A Utopian President Doesn’t Imply a Utopian Nation
José Mujica is a façade put forward by the Frente Amplio (FA) to project an image of folksy progressivism to the West. The party is well-intentioned in its general vision of a more equal society, but lacks both the economic means and the acumen to carry it out with specific policies. Mujica is above all a philosopher, rather than a statesman, which makes it difficult to execute within the reality of capitalism.
You see people like Pepe all over the place, both in Montevideo and the Interior. The country in general is very informal when it comes to clothing and image (Even the leading opposition candidate in the current presidential election, Luis Lacalle Pou, son of a former president, poses in his official campaign photo with at least one button undone). This makes Mujica so likeable to Westerners fed up with uptight and detached leaders. He appears very comfortable in everyday situations, whether real or scripted. Journalists are right to point out that this is far from Cameron coming to a council estate in Burnley, or Dukakis posing on top of a tank.
Mujica’s humility and poverty are all well and good. And I approve of a president that at least attempts to live a life closer to his that of his constituents. What you don’t read is that Mujica has other sources of income not least from his wife’s hefty senatorial salary. His reported total income plus assets for 2014 is around £200,000, around twenty times GDP per capita. Pepe and Lucia aren’t exactly multimillionaire shrewd investors, but they’re at least far more financially secure than most couples on a ramshackle flower farm.
Personality cult is not much of a thing in Uruguay. This is linked to why Christianity has made far fewer inroads than in the rest of Latin America. The country’s idol is Luis Suarez and you’re far more likely to see his image (with his mouth kissing babies, not biting opponents) than that of Mujica, Jesus or any virgin. Pepe as an image is actually far more effective to a foreign audience than a Uruguayan one. But ultimately, the obsession with his image obscures us from noticing or caring about his actual ability to govern a nation we otherwise no little about.
From a policy standpoint, the vast majority of pieces in the Guardian, the New York Times, and other left-leaning Western media outlets stress Mujica and the FA’s policies on marijuana, gay marriage and abortion and Mujica’s charitable and idiosyncratic behavior. While these policies are commendable and may well have their effects in a global chain, they are cosmetic measures that have little to do with the everyday lives of Uruguayans. Walking on the streets of Montevideo, there’s no extra evidence that that it’s a very drug and gay friendly place. In the interior, even less. If you talk to people here, and read the local papers, the far more pressing issues among Uruguayans are localized problems like la Baja (incarceration of minors) and Aratirí (a large scale mining project). This disconnect between vogue socially progressive policies and controversial local issues begs the question, at what point does domestic policy become foreign policy? After all, what does Uruguayan domestic policy really have to do with our cozy lives in London and San Francisco? It’s when it becomes something international that we abroad suddenly take interest.
With only 3 million people, and limited natural resources, Uruguay is too small of a country for its policies to matter significantly on a global stage. The internal market is very limited and much depends on what’s happening in Brazil and Argentina, not to mention India and China. Though I do hold out hope that the drug measures here will in the long run lead to policies elsewhere that make the global narcotics market less rife with violence, I think that they would from the offset hold more clout if they came from a country with a much larger role in the global economy. Another caveat about the narcotics situation is the alarmingly increasing prevalence of pasta base (the roughest, dirtiest, un-purified form of cocaine) in the peripheral barrios of Montevideo since the financial crisis of the early 2000s. Given its easy availability, highly addictive nature and side effects, the jury’s out whether new marijuana laws will temper its use. Hopefully the promises to administer marijuana use as part of pasta base rehab will prove useful.
The FA platform built is built on the historical precedent of Uruguay as a strong welfare state (once referred to as the Switzerland of South America). But today the party applies this model to support an underclass with basic sustenance rather than strengthen an existing middle class with security and expertise through expanding and improving major institutions. It is true that poverty has been reduced dramatically since the FA came to power in 2004, but the results reflect a response to basic needs rather than any transformation in societal structure. Rather the middle class is taxed very high, and this combined with low wages and lack of domestic opportunities is leading to a brain drain. While reducing poverty in an absolute sense, the FA has actually contributed to further fragmentation and inequality. Two extremes result. Either stay at home and sip maté while the state gives you a hefty dole package (increased per number of children you have), or work your ass off for a respectable job with low wages and high taxes. (I’ll write another time about how this relates to the work/leisure (im)balance in Uruguay and where a BaumanLyons 5 in 4 scheme could fit in.) Along with this polarization has come a decline in public health and public education. Demand for private education from primary through to tertiary is increasing ever rapidly as quality of public instruction decreases and as programs like PlanCeibal (laptop for every child) struggle to be implemented effectively. It should be noted, and perhaps as an upside of being a small market, that this polarization has not led to the high levels of violence and gang activity plaguing Argentina and Brazil.
The very high cost of living in Uruguay is incompatible with the very low wages (in both absolute and relative terms). Public sector employment is abnormally high (15% compared to 9 % in Chile) thanks to a state that insists on having more jobs than are needed. This is true in clerical positions, but also with things like unnecessary parking attendants, and even manual labor. This morning I asked a worker building a wall beside a shed on the property of the Central Station why the need for a wall. He simply responded, “to build a wall”. It’s in the light of clientelism and state encouraged laziness that marijuana laws and Mujica’s character must also be seen. The marijuana plans which involve state regulation from production to sale to consumption, regardless of how effective they are domestically and internationally, are very much part of the FA’s agenda to project an image of a highly involved state. A big, slow and often aimless state also helps cultivate a lack of innovation. As a prime example, non-profits are rare. People expect government—in the form of both ministries and intendencias–to do almost everything that isn’t profitable.
Despite the largeness of the state, democracy is very much alive and well here. Among the many countries that have bounced back from military dictatorships, Uruguay has perhaps come the farthest at achieving a fully democratic state. Again, the small size of the country and dense social networks helps make this possible. Almost everyone knows someone on a lista in the elections, so voting and the relation to candidates becomes a far personal thing than Joe the Plumber choosing between a Stanford man and a Princeton man. In Uruguay Joe the Plumber decided to elect—literally—Joe the Flower Farmer, who ostensibly could be good pals. This admirable extent of democracy also contributes to the oversaturated state, as a far greater percentage of the population feel part of it. It is in this context that Mújica’s presidency is not so surprising to Uruguayans. As a survived prisoner of the dictatorship, he is even more a symbol of a resurgent democracy. Tabaré Vazquez, the current FA candidate for president, who held the position before Mújica from 2005-2010 is more of a John Kerry in both looks and personality. If he is elected—and it’s a big if, given the Lacalle Pou’s popularity among youth, his platform of change, and more personable image–don’t expect to see anywhere near the outpour of Western media interest.
All of this considered, it’s great that Mújica gives us a different image of who a president can be and what he can do. But before jumping on the bandwagon, let’s keep in mind the realities of Uruguay, of a small market, of a horrendous wages to cost ratio, of clientelism, and of centralization on an even greater scale than the octopus that has become London. Uruguay is not a liberal utopia, at least not in practice, not matter how inspiring its president may be.