Mujica: the Survivor as President

A portrait of Jose Mujica, former rebel, survivor of ten years of torture and solitary confinement, and now leader of Uruguay.

Jose Mujica, the president of Uruguay, lives here. Out front, there’s a clothes line with a poor child’s clothing hanging. There’s a tiny grey-brick shack, half-finished. Tall grass and weeds grow out of control. There’s a plot of freshly plowed land and dogs everywhere. The dogs walk around slowly like old animals, every once in a while looking for shade at the back of the property amongst the bushes where Jose Mujica’s house is.

Jose Mujica, the president of Uruguay, rests here: a four-room house with chipped walls, a kitchen, a red couch, a three-legged dog, and a wood stove. From this austere backdrop, the man has emerged many times to greet the media, first as a legislator and then as a presidential candidate.

Mujica has greeted journalists just off his tractor, without his dentures, his pants rolled up to his knees, and a drop of sweat on the tip of his nose.

He has greeted journalists with an affectionate slap on the back and the words: “Stop all this blah blah and get to work. That’s what the country really needs.”

In the days before the presidential elections, Mujica greeted journalists in his slippers and without his dentures, playing with his amputated dog and having his hair cut by a stranger who had gone to ask him for work.

On the morning of the presidential elections — in his pajamas, unshaven, and again without his teeth — Mujica gummed one single sentence to the media: “Despite all this lip service, the world is not going to change.”

That was November 29, 2009. And although the world didn’t change, that day Uruguay shifted its own course. Winning 52 percent of the vote over Luis Alberto Lacalle, Mujica turned into Uruguay’s most unlikely president, and probably the most unlikely president on the planet.

Mujica was a militant in the Tupamaros National Liberation Movement (MLN-T), a guerrilla group borne of and fed by the Cuban revolution. Twice he was a prisoner in a jail that today (wonders of capitalism) is a mall. He escaped the prison in one of the most spectacular jailbreaks in the universal history of jailbreaks. He saw too many friends die and too many times awaited his own death. He fought off madness while spending ten years isolated in a hole in solitary confinement during the military dictatorship starting in 1973. And when democracy arrived he celebrated his survival the only way he knew how: farming and being an activitist, this time within the confines of the law.

In 1995, Mujica, known as Pepe, became the first tupamaro to be a government representative. Later he became a senator, and then a cabinet member. By the end of 2009 he had turned into the first “ex-guerrilla fighter” to become president of Uruguay and to contemplate from there the fruits of an ideological struggle for which a good part of Latin America sacrificed itself.

“First, Pepe got there because he survived,” said Jose Lopez Mercao, Mujica’s fellow prisoner in the Punta Carretas prison, “Second, because the people respected the armed uprising. There was always the idea that the tupamaros were good people. And lastly, because Pepe was always a very human figure, very much in love, very crafty and very thrifty.”

Today, Mujica drives an old Chevrolet Corsa. He doesn’t wear a tie. He doesn’t have a cell phone. He doesn’t have a credit card. He forbids government employees to use Facebook or Twitter or anything similar. His wife, Senator Lucia Topolansky, is as ascetic as he is. And he doesn’t live in the presidential palace, but on this farm on a rural plain 20 minutes outside Montevideo.

Mujica has been here since the mid-1980s, when he crawled out of his hole in the ground convinced he would return to politics and buy a farm. Along with him are his wife Lucia, also a tupamara, his three-legged dog Micaela, two families that had nowhere to live. When they went to talk with Mujica they were given small plots of land (hence the clothes hanging, the half-finished shack).

Two uniformed men intercept me and, pleasantly, tell me: “Request an interview at the office.”

Since he became president, Mujica, until then famous for his availability to the media, has given only three interviews, all to the same media outlet. The reason: his press staff knows Mujica speaks the way he lives, without niceties and with his house under construction. They try to filter him. That’s why he has these guards, two unimposing men with a Labrador who rolls over and lets me scratch his belly.

“This is the president’s house,” says one.

“Oh,” I say.

Jose Mujica lives here, amongst clothes hanging and bricks stacked about and toys in the weeds– that much is certain. But the question is how is that possible. The question is why does he live here.

“I didn’t want Pepe to be president,” says Julio Marenales, one of the historical leaders of the MLN-T, seen by Mujica as “a brother”.

They fought together and fell together, serving time and escaping from Punta Carretas together. And together, if in different holes, they spent 10 years in solitary confinement. Any distance between the two has only come recently: Mujica advanced in politics while Marenales, all the while backing Mujica, stayed with the organization. He now represents its radical wing and has turned into a kind of guardian of the movement’s ideological purity.

“Pepe can’t be president with the ideas he had as a tupamaro. He’s had to adapt. He’s molded himself to the general thinking of the Frente Amplio party, where there are workers but also businessmen, and businessmen like capitalism. So the ideas comrade Mujica upheld years ago he has, I suppose, put in the freezer. Pepe isn’t going to lead a revolution, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t by far the best government this country has had.”

Marenales smiles. He doesn’t have teeth either. He’s now 81, and together with Raul Sendic (the late, legendary head of MLN-T) started the movement that Mujica and a good part of Uruguay’s current government were part of.

A childishly brief history of the MLN-T would read something like this: the tupamaros came out publicly in 1966 in support of protests by the sugar cane workers, Uruguay’s poorest, and in a context of strong social pressure. The end of the post-war Europe had brought with it greater industrial production in the First World, and that meant Latin America began to fill with imported products and to see the decline of local industry.

Around 1968, Uruguay stopped being “the Switzerland of the Americas” and sunk into the muck of Latin America: there were layoffs, union disputes, the militarization of the workplace, and an increasingly repressive government wielding the threat of a military coup.

The MLN-T arose in this context; an armed organization that, encouraged by Fidel Castro’s triumph, thought the revolution was possible and they would get there in a matter of months. More and more people got behind the MLN-T. They were slow to shoot, and many times they pulled off criminal acts benefitting the lower classes. Besides the standards weapons thefts, robbing of banks and financial institutions, and kidnapping ambassadors, every once in a while they would stop a truck and distribute its cargo to poor communities.

This propaganda made the group grow exponentially. By 1971, the movement, which had started with around 200 members, had 5,000 active members and a radius of influence encompassing some 30,000 people, making it the fastest growing political organization in history. But the members themselves say it was that growth that ruined them. More people meant more errors. By the time the military dictatorship started — which was from 1973 to 1985 after a coup e’tat by Juan Maria Bordaberry — the movement was weak, with too many deaths of their own, too much blood on their hands and too many members in jail. The army took advantage of the weakness and leveled a major blow to the organization: they identified the top nine MLN-T leaders and put them in underground cells located not in jails but at military bases. These men, called “the nine hostages”, were the military dictatorship’s insurance the MLN-T would not act out. If they did, one of their leaders would be killed. The nine hostages were Mauricio Rosencof (author), Eleuterio Fernandez Huidobro (now a senator), Raul Sendic (died in the Paris in 1968), Henry Engler (expert in neuroscience), Adolfo Wassen (died from cancer months after release), Jorge Zabalza, Jorge Manera, Julio Marenales and Jose Mujica.

They say Engler and Mujica were the most disturbed by prison. Engler, a former Nobel candidate for medicine, has spoken publicly about going crazy. And Mujica, well, he said he spoke with frogs and ants. Marenales has an explanation for this: “Everything is done with your mind. Everything, at some point, becomes a fiction.”

The last time he was arrested, in 1972, Marenales threw a grenade at his captor. In response he received 14 gunshots.

“It was a miracle I survived,” he says,”It was miracle any of us survived.”

At the MLN-T headquarters in Montevideo, there is a garbage can wrapped with a poster of Mujica– he looks groomed, clean, presentable.

“They bathed him for that picture,” jokes Eleuterio Fernandez Huidobro.

“We put Pepe where he is,” adds Marenales,”We always work together. He had an advantage. People didn’t love us, but Pepe had our support, and he had his own story, which is that he came from working the land and always pretty much worked for himself. And he had the support of the poor. They are the ones who got him there, and that’s why Pepe is so committed to them. We have to help him fulfill his commitment because he’s not doing it.”

At the MLN-T office, behind Marenales, there’s a model of the Punta Carretas prison. Here, in 1970, Mujica arrived with his body riddled with gunshot wounds after spending three months in a military hospital. It had all started at El Via bar, where Mujica and other tupamaros had gathered to plan the robbery of the rich Mailhos family. That night the police recognized Mujica bellied up at the bar and called for reinforcements. When they arrived, Mujica helped others escape, but couldn’t get away himself. A nervous policeman pointed his gun at Mujica.

“Careful, a bullet could come out of that,” Mujica said.

Mujica arrived to the military hospital with six bullets in his body, but alive. Three months later he was taken to Punta Carretas, where he and other rebels entered a more stoic phase. Their cells were impeccable, their bodies athletic and their minds sharp.

“I gave classes on tactics and taught how to make explosives,” explains Marenales, “The drawings were very exact.”

More and more common prisoners started to admire the tupamaros, and some added their knowledge to the group. They taught, for example, how to make a hole in a wall in a just a minute. Thanks to this, all the ceilings in the cells had their holes and were secretly connected. This engineering is what permitted the epic escape of September 6, 1971.

“We wanted to set up an escape plan that would not only get us free, but be a slap in the face to the government,” says Marenales, “We wanted to mock them.”

At 7 a.m. on August 3, 1971, just after the first inspection of the cells, the prisoners began to dig under a bed. They put the dirt in bags made out of sheets and the bags went under the bunks. When the area was filled, they passed the bags on to the next cell, silently filling two floors of the prison with rubble. The inspections were every 23 days, leaving the tupamaros a little more than three weeks to tunnel 130 feet.

Jose Lopez Mercao, who was in the cell next to Mujica, tells this anecdote: “Pepe told us to quickly cover everything up, that a prisoner above us was a snitch and was complaining of noise to the guards. We went crazy hiding the bags, putting the bricks back, painting over them. I haven’t done anything that fast in my life. And when we were finished that old son of a bitch said: ‘I just wanted to see how fast you could hide everything’.”

After working for 500 hours without stopping, on the night of September 6, 1971, 111 men — 106 guerrillas and five common prisoners — escaped.

“There were various escape plans, but the most famous one started with Mujica. He had the idea of perforating all the walls, and that idea was like inventing the wheel. Various other plans followed it,” Lopez Mercao says.

“Pepe was always pragmatic. There were the theorists to make things more complicated, and there was Pepe, who had been a farmer. As the aphorism goes: ‘Pepe thinks like Aristotle but talks like Everyman’,” adds Huidobro.

Like Mujica, Huidobro was in Punta Carretas, escaped in the jailbreak and was recaptured. He ended up in the Libertad (‘Freedom’ in English) prison and then in the military bases, where the nine hostages spent ten years in cells that were six by two feet. This last stage was brutally different from the others. The prisoners were separated, completely isolated, and were hardly given anything to drink or eat. They were not allowed to go to the bathroom, much less receive letters or visits.

Huidobro was grouped with Rosencof and Mujica. They could hardly communicate, but they managed to agree on one thing: they couldn’t go crazy.

Rosencof began to write mentally, poems with short verses, sometimes only one word, so they would be easier to remember:

I / mean, / I / am / not / crazy. / Why / are you / looking at me? / I / mean, / I / am / not / crazy. / The crow / circles, / he says. / I look / at / his nest.

When Rosencof got out of jail he published his beautiful and unforgettable book of poems Conversations with a Shoe. Huidobro, on the other hand, spent entire years imagining he was running on the beach and urinating wherever he wanted. Mujica made friends with nine frogs and confirmed that ants, if you listen closely, communicate by shouting.

In “Mujica”, his biography by Miguel Angel Campodonico, Pepe sums up his time imprisoned like this: “I’m not one to talk about torture and how bad I had it. It even makes me a little mad because sometimes there’s a kind of measuring stick, a ‘toturometer’, where people placate themselves repeating ‘oh, it was so hard’. What I say is that I had it bad because I was too slow. That’s why they caught me. Biological life is full of pitfalls so immense, so tragic and so painful that what happened to me is small potatoes.”

He says it just like that: small potatoes.

After their third year in solitary confinement, the nine hostages began receiving reading material. They couldn’t get social studies texts or novels, but it didn’t matter: everything was fiction to them. Mujica started doing math and reading an agricultural magazine.

“Pepe would talk to me about what he was reading, about the Pampas,” says Huidobro. But when he says talk, he means something else. Rosencof, Huidobro and Mujica developed a system of communicating by rapping on the walls.

“Once we got it down, we talked like crazy. It was like a second language. Pepe and I generally talked about agriculture. But when you’re starving, and you’ve been starving for years, there’s no communication that doesn’t start and finish with food. We talked about pigs and cows, but we were really talking about pork chops and steaks.”

Because of a lack of food and drink, Mujica’s bladder and kidneys got very bad. It’s not clear what ailed him, but it has clear today he has only one kidney. To cure himself he had to drink two liters of water a day, and during the good times the soldiers only gave them one cup of tea a day. With that cup Mujica did the only thing possible: he recycled his own existence by drinking his urine. They all drank their urine. Years later, when they alerted the military that Mujica’s was seriously ill, the jailers began hydrating him with a teaspoon and they let his mother, Lucy Cordano, take him a bedpan. The bedpan was pink.

From that moment on, Mujica carried the bedpan under his arm when he changed military bases — something that happened every six months — and he also took it with him in 1983, when pressure from international human rights organizations helped get the nine hostages moved to the Libertad prison.

“When they sent us to Libertad after ten years, something we had fought for, we were in paradise,” says Huidobro, “We were happy, and I mean at the highest levels of happiness you can imagine, because we had half a pack of smokes and a place to urinate.”

At Libertad, there was half an hour free time every day. The inmates argued politics and even played soccer. But Mujica didn’t get better. Nothing could take him out of his own prison. Finally he saw a doctor who made a decision: Mujica would work in the flower beds at the prison.

When Mujica returned to the land, something came back to him.

On March 14, 1985, the dictatorship collapsed and Julio Maria Sanguinetti took over as president of Uruguay. The nine hostages were given amnesty and released.

Mujica walked out the jail carrying the bedpan, flowering with marigolds.

A man arrives on a Vespa to Parliament. His hair is a mess from the wind. He wears jeans, a black coat, and has a mustache. He leaves his scooter at the entrance to the building.

“Will you be here long?” asks a guard.

“Five years, if they don’t run me out sooner,” the man answers.

No one denies the story of Mujica’s first day as a tupamaro lawmaker with much emphasis. It was 1995, and that same day Julio Maria Sanguinetti was sworn in for his second term as president. The building was full of visiting presidents, ambassadors, church officials, and sundry solemn figures. But Mujica walked in like that: messy hair, jeans, no tie.

“I thought they were going to see it as a publicity stunt,” says Huidobro, “What they didn’t know, and what I knew, is that the jacket was new, that the jeans were new, that he had combed his hair, that never again would he look so cleaned up. As Sancho said to Don Quixote: ‘Each of us is as God made him, aye, and often worse’.”

Mujica’s arrival to Congress marked a change in Uruguayan politics. First, he modified the habits of the House — lawmakers began to drink yerba mate at legislative sessions, for example — and second, he used his seat to travel throughout the country, and incorporated into his discourse what he already had incorporated into his life, the people of rural Uruguay. His mother grew flowers and his father raised cattle. Mujica started his first speech at Congress talking about grass, and from grass went on to the cows that eat it, and from the cows to the livelihood of a cattle ranching nation.

“Those who thought Pepe was a passing problem borne of miscommunication were wrong,” says Huidobro,”Pepe was one of the best representatives in Congress, a brilliant speaker. He gave a voice to the rural Uruguayan people and had a touching love affair with the people.”

Five years later, he was elected senator. And in 2004, he was a key figure as the left wing, led by moderate Tabare Vazquez, took power for the first time. Mujica served under Vazquez as the minister of cattle, agriculture and fishing. He came out with flying colors, so much so that he won a landslide victory to be presidential candidate for the Frente Amplio party. He stormed the presidential campaign with unthinkable proposals for a 21st century candidate. Mujica proposed disputing private property rights for large tracts of land, lifting bank secrecy, ‘importing’ workers from Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay and Ecuador to work in rural areas because “the poor people here in Montevideo don’t do it”, and resolving the issue of drug addiction by “grabbing all the addicts by their assholes and putting them on a farm.”

He proposed, in the end, to take the bull by the horns. That brought up some doubts — how would this be done? — and some conjectural dilemmas. As Mujica began to speak, it was understood that the greatest opponent was not another political party or even another body. The biggest danger for Mujica, in part, also made up a large part of his political capital: his unusual sincerity. Mujica’s honesty came to its climax in October, just days from the vote that would make him or Luis Alberto Lacalle president, when the book “Colloquial Pepe” went on sale. The book is an extensive interview where Mujica, to give a handful of examples, says Argentina “is not a fourth-class nation, not a banana republic”, but that it “has reactions that are crazy and paranoid”, that “in Argentina you have to talk to the criminals of the peronistas, who are the kings”, and that “people from Buenos Aires are crazy about coming here to swim and they like it because it’s a tiny country similar to theirs but kinder and more decent”, and that “the radical party has good people, but they are all tools”.

Rather, Mujica didn’t say anything he didn’t think. But the political world imposes its propriety and Mujica had to tone down his rhetoric. He apologized immediately and drastically cut back on his encounters with the press, a measure he still maintains. And he won the election with 52.53 percent of the votes.

“This world is all cosmetics. You can’t say this, or that either. Freedom has been mortgaged. One of the advantages of being old is one can say what he’s thinking. But it turns out that seems to whip up a bitch of a storm.” That’s what Mujica said to the Mexican magazine Gatopardo about the disaster of “Colloquial Pepe” days before winning the first round of presidential voting.

Government officials working for Mujica’s Popular Participation Movement (MPP) party have a salary cap. The most they can make is 37,000 pesos ($900), and that means most of them — among them Huidobro, Mujica, Topolansky, and Eduardo Bonomi — collect just 35 percent of their salaries. The rest goes to the Raul Sendic foundation, which provides interest free credit lines for small enterprises, and the Fundo Solidario, which helps MPP activists who are struggling financially.

In his office, Interior Minister Eduardo Bonomi, considered to be Mujica’s right hand, explains the salary cap this way: “It’s very easy to give away the excess. The question is giving away what is not excess.”

“But you never wanted to buy a flatscreen television?”

Bonomi massages his lower lip.

“Um… I live in a housing coop. We finished paying our quota, so we just pay building expenses. Our car is from ’94… But really, Pepe’s austerity is singular.”

“Mujica didn’t change at all?”

“He has more responsibilities, but he’s the same person. He still gets up and makes mate and listens to the birds. But we’re all like that, almost. I get up at six and listen to the news.”

“But there’s no posturing by Mujica?”

“No, he’s like that. What posturing? Pepe’s life is simple and it has to do with the land. People take vacations and they go to the forest or to the beach, but Pepe goes and works the land. On Sundays, while everyone else rests, he gets up at dawn and works the land. If it weren’t for that, he wouldn’t get any rest. Working the land is how Pepe organizes his thoughts.”

Again he touches his lower lip. His lower lip looks soft.

If Bonomi walked out the door of his office, he would be on the patio of the Interior Ministry, just four stories with balconies and, in the middle of the patio, an obelisk, a monument to slain policeman. Someone must have laughed at this at some point.

Twenty years ago, Bonomi was accused of killing a police officer. On January 27, 1972, Inspector Rodolfo Leoncino, the chief of security at the Punta Carretas prison, was waiting for the bus when he was hit by a hail of bullets. The order, according to accusations, was given by four tupamaros, among them Bonomi. But the shots themselves, fired from the jail, were from three guerrillas, among them Jose Mujica.

“During Mujica’s campaign, when rumors got around that I would be the interior minister if he won, there were emails accusing me of (the shooting), and of other, new things. When I took office, I had to speak at the police academy, and I said I knew the emails were going around, that I wasn’t going to play the fool. I said I understand that votes for the Frente Amplio were not votes in favor of what I was accused of but were votes in favor of a new model of the country that included the participation of workers, producers and intellectuals. They loved it.”

Again, he massages his lower lip. Thirty years ago a bullet broke his jaw and he can’t open it very far.

That was normal back then: When Jose Lopez Mercao resisted arrest, soldiers put five bullets in him, ending it with a sixth shot to the head that went through his mouth. They thought he was dead but he didn’t die. The navy doctors found him and took him to a military hospital. There, he received four liters of blood and heard of the presence of Mujica, a man he only knew by name. It was May, 1970.

“I remember one day a doctor came in, in military garb, and said: ‘That Mujica sure has guts. He was in a stretcher and kept saying, ‘Don’t let me die. I’m a combatant.’ We gave him three liters of blood, what guts’.”

Lopez Mercao tells the entire story: Punta Carretas, the jail break, the prison at Libertad, the uncertainty of the nine hostages, how gaining power made the movement make sense. His speaks deliberately, his voice hardened by cigarette smoke.

“Well, the last thing I can say is that they were the most beautiful years of our lives. We didn’t speculate about anything. We gave everything. And now we live with this exercise of periodic introspection about the kind of kids we were at 20 years old. I don’t want to do things at 70 that would have shamed me at 20. I want to exit this life without amputating parts of myself. Maybe other comrades feel the same way.”

Lopez Mercao leaves me with little more than a pat on the back and this open question: Should my story be about Jose Mujica, or the collective miracle that allowed Jose Mujica, in his absolute simplicity, to exist?

Josefina Licitra