This week saw Uruguayans say goodbye to their beloved President Mujica. President for only five years, he has made not only a huge impact on his country, but on the world. His leadership must be looked at in the wider context of South American leaders in order to really grasp the significance of this remarkable man, as well as understanding the flaws of certain other South American leaders, most notably Christina Fernandez de Kirchner.
Latin America has changed dramatically since the 1970s, when dictatorships reigned across the continent. The democratic revival of the continent however, as we can see, has been a shaky one. Modern South America, in some ways, is an example to the rest of the world. The cooperation between the states of the continent both politically and economically through bodies such as Mercosur have been an unprecedented success. We can also see that the three largest and most powerful nations on the continent are currently led by women; with Michelle Bachelet leading an effective and popular second government in Chile, De Kirchner maintaining the support of her loyal Peronists in Argentina, and Dilma Rousseff proving herself to be particularly resilient in winning an incredibly tight Presidential Election in Brazil at the end of 2014.
This record of cooperation and women in high office is something which South Americans can be proud of. The outgoing President of Uruguay, Jose Mujica, has proven that modesty and humility can run side-by-side with effective and popular leadership. On the other hand leaders such as Argentina’s de Kirchner and Nicolas Maduro, the President of Venezuela, have shown the stark contrasts between the democratic leaderships on the continent. These examples also really demonstrate the effects that outlook and leadership can have on the success of a country in an increasingly globalised world.
A former guerrilla fighter Mujica soon reigned in his more extreme left-wing views of his early years and came to be praised as not only a pragmatist, but also an incredibly humble man. As one BBC commentator stated after an interview with Mujica, “this enigmatic leader remains an inspiration to many and is a reminder that politics is meant to be a humble and honourable profession.” He promoted simple living, looking after the environment and creating a caring and compassionate community. His own simple living, even during his presidency, driving an aged car and living in a decidedly plain single storey apartment, gained him a reputation for being an incredible principled individual, which in modern political leaders is something one cannot often claim. Perhaps Mujica did represent what other politicians often claim to be. Looking at Uruguay’s neighbouring countries, however, one soon realises that many leaders simply haven’t taken Mujica’s subtle message to leaders of the world on board.
If we take the example of Argentina, which very much contrasts with the legacy left by Mujica in Uruguay; we see a nation that is comparatively crippled, even now, by the decisions taken by a succession of atrocious leaders. Argentina has a history of electing radical populists, as was the case throughout the twentieth century, when the nation yo-yoed between democratically elected populist governments, like those of Peron and Menem, and a significant five military dictatorships. The current premier, Christina Fernandez de Kirchner, has made quite an impact in her country as well. However, unlike Mujica, de Kirchner’s place in history will certainly be devoid of any mention of humbleness or sincerity. Still reeling from the economic crisis brought upon the country in 2001 by the disastrous policies of the populist Peronist leader, Carlos Menem, the country has never recovered. De Kirchner, however, remains in the words of one BBC correspondent, “loved and loathed in almost equal measure.” In the last year of her presidency however, the tide seems to be turning against her.
De Kirchner has remained relatively popular as she represents the Peronist tradition that the country has had since the days of the movement’s founder Juan Peron, back in the 1940s. Nonetheless, she has further embroiled the nation in a battle of wills with the U.S over the repayment of bonds to investors, which is significantly undermining her legitimacy, as it appears this is a battle Argentina will not win. Her latest controversy surrounding the death of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who was killed hours before he was due to testify over the President’s knowledge of who was behind the 1994 terrorist attack on a Jewish Centre in Buenos Aires, is also raising questions over her abilities and moral integrity. De Kirchner’s possible and increasingly obvious involvement in the controversy has been highlighted internationally, and has led both her and her country to be further condemned by the international community.
Not only has de Kirchner alienated the U.S, but she has also reopened the feud with Britain over the Argentine claim to the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic (Malvinas Islands). This, an unnecessary wound to reopen at such a pivotal moment in her country’s history, represents her desire to regain the support of an increasingly hostile public, a toll so frequently used by Peronists in a nation that has proven itself particularly susceptible to the influence of populist rhetoric over the decades. De Kirchner has distanced herself from international cooperation with Argentina’s traditional Western allies, and represents the opposite of her neighbouring Uruguay. We also see in Venezuela, the grasping of power by Nicolas Maduro, who, although democratically elected, has increasingly ruled by decree and is becoming more dictatorial by the day, with him passing a law to rule by decree in 2013 in order to stop what he called “corruption”. In the Human Rights Risk Index 2014, both Venezuela was marked as “high risk” and Argentina “medium risk”, which shows the extent of the challenges the two countries face. In contrast under Mujica, Uruguay became the most liberal country in South America, and a beacon for the promotion of globalisation.
An analyst from MercoPress commented, in 2013, Mujica made a speech calling for “true globalisation” and showed his support for increased internationalism and advancement of human rights worldwide. In an increasingly globalised world, this old guerrilla has proven far more effective at bringing his country into the modern era than his Argentine or Venezuelan counterparts. Above all in Argentina has been the dominance of the Peronists and their populism, which for decades has restricted their nation’s development and alienated many Western allies. Progressives have little input in Argentinian politics, which has long been dominated by the Peronist Party, whose ideological convictions have stretched from the libertarianism of Menem to the socialism of De Kirchner. Similarly in Venezuela although there appears a façade of democracy, only one party rules, and Maduro has no need to worry about his grip on power.
To prevent a South American continent that may once again become cripple and restricted by its susceptibility to populism and strong and unchallenged leaders, the people of the continent certainly need to look at the relative success the small country of Uruguay with its three million people have had under a president who represents consensus and working together, not only through his internationalist outlook, but also in the fact that he is willing to live and work alongside his people. Perhaps leaders like De Kirchner and Maduro need to live the humble life that Mujica has led alongside his people in order to understand what their respective countries really need to thrive. Furthermore, I’m sure a number of Western leaders could also learn some profound lessons from Mujica’s example.