José Pepe Mujica

Politics has been losing prestige for some time now. Common sense usually associates it to rules of pragmatism, opportunism, and to practicing the Gerson law (one must take advantage of everything, Right?.

In general, the mass media as a whole reflect and reinforce this perception, highlighting the occurrences of our parliamentarians and rulers. Severino Cavalcanti’s recent election in Brazil as president of the House of Deputies, and his scandalous proposal to immediately approve a new salary raise for all parliamentarians, is just another chapter of this story. The Left has always had a historical programmatic commitment to another type of political practice.

When the Left has had the opportunity to rise to power, this commitment has many times turned out to be fragile; yielding to the same practices it intended to fight against. And for the sake of truth, we must admit that many conservative politicians showed (and continue to show) greater coherence and decency than do many left wing politicians, who upon assuming a position of relative power, undergo a metamorphosis and become traditional figures, personifying examples of the faults that they should take a stand against.

Lula’s government hasn’t helped much to change this situation, thus increasing the burdens that the Left must bear. There is a dangerous growing perception that politicians, whether right or left wingers, are all alike. This is a dangerous perception, particularly because it is a concrete threat against democracy and the idea of a republic. If politicians and political parties are all alike, it is irrelevant who is in power, which means that, ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether there are different parties. There’s yet another danger, specifically for the Left: the delegitimization of the historical banners that call for the construction of a society in which the markets and profits are not considered deities.

This is a moment in which the world is dangerously nearing darkness, due to the militarization of the political agenda of nations, the growing destruction of the environment, and to the proliferation of a way of life whose idea of being a citizen is devoured by the idea of consumption, and in which every day, a hallucinating mercantilism makes life more of a disposable banality.

That is why, when we see a politician whose life is marked by coherence between his ideas, his daily struggle, and his way of life, his voice should be listened to with special attention. Because people like these are under the threat of extinction. They are under this threat because this mercantilization process drags politicians to the same level, at which everybody is the same, and in which even the forms of political representation themselves become commodities.

The 69-year-old Uruguayan José Pepe Mujica, is one of those voices that deserve and ought to be heard by all those who still believe that politics makes of life in common something that makes sense. Mujica was one of the leaders of the Tupamaros guerrilla, which waged an armed struggle against the dictatorship that ruled Uruguay from 1973 to 1985. Along with other Tupamaros leaders, he was imprisoned for more than 12 years in Uruguayan military bases. He literally hit the bottom of the well.

He was part of a group known as “the hostages”. The members of this group were subjected to a regime of physical, moral, and mental destruction, which included two years of imprisonment at the bottom of a well. They were practically buried alive. In total isolation.

During this period, he learned to speak to the frogs, to hear the cry of the ants, and to gallop towards his inner self in order to avoid going mad. He survived. When he was released from prison with his companion in life and in their struggle, Lucia Topolanski. They went to live in a small place in the outskirts of Montevideo, where they still live today in a communal lifestyle, with a small group of families. In the 2004 elections, Mujica became one of the most powerful figures in Uruguay. Although he received the most votes among all the newly elected Senators, and was appointed to the Ministry of Livestock, Agriculture and Fishing, he did not alter his lifestyle.

In an exclusive interview for the Carta Maior Agency, during the occasion of president Tabaré Vásquez’ inauguration, Pepe Mujica told part of his story and expressed some of his ideas to help reconstruct the country. What is most significant about this story is the example it sets. It is an example that shows that politics is not necessarily the realm of incoherence, pragmatism, and individualism. An example that shows that things can be different. In these times of disappointment about politics and politicians, it is worthwhile to stand out some of the lessons from a man who hit rockbottom, and was literally imprisoned at the bottom of a well, who saw hell up close, and who bounced back strengthened and rejuvenated; back to life.

The following words were taken from the interview and from other conversations he had with Uruguayan journalists. They are of special value for the Brazilian Left, which is going through a stage of doubt and perplexity in the face of the path taken by Lula’ government. They are of great value. Especially for those who believe that politics can not be dissociated from life and that if things go wrong in politics, it is because something is wrong in life also. They are therefore programmatic words for politics and for life itself.

Work and Value

The main problem that we need to solve is labor, a matter of fundamental stability. If we don’t solve this problem we will fail. Our problem is to generate employment, but work that is authentic, work that generates value, that has a minimum of productivity and that adds some type of knowledge. It is not a matter of just drilling holes, employing some people to open them and then fill them. In order to face this problem, we must use all the instruments within our reach, taking advantage of the most heterodox mechanisms available.

Knowledge, the grand battle

What really frightens me the most are the technological shortcomings of our Latin American countries. Intelligence is the longest lasting resource. The great battle we must fight is not the battle for property, but the battle for intelligence. It is a battle in the countryside and in the university, in the field of knowledge, in the generation of knowledge and technology. If we do not manage to free ourselves in this respect, we are foregone. Although we may walk in alpargatas and wear patched, worn clothes; what we need is to fill our heads with knowledge. We either do this or we fail. It is preferable that our children live under certain material limitations, but with the advantage within their heads, in their knowledge.

The debt issue

We are limited because of the debt problem. I see myself as an old man, shouting against the International Monetary Fund. But this does not change anything. People shout, but the bottom line is that everything remains the same. Our attitude is what we need to change. No one has ever put a colt .45 against my head to force me to borrow money. And they generously lend it to us. We can not change the world by shouting, it is necessary to change our behavior in the first place. When we learn to live with what we have, we will be free.

The socialist project

I think socialism is a historical necessity. If socialism does not prevail, I think that the world will head towards self destruction. At this historical moment, we are working under the laws of the capitalist system. Let us ask the bourgeois to work, not to be socialists. We want them to work, to invest, and to acquire less debt. We are not going to ask them for what they can not give. As I said, I believe that it is a need that has remained unfulfilled throughout history, but I don’t think that a better society can be constructed with an illiterate, or an almost illiterate population, limited in the fields of knowledge and life. A better society can not be built by a primitive, barbaric, and degraded people. I believe I’m closer to old Marx than to Lenin on this point. The left must face and solve this problem.

Historical errors of the left

One of the characteristics of the left anywhere in the world is its tendency to atomization. Each left wing organization believes it possesses the revealed truth and that it should struggle against other left wing organizations. This is viewed as a matter of principles, capable of leading to bloodshed. It is thus horribly difficult to try to unite the people of the left anywhere in the world. It is good for us to have a strategic humble attitude in the face of the challenges ahead, that are too grave as to allow ourselves to indulge in arrogance. The other problem we need to solve is the negative tendency in the left to grow and to loose sight of strategic thought, and, as result, finding itself caught up in tactical short term movements, thus losing capacity to think.

We must be intelligent as to overcome our selfishness and our chauvinism; otherwise we won’t achieve anything. If these shortcomings continue, we are finished. One last thing, as militants we must remember that credentials expire and they should therefore be constantly renewed. Each historical juncture demands the renewal of such credentials. Nothing is guaranteed. That is the reason why despite the importance of remembering, it is also important to lose respect for it. New births are necessary, it is necessary that new people come.

The wounds of the past

There are many bitter things in life, but it also offers much joy and many new beginnings. The challenge is to know how to live it and to have the capacity to get back on our feet when we stumble and fall. We went through that experience (in prison), we did not seek it ,we did not plan for it, it just happened, in a way that is beyond the imagination of any writer. But we do not exist to wallow in our memories and to look back upon the past. I think that a human being must know how to heal his wounds and walk ahead with a perspective of the future. We can not live our lives enslaved by our debts of life. If we do so, we will be unable to enjoy what life has in store for us. I do have memories, like everybody else. I couldn’t be any different. Memories are fundamental. Those who do not nurture their memories, don’t challenge power. But I want to make one thing very clear, I lost my book of debts. It is important not to forget anything, but we must look towards tomorrow or else we fall prey to our memories.

Indispensable paths

I disagree with Bertold Brecht because I don’t think there are indispensable men, but there are indispensable causes, indispensable paths to follow. History is a tremendously collective construction, built by the continuity of those causes and those paths. That’s the way we move ahead, each person placing a stone.

Commitment with life and with struggle

In the years that I was in prison, I never lost my freedom. I always had this sensation during that period because I supposed that my companions in captivity were in the same situation. I knew them and I was certain that we would continue the struggle. What I’m about to say may seem hideous, but I am grateful to life for what I went through. Had I not gone through everything I went through, or if I had not learned the ability to gallop towards my inner self in order to keep from going mad from so much thinking, I would have lost the best of me. They forced me to question my own essence, and that made me more of a socialist than I had been before.

A man is a son of his struggles and his hardships. Some of us were lucky to have been beaten by life, but not defeated by it. It allowed us to go on living, and, to a certain extent, to experience as much joy as we could amid all the suffering we went through. Had it not happened this way, we would have never experienced that joy. It is in this sense, that I say that I have never been a prisoner, because they were not able to defeat me, nor several of my companions, who did not forsake their ideals. They win when they make us put down our arms. That is why, whether they like it or not, the future belongs to us, because they couldn’t defeat us.