Latin America

José Mujica: “Corruption is killing the left in Latin America”

The former Uruguayan president talks to EL PAÍS about Podemos, Cuba and the FARC

Former President Mujica in Buenos Aires on Monday.
Former President Mujica in Buenos Aires on Monday.David Fernández (EFE)

He has spent half of his life as a guerrilla and 15 years in jail. He has lived out in the wilderness, in hiding, and now that he is 80 years old, he doesn’t know how he will be in five years when the time comes around to run for president of Uruguay again.

But listening to José Mujica, who has concluded his first term (2010-2015) as Uruguayan leader and was barred by the Constitution from running for a second consecutive term, nobody would say that he was at the end of his career.

I think it is healthy that the Spanish crisis has produced something like Podemos”

An ebullient and influential figure, alert to events across Latin America, Mujica recently traveled to Buenos Aires to present a book about his presidency, Una oveja negra al poder (A black sheep comes to power), written by Andrés Danza and Ernesto Tulbovitz, and soon to be released in Spain as well.

Question. You are now heading to Spain to rediscover your Basque roots. Are you coming full circle?

Answer. Yes, I am going to Muxica to pay tribute to my father’s family. And then I am going to a small town in Italy near Genova, where my mother’s family is from. I am going because I am reaching an age that if I don’t do it now, I never will.

Q. They say that you may run again for president and that you continue to set an example.

A. I set an example but who knows where I will be in five years. I am 80, and to think that I will be 85 is pretty bold. Don’t you think?

Venezuela is the country in Latin America that has been ransacked the most”

Q. You have a great interest in Spain. Podemos claims that it is inspired by the leftist movements in Latin America. Do you see any similarities?

A. I think when societies are faced with deep crises, like the one in Spain, the best thing is that tensions are able to be channeled politically. I think it is healthy that the Spanish crisis has produced something like Podemos. It is a very mature phenomenon and, as such, is manageable.

Q. Do you fear populist movements?

A. I fear those who don’t have a political party and lack any party line. Parties are the first elements of control that individuals have. You can call them PP, Socialist or Podemos but they are collective bodies. But watch out, because if populism means the struggle to raise people’s living standards or introduce better equality policies, it’s a sin many can have. The borderline is when the measures you take stop the economy because you want to distribute so much that you weaken interest in jobs and investment. If you kill that, you won’t have anything to give out. That’s what I call populism.

Q. Are you referring to Venezuela?

A. Venezuela has the misfortune of having oil. It is the country in Latin America that has been ransacked the most. How can you have a society where a bottle of water costs more than a liter of gasoline?

It is inexplicable what’s happening in Brazil”

Q. Did you advise President Nicolás Maduro to stop cracking down on the opposition?

A. I think there is an interest in landing up in jail in Venezuela. It is a strategy used by the opposition to push the government over the line. It is a mistake and we have told them this. They create this international sensation and then the dummies go over there.

Q. People are protesting and have given up on politics in Brazil and Chile because of the corruption. Do you think that the newer generations are much more demanding?

A. There is a scourge within our own ethics. When the zeal to make money mixes with politics, it kills the left. [...] The fear that you have to have money to be someone can be a tool for progress in the world of commerce, where businessmen take risks. But when you mix it with politics, we are finished. It happened in Italy and in parts of Spain. It is inexplicable what’s happening in Brazil. And here in Argentina, the vice president [Amado Boudou] has been charged.

Q. Are hard times coming for the Latin American leftist movements?

A. We don’t know yet. The conservative right isn’t providing many answers either and I don’t think they can accomplish miracles. I think we are at a period in which the left is losing ground in Europe and at a standstill in Latin America.

I need to have a talk with the FARC people because of the difficulties in the negotiations”

Q. For someone who spent his life as a guerrilla, how do you see the opening of relations between the United States and Cuba?

A. It was a remnant of the Cold War, and it has to be brought to a close. In the United States, a lot of people believe that this is going to bring changes to Cuban society and Cubans feel they are going to resist. History will decide. The Cubans have a strongpoint – they send thousands of doctors abroad and defection rates are minimal. Will they be able to resist? I don’t know because we are going to have to wait to see the effects of the “magic of merchandise,” as Trotsky would say.

Q. Are you involved in the Colombia-FARC peace negotiations?

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A. I am not brokering anything but I need to have a talk with the FARC people because of the difficulties in the negotiations. I can’t tell you much because otherwise I will ruin it for everyone. But I need to have a talk with them.

Q. But you are optimistic?

A. We have never been this close before and it’s worth the while to continue to fight. Maintaining a perpetual conflict isn’t anyone’s strategy. Colombia’s geography is a nightmare. You can spend an eternity chasing after the FARC in those mountains. Maybe the guerrillas will never win but it is also impossible to defeat them. [...] President Juan Manuel Santos has good faith but he also has resistance within. I would like to find out whether those who are representing the FARC in Cuba are following the desires of the entire guerrilla movement. When you have a weapon in your hands, politics isn’t important. That is the problem all of us armed men have. We use our weapons for political strategy because we don’t trust anything else.

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