Four decades ago José 'Pepe' Mujica was one of the most ferocious Latin American guerrilla leaders — a central figure in the legendary Uruguayan left wing guerrilla movement Los Tupamaros.
On 29 November 2009 Mujica became the new president of Uruguay. He will rule this country of 3.5 million people, the second smallest in Latin America, for the next five years.
A solid built, moustached politician — despectively characterised by his right wing opponents as a vulgar 'fruit shop seller' — Mujica defeated, in a second electoral round, the former president and right wing candidate Luis Alberto Lacalle (1990–1995). Mujica obtained 51.6 per cent of the votes, Lacalle 44 per cent.
Mujica, who spent years in jail as a political prisoner, has become only the second left wing president ever in Uruguay. He has also become successor to the very popular left wing president Tabaré Vásquez from the Frente Amplio (Wide Front) — a coalition of left wing parties that gained power in 2003 after decades of military rule and right wing conservative governments.
In his first address, Mujica promised to continue the work of Vásquez, whose government transformed Uruguay into a relatively prosperous and consolidated democracy. 'We prevailed due to the work of his government,' Mujica said. Not much will change under the administration of Mujica. 'The Frente Amplio is very well structured and its political program is not linked to the change in leadership', said political analyst Gustavo Leal.
Mujica's victory is a robust rejection of the neoliberal model that after decades left Uruguay immersed in profound social division, poverty and a financial mess. This model was introduced during the military dictatorship and was continued by a series of right wing governments, including the government of the vanquished Lacalle. This era was put to an end when Vásquez and Frente Amplio won the 2003 elections.
'Uruguay was a country completely destroyed where half of the population was forced to go abroad', Oscar Fernández, a shopkeeper in the historic heart of Montevideo, told Eureka Street. 'I really hope Mujica will continue the good government of Tabaré Vázquez and the Frente Amplio.'
The 'good government' that Mujica inherited from Tabaré Vásquez included a number of major reforms. Key to achieving these reforms has been the stability of the Frente Amplio — a 30 year long political coalition of several left wing parties and groups, considered the longest lasting political alliance in the world.
The Frente Amplio's central program — that Mujica has promised to maintain unchanged — has been the establishment of a post-neoliberal society based on deepening the country's democratic institutions, economic diversification, with better income distribution, and — not a minor thing — freedom of the press.
According to its 'Index of Democracy' The Economist considered Uruguay — next to Costa Rica — as the only country with 'complete democracy' (this is in contrast to countries such as Chile, Peru and others where undemocratic practices still persist).
Also important has been the country's reinvention from a mainly agricultural economy to a technological society. Uruguay is today the largest exporter of software in Latin America.
The economic plan implemented by the Frente Amplio has not only improved the standard of living in the country but has also helped stop one of the gravest problems for Uruguay — emigration. In a haemorrhage of the youngest and most talented, it is estimated that in the last 20 years more than 500,000 Uruguayans have been forced to leave the country in search of better opportunities. This is a massive number for a small country.
Under the Frente Amplio, freedom of expression and a free press have become a priority. According to Reporters Without Borders, this country has the highest index of press freedom in a region that keeps on going backwards in this aspect.
With glasses full of medio y medio (half and half), a traditional Uruguayan drink, people celebrated in the streets of Montevideo a political victory that was equally applauded by the likes of Venezuela's president Hugo Chávez and Brazil's Luiz Inácio 'Lula' da Silva.
The US — the hegemonic power in the region — has also saluted Mujica who — to the relief of Washington — is regarded ideologically much closer to da Silva than Chávez.
The election of José 'Pepe' Mujica has unfolded in the context of several upcoming political elections in the region. Boliva had its on 6 December, with Chile's to follow on 13 December. Soon they will be followed by Brazil and Argentina.
All these elections will define a key issue in Latin America: whether the left wing progressive governments in the region elected in the last few years are a mere parenthesis to the long decades of conservative government, or whether they will be able to consolidate and deepen the profound post-neoliberal alternative system they have tried to implement in this vast region.
The election of Mujica in Uruguay seems to show that Latin American people will continue rejecting the neoliberal experiment that has brought so much poverty and injustice to the region and have opted for a more economically just and democratic system.
Dr Antonio Castillo, who wrote this article while visiting Uruguay, teaches in the Media and Communications Department at the University of Sydney. His books include Testigos Molestos (Undesirable Witnesses, CEDIC 1983), an account of the struggle of young independent journalists working under Chile's military regime 1973–1989.