You ask me if I remember? How could I forget that day.
It happened on a long walk home, a walk I was forced to take.
I left work and started the journey. An hour passed, another hour and then one more. I carried on, melting in the afternoon heat and still more than twelve hours from home.
Cars passed now and then. Each viciously kicked up the dry dirt road, creating a swirling, blinding fog which choked anyone too close to the roadside and muted the entire landscape with a dull brown dust.
At some point I slowed to a stop, exhausted, hungry and covered in that dust. My hopes of reaching home rested on hitching a ride.
A speck on the horizon became a car. I caught eyes with the driver and it returned to a speck as it drove on into the distance. The same happened with a second. A fifth. A twenty-fifth and thirtieth. I remember thinking that cars have gotten faster and more reliable and with that they have become less likely to stop to help a stranger in need.
Sometimes it’s when hope fades that light shines through. I resigned myself to continuing that walk, and a car stopped.
Not just any car.
A familiar car, filled with faces I knew. A car older than I am.
That famous old 1987 blue Volkswagen Beetle, man, woman and dog. An old man with a warm, wise smile. A woman whose eyes told a story of life full of love, fire and rebellion. That dog: three legs, black and white face.
The man who stopped was my president. The real, actual president of my country. His wife. Their dog. All were smiling, all offering me a ride. I got in.
”What brings you here today?” he asked. “What happened that you in the middle of nowhere, hailing a ride?”
I told him my story. I explained to him how work forced me to leave and I had no other way to get home. I told him of my travails with heat and dust. I told him of my dwindling faith in humanity these last few hours as specks became cars and then specks again. I told him how he had restored that faith when he stopped. He smiled and drove on.
A couple of moments of silence followed as I composed myself. Like anyone, like you I’m sure, I had questions I wanted to ask the person who leads my country. Now was my chance, if there ever was to be one.
”Thank you again for picking me up Mr President, Madame First Lady.” I said.
”You are most welcome my friend. Please call me Pepe. You were in need, so I served you. You should know that I am not a king, not a god. I am the president, and so it is my duty to serve the people.” he replied.
I could never bring myself to call him Pepe. Not on this journey, nor any time after. My eyes scanned the thirty year old VW. Worn in all the places you’d expect but immaculately clean. I caught his eyes in the mirror and he knew what I was thinking.
“You’re wondering why I drive this car. Don’t worry, many wonder the same. Tell me, why do you think I should drive anything more? We have sacrificed the old immaterial gods, and now we are occupying the temple of the Market-God. He organizes our economy, our politics, our habits, our lives, provides us with credit cards and gives us the appearance of happiness.”
“It seems that we have been born only to consume and to consume, and when we can no longer consume, we have a feeling of frustration, and we suffer from poverty, and we are auto-marginalised. I drive this car because I do not need to drive more than this car.”
He is the president who drives a car that most would have scrapped by now. He is also the president who donates 90% of his income to charity.
”Why?” I asked.
He was quick to respond, like he’d said what he was about to say a hundred times before.
“I do fine with that amount; I have to do fine because there are many Uruguayans who live with much less.”
“I focus on the things I believe in. I have a way of life that I don’t change just because I am a president. I earn more than I need, even if it’s not enough for others. For me, it is no sacrifice, it’s a duty. If democracy means representing the majority, as a symbol I think that those with the highest responsibilities should live like the majority do, not the minority.”
This took me by surprise. We might not realise it, but most of us, me and you included, are on a journey to accumulate money and power. He seemed different somehow; there was an aura of contentedness. No doubt he had power but it felt like he wanted to wield that power with a selflessness rare in people of his import. More than any person I could name, he looked happy, so I asked him if he was happy with the life he has led.
”Yes, I think I am. To be happy is to live in accordance with how one thinks. To be happy is to be yourself and not to impose your criteria on the rest. I don’t expect others to live like me, to find happiness from the same things as me. I want to respect people’s freedom and defend my freedom. And that only comes with the courage to say what you think, even if sometimes others don’t share those views.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking this man, this president, was some cuddly old progressive uncle. His journey to this place and this time shows that he is anything but. He was a leader with Tupamaros, an armed and violent left wing guerrilla group who challenged the status quo in the sixties and seventies and whose slogan was ‘Words divide us; action unites us’.
He survived six bullets in a shootout with police and fourteen years in prison, ten in solitary confinement and two in the bottom of a well. He was captured four times by the authorities, escaping twice. Amongst all this violence, he was given the nickname Florero (florist) – a man who, even in the heat of the battle, made time to tend to flowers.
I asked him about this time. He didn’t say much but he was clear that “I wouldn’t have developed the political persona that I have if I hadn’t lived such tough years.”
I then asked him if there were lessons I could learn from his time as a young man, being a young man myself with social justice on my mind.
He paused and said “I know everyone loves a rebel, challenging authority. But I’ve seen some springs that ended up being terrible winters. 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 want to make it clear: I feel sympathetic with that youthful energy, but I think it’s not going anywhere if it doesn’t become more mature.”
By this point I was buzzing. I was in the car with the man who, in the conservative Catholic backdrop of Uruguay, somehow pushed through legislation in favour of same sex marriage and abortion, the man legalised marijuana.
“So, do either of you fancy smoking a joint?” I asked. The looked at each other and then at me. Neither of them appreciated the joke.
He said, ”Funny boy. Yes I legalised marijuana. The criminalisation of drugs mean that one in three of our prisoners are there for drug related crimes. I do not, however, believe in drugs. And worse than drugs is drug trafficking. Much worse. Drugs are a disease, and I don’t think that there are good drugs or that marijuana is good. Nor cigarettes. No addiction is good. I include alcohol. The only good addiction is love. Forget everything else.”
What could I do but apologise?
We talked for some time more. He asked about me, about how I was feeling, about my hopes and dreams and how the country could best serve me and all the people.
Before I knew it, we reached my town. My time with this president, this most interesting and fascinating of men, this man who was the only one to stop and help me in my hour of need, was over and it had changed what I think a president can be and the kind of man that I wanted to be.
This is a piece of fiction based on the life of Jose Mujica (nicknamed Pepe, born May 20, 1935 in Montevideo) the socially progressive president of Uruguay from 2010 to 2014. Jose Mujica’s words in this piece are made up of abridged and reworded quotes from him. The premise is very loosely based on a true story that took place in January 2015 (the hitchhiker in question was called Gerhald Acosta).
There cannot be many world leaders who have been universally loved. His approval rating was over 70% when he left office (for a comparison, Obama’s peak was 67% on the day of his inauguration and was 47% on leaving office).
His work has been lauded at home and abroad. A guardian article points to how the international media have described him as “the most incredible politician” or indeed “the best leader in the world”. His achievements in social reform in the heart of conservatively Catholic South America cannot be underestimated. Uruguay is unique on the continent in its relatively progressive attitude to gay marriage, abortion and marijuana and much of this is down to Mujica’s government.
Like any individual pushing in a radical new direction, he has critics. Read around the man and you’ll come across arguments that he is all talk and no action, a chaotic leader or that he projects an image of a saint when his past points to a man that is not so saintly. You’ll be directed to falling PISA scores (a measure of education attainment) and failing state owned companies. Jose Mujica is hard critic of himself and, on leaving office, said “If I look at the current picture of my society, I cannot be happy, there is still more to be done.”
I leave you to take from this man what you will, but I will say this: No human is perfect. We all have things we regret. We can only, day by day, move our lives in the right direction as we learn from our inevitable mistakes.
Although this is focused on Jose Mujica, his wife Lucia Topolanksy (the“ex-guerrilla, prison escapee, torture survivor, blonde-bombshell-turned-wild-haired, farm-living, hard-as-nails first lady”) is just as fascinating and bad-ass. A great article on her here.