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The reign of the "world's humblest president" ended yesterday

Jose Mujica leaves Uruguay with 12 years consecutive growth, but challenges.

Jose Mujica
Jose Mujica
Image: AP/Press Association Images

YESTERDAY, WITH LITTLE international fanfare, the reign of José Mujica ended.

On Sunday evening cancer doctor Tabare Vazquez was sworn in as the new President of Uruguay.

The ceremony draws a curtain on former guerrilla fighter Mujica’s colorful rule.

Mujica handed over the office to his predecessor and party colleague Vazquez in a country that bars consecutive terms for presidents.

The two men have led the Broad Front (FA) to victories over the two parties that have traditionally dominated politics in the country of just over 3.3 million people.


Uruguay Mujica's Beetle Mujica flashes a thumbs up as he and his wife, Sen. Lucia Topolansky, ride away from their home after giving an interview Source: AP/Press Association Images

Mujica had become known as the world’s most humble president for his lifestyle.

During his five years in office, the 79-year-old rabble-rouser legalised marijuana, gay marriage and abortion, railed against global inequality and attracted international attention for living in a modest farm house, driving a beat-up Volkswagen Beetle and giving most of his salary to charity.

Having been a leader of a guerilla faction aimed at overthrowing the regime which had suspended civil liberties, Mujica was arrested four times, spending 13 years in jail. Two of those years were spent lying at the bottom of a horse trough.

He told the BBC this weekend that he was surprised that his lifestyle garners so much interest, explaining that the 90% of his salary which he gives to charity he “has no need for”.

“This world is crazy, crazy! People are amazed by normal things and that obsession worries me.

“All I do is live like the majority of my people, not the minority. I’m living a normal life and Italian, Spanish leaders should also live as their people do. They shouldn’t be aspiring to or copying a rich minority.”


Uruguay Mujica Mujica with his dog Manuela, who has three legs. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Uruguay is a more prosperous and stable country than many of its South American neighbours, having had 12 consecutive years of growth. It is also incredibly liberal: marijuana, same-sex marriage and abortion are all legal.

However, that liberalism comes from a pragmatism in Mujica.

“Marijuana is another plague, another addiction. Some say its good but no, that’s rubbish. Not marijuana, tobacco or alcohol – the only good addiction is love.

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“But 150,000 people smoke [marijuana] here and I couldn’t leave them at the mercy of drugs traffickers. It’s easier to control something if it’s legal and that’s why we’ve done this.”

Mujica, known fondly as Pepe, began his final hours in office with his habitual morning routine, taking a walk then climbing onto his tractor to do some farmwork before changing into a grey suit and hopping into his Beetle to go to Independence Square in the nearby capital Montevideo.

Throughout the handover ceremony, chants of “Pepe” rang out.

“He’s the best president we’ve ever had,” Charo Baroni, a 66-year-old housewife who was in the crowd for the ceremony, told AFP.

Mujica, who will now become a senator, was also known for his candid and less than diplomatic remarks.

A live microphone once caught him saying: “This old hag is worse than the one-eyed guy.”

It was a reference to Argentine President Cristina Kirchner and her late husband and former president Nestor Kirchner, who had a lazy eye.

Beyond the presidency, he says he has no plans to retire.

“I’m tired of course, but I’m not ready to stop. My journey’s ending and every day I’m a little closer to the grave.”

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