If anyone could claim to be leading by example in an age of austerity, it is José Mujica, Uruguay‘s president, who has forsworn a state palace in favour of a farmhouse, donates the vast bulk of his salary to social projects, flies economy class and drives an old Volkswagen Beetle….
Key energy and telecommunications industries are nationalised. Under Mujica’s predecessor, Uruguay led the world in moves to restrict tobacco consumption….Such actions have won praise and – along with progressive policies on abortion and gay marriage – strengthened Uruguay’s reputation as a liberal country….
Uruguay’s options to improve society are limited, he believes, by the power of global capital. “I’m just sick of the way things are. We’re in an age in which we can’t live without accepting the logic of the market,” he said. “Contemporary politics is all about short-term pragmatism. We have abandoned religion and philosophy … What we have left is the automatisation of doing what the market tells us.”
The president lives within his means and promotes the use of renewable energy and recycling in his government’s policies. At the United Nations’ Rio+20 conference on sustainable development last year, he railed against the “blind obsession” to achieve growth through greater consumption. But, with Uruguay’s economy ticking along at a growth rate of more than 3%, Mujica – somewhat grudgingly, it seems – accepts he must deliver material expansion. “I’m president. I’m fighting for more work and more investment because people ask for more and more,” he said. “I am trying to expand consumption but to diminish unnecessary consumption … I’m opposed to waste – of energy, or resources, or time. We need to build things that last. That’s an ideal, but it may not be realistic because we live in an age of accumulation.”
Asked for a solution to this contradiction, the president admits he doesn’t have the answers, but the former Marxist said the search for a solution must be political. “We can almost recycle everything now. If we lived within our means – by being prudent – the 7 billion people in the world could have everything they needed. Global politics should be moving in that direction,” he said. “But we think as people and countries, not as a species.”
Thanks for sharing! This is indeed leadership by example…
I’m sure Mujica is a decent man and his lifestyle is indeed exemplary. And the Frente Amplio is certainly a huge improvement on the previous governments that followed the neoliberal policy frameworks that led to Latin America’s lost decade.
But we do need to be clear as ecologically aware activists that while the social policy of the government is very postiive, that cannot be said for aspects of its economic strategy. As the influential Uruguayan ecologist Eduardo Gudynas has discussed, Mujica and his government is the continued reliance on extractive industries including enormous mines. The history of Latin America’s ‘open veins’ has been one of super-extraction with little benefit to the population as a whole. The (basically) social democratic governments in power in Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil have in common, and to differing degrees, the commitment to more of the benefits to the population and the statistics on poverty reduction are impressive, especially in Venezuela and Bolivia. But this strategy is dependent on the unsustainable pattern of global trade. The evidence from across the continent is that these big extractive projects cause more damage to local economies than the good they bring, and although in some places (Venezuela and Bolivia in particular) the multinationals have been tamed, the pattern of dependence persists. Latin American ecological activists insist that ‘another development is possible’ and the framework of buen vivir / vivir bien / sumak kawsay / suma qamaña (which I translate as ‘right living’), that we cited in Living Well, suggests what this might be like (although the more thoughtful critics also question the ‘Western’ notion of development in itself). Sadly, some governments have used some of the rhetoric of buen vivir emptied of its critical content to legitimise this extractivist economics.
I don’t want to entirely pour cold water on what for me remains a source of inspiration, the Latin American democratic left – we here have a lot ot learn from them, and that includes Mujica and the Frente Amplio, but we do need to be clear that there remain serious contradictions, contradictions that arise partly from the conjuncture of global politics and economics, but also from a certain incoherence in their ideology and policy frameworks.
Mark, You are right to celebrate Mujica’s strengths AND point out where his policies are weak in terms of living within planetary limits. I am so glad you have added this comment.