“So is the lesson of Mujica that we should suppress our attraction to charmers and truth-tellers and more rationally choose as our captains tough managers and bloodless wonks? On the third-to-last day of my trip, I went to a place in Uruguay that suggests the answer is not so simple. It was the barrio I drove around in with Rabuffetti, and this time, I didn’t just pass through. Instead, I followed a gravel path off the main road as it turned to dirt, then mud. It led past some of the most derelict houses I’d ever seen, one made of old “for sale” signs. Rheumy-eyed cats padded listlessly through runnels of sewage. At the end of a hopscotch course of puddles sat a little shack owned by a woman named Pilar Almirón.
I’d met Almirón’s 14-year-old son at a struggling public school I’d visited a few days earlier. He and his principal wanted to take me home so his mother could explain Mujica from her neighborhood’s point of view.
“Of course he understands us better,” Almirón said, blinking perplexedly, as if my question itself—whether Mujica had been good for the poor—was not even worth asking. She’d received me in a dark but startlingly pretty anteroom in the shack she’d built, its floorboards mere planks over the slum’s oft-liquid earth. Eagerly, she showed me paintings she’d done on the shack’s walls—stylized fairy images reminiscent of Tinkerbell—and the new wardrobe and table in her bedroom. The wardrobe she’d recently been given through a work-for-housing program sponsored by Mujica’s government. The table she’d subsequently made on her own.
She gave Mujica credit for both interventions: Living in elective poverty himself, he appreciates the importance of something seemingly as simple as a clean place to keep one’s clothes. “Nobody knows how hard you work,” he told a group of poor Uruguayans in September. “Poverty is not in the pocket. It’s in the mind. You can be poor in the pocket but still have your honor.” Mujica’s mission, in such remarks, was to protect the self-worth that even Uruguay’s least well-off have treasured for a century in Uruguay, so easily assaulted by the infiltrating billboards and their message that only those who can afford that new phone or that new car have value at all. “He believes everyone has the right to a home with dignity,” Almirón said.
Once, Mujica had come to visit the neighborhood and seen Almirón’s shack. He’d asked her a question that had stuck with her ever since, affecting how she thought of herself and her five boys and girls: “Does every child of yours have a mattress of his own?” Almirón had never considered this. She works at a slaughterhouse and has barely enough to get by. But, she explained, “Mujica thinks every kid has the right to privacy with his own fantasies.” She had started saving for those beds.
The policymakers and opinion-setters I’d spoken to had been so spittingly certain that Mujica’s presidency had failed Uruguay’s poor. The poor (and four teachers I spoke with who work with them directly) believe the opposite. I spent a couple of days touring lower-income schools and neighborhoods, and the view of Mujica I encountered was as different as the view of a city from street level versus looking down from atop a skyscraper:Everyone, without exception, believed Mujica had improved their lives. Seeing a man who looked like them and lived like them—who even invited them to barbecues at his commune—occupying the land’s highest office had made them feel human again. By noticing them, by speaking to them rather than about them, Mujica had reincarnated them. “We are poor people,” Almirón told me with a note of defiance, “but we are people at the end of the day.”
One of the weightiest responsibilities a president holds is the ability to characterize, by speech and example, his society and the meaning of the lives that are in his charge. We acknowledge this when we feel that it mattered that George W. Bush failed to visit New Orleans for two weeks after Hurricane Katrina. That it mattered when Obama said the seven little words “Trayvon Martin … could have been my son,” just as it mattered that he then failed to speak as powerfully post-Ferguson. One of the activists I invited to dinner in Montevideo was a 60-year-old lesbian community organizer. Even as she complained about Mujica’s sloppy management and policy failures, she added that Uruguayan society did somehow feel different under Mujica’s tenure. She seemed a bit sheepish admitting it: It was unquantifiable. But Mujica’s habit of talking about every person’s fundamental humanity and his willingness to “say absurd things” had made her feel she no longer had to be “politically correct.” Another gay activist piped up that while his avant-garde hairdo might have led him, in the past, to be wary of bicycling along the Rio de la Plata—Uruguayans’ traditional respect for people of different economic stations has not always extended to people with different lifestyles—he now rode freely, and noticed more gay men he knew cycling it, too. “Mujica’s legacy, if it exists,” Caetano, the historian, told me, “is simply empathy.”
There’s something wrong with the way we respond to figures like Mujica. We place our faith in them—fall in love with them—for what they say and the incorporeal impact they have on our national consciousness. But then, not only do we judge their performance on entirely different metrics, we also stop listening to them. Inspirational leaders issue a call to us, not a promise for us. They invite us to see ourselves differently, to open ourselves to a new way of being. If, after casting our ballots, we don’t buy books instead of new cell phones, don’t use less gas, don’t do more to stitch back together the social fabric of our own neighborhoods—if, rather than answer the call, we retreat safely back to our old cynicism—then whose fault is that?”
Uruguay’s José Mujica Was Liberal’s Dream, But Too Good to Be True | The New Republic.