The modesty of Uruguay’s political elite did not begin with Mujica

Most of the presidential candidates in the country lead a simple life

President Mujica voting in the primaries on Sunday.
President Mujica voting in the primaries on Sunday.M. CAMPODONICO (AP)

When José Mujica gives the reins of the presidency to the next head of state and leaves office, his unique style will go with him. But all the candidates elected on Sunday will maintain that air of austerity that surprised the world. The former Tupamara soldier lived the low-profile lifestyle that is the norm among politicians in Uruguay. Mujica may have taken it to the extreme, but if we look back at other presidents, it is clear that they all lived according to the egalitarian ideal that Uruguayans value.

“No one is more than anyone else,” is a popular expression among Uruguayans. Mujica made it fashionable again. Politicians and elected officials present themselves as members of a social democracy.

The income tax papers the newspaper El Observador published recently attest to the modest lifestyle party leaders – and even those who aspire to the reach to highest seat of government – live.

Tabaré Vázquez, the leader of Frente Amplio and the favorite to win on October 26, has one of the highest incomes. His pension for his service as president of Uruguay (2005-2010) is about €1,900 per month. He also makes €1,800 each month as a practicing oncologist. His net worth is less than half-a-million euros.

Unlike Luís Lacalle Pou, Tabaré Vázquez's humble beginnings deflect any suspicion

While serving as president, Vázquez chose to live at his own house, a comfortable residence in El Prado. The neighborhood was once an aristocratic enclave but now it is in decline. A Uruguayan flag and a police patrol car were the only signs that the head of state lived there. Yet, even such modesty shocked members of Frente Amplio. They said their leader's middle class, doctor lifestyle was too ostentatious.

Still, Tabaré Vázquez's humble beginnings deflect suspicion. Luís Lacalle Pou, the unexpected candidate of the center-right National Party, has suffered a different fate. He is the son of former president Luís Alberto Lacalle. He comes from the closest thing to aristocracy in Uruguay, and, judging by his campaign, his donors are also wealthy. The 40-year-old politician, however, has the lowest income of all the candidates. He receives a monthly salary of €3,000 as representative. Although Lacalle Pou is worth €100,000, he has many debts.

Pedro Bordaberry, the leader of the right-wing Colorado Party, undoubtedly enjoys the largest assets. He comes from a ranching family and he is the son of the former dictator, Juan María Bordaberry (1973-1976). Bordaberry is worth more than a million euros.

Still, to be called rich or a millionaire would be an insult for any Colorado Party politician. Traditional conservatives see themselves as the followers of José Battle y Ordóñez, the 19th-century founder of the modern Uruguayan government. He established the separation of church and state.

Battle y Ordóñez famously said: “Let the rich be less rich and let the poor be less poor.”

Therefore, a president like the former Chilean head of state, Sebastián Piñera – a millionaire who owns a television network, a football club and has stocks in important industries in his country – would have found it difficult to present his candidacy in Uruguay because he is the antithesis to the Republican ideal of equality.

More than austerity itself, the obsession with modesty is a quintessential Uruguayan trait. Visit Carrasco, the wealthiest neighborhood in Montevideo, and you will see the rich holed up in their homes and mansions. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Latin America was in the grips of a frenzy to privatize and get fast money. Some conservatives tried to join in. The party ended when a bipartisan group of politicians and citizens called for a referendum in 1992. Seventy-one percent of Uruguayans voted against privatizing several state-owned companies, which still exist today.

The contest was not just about the economy. It was cultural debate and it set a precedent. Political corruption is now very rare and, even during the election season, contenders willingly acknowledge the integrity of their rivals.

First Lady and Senator Lucía Topolansky said no one in the Mujica administration “fattened their pocketbooks.” “We would put ourselves on the line for everyone who worked with us.” The former rebel soldier said such integrity was not only a characteristic of her party. “It is a part of this country. Uruguay is like a sparse little forest. You can see everything. [A politician] bears a lot of pressure. If anyone had been tempted, he would have felt even more pressure.”

“There was an old union leader who used to say, ‘In Uruguay there are no rich people, there are little rich people’,” Topolansky explained. “There is this thing about small-town countries: we all know each other and if we talk for five minutes we find out that we share friend or a family member.”

Sometimes the obsession with modesty leads to ridicule. The government could purchase an airplane. It could afford the luxury but no head of state is willing to pay the political price of doing it. It’s unthinkable for Mujica because of who he is, and even though he is 79 years old, he is the one who suffers the most from those constant trips – many of which require layovers.

Translation: Dyane Jean François

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