and history is a struggle of the classes…All this is influenced by politics. I think that there is no more political act than a revolution and all revolutions have been the founders of law, the source of jurisprudence. In other words the class or the classes that predominate are the ones that establish laws.
That´s what we need now, democratic changes, approved by the majority, from below that reflect and at the same time allow the changes that Uruguay needs in the present time.
CG: Marx would agree with you.
JM: Better said, I agree with Marx.
CG: I´d like to move onto regional issues, Pepe. Mercosur, for example which was created in 1989 and still some commercial and customs agreements haven´t been passed, it´s not working very well…What do you think about these bodies , about their current situation and about what they should be?
JM: In South America and in all of Latin America, we have a great challenge ahead. If we don´t create mechanisms that allow us to integrate, that allow us to have a weighty international presence, we are going to continue to be like loose leaves in the wind. It´s clear that in the world, giant units are being organised. China is an ancient plurinational state; India is similar. United States with the power and the needs that it has with Canada and Mexico behind it, is already in fact a block. Europe, with all the problems it´s going through, is still pursuing the project to be a giant block. And if it fails tomorrow it will end up being swallowed by a greater block.
And what are we doing in this world, a lot of isolated republics that are falling behind? We´re still stuck in national projects. In the decisive countries of Latin America, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, the leaders talk of and adopt an integrationist discourse but from a practical point of view they are up to their ears in the contradictions of the nation state. Towards the outside world, towards the other countries in the region, they manage themselves according to their internal tensions. We´re far from having a constructive joint politics. We made an agreement on customs and trade, right? But whenever there is some internal problem we put a lid on it. A few days ago I was in a ceremony of the Brazilian workers party, where none other than president Dilma Rouseff and Lula were in attendance…I listened carefully to all the speeches and at no time did they talk about integration. And they don´t do it out of evil. They have the best intentions. Every time that we have a problem with Brazil, we talk about it and negotiate it and we solve it but the internal politics and the problems of Brazil dominate their agenda…and so, what are we doing? We create groups, new institutions, Mercosur, Unasur…
The integration project is 200 years old, since San Martin, Bolivar, Artigas but the leftist parties have been so clumsy that there is no popular support. Nowhere in Latin America are there masses protesting for integration…it scarcely has a varnish of intellectual character but it is not integrated as a basic historical need.
Do you know who the countries most in favour of integration are? The small countries, because of the necessity…because we´re falling behind. Integration needs leadership and this leadership is called Brazil…but Argentina needs to be there too but it´s as if Argentina is set in the past with a vision from 1960.
CG: When Argentina has a wind at its tail, it forgets about integration. When things are going well, things are put to one side.
JM: Brazil as well. I´m going to make a confession. Once the president of Brazil said to me ¨Pepe, with Argentina you have to have strategic patience!¨
Brazil has paid for everything for the Argentines, everything…but they don´t want to lose them as an ally. Argentina ends up deciding everything, whatever Argentina does or doesn´t do is going to influence the path that Brazil takes.
CG: Dilma said that? Or Lula?
JM: Dilma. Lula thinks the same. And they come looking for me so that I take charge of the fight for integration. Lula says Ï can´t, I can´t because I´m Brazillian¨….there´s a large middle class from Sao Paulo, that without political direction, prefers to colonise than to integrate. They make an investment in Uruguay and buy something that we made rather than founding something new. Now 40 % of our meat plants are in Brazilian hands. They go to Argentina and do the same. The only thing that this does is disintegrate us.
CG: The Argentines do the same when they can.
JM: Also, because that´s what is natural in the voraciousness of capitalism. But speaking politically…I am not going to ask the middle class to be socialists..
CG: But that they be good members of the middle class…
JM: Of course!…that is the most serious of all the problems…our middle class is very slow, they are a capitalist middle class but they have a pre-capitalist mentality.
Translated from La Jornada. Original in Spanish can be found here.