José “Pepe” Mujica’ is the one-time guerrilla fighter turned head of state.
He is the former revolutionary ideologue who was shot six times by police in the 1970s, tortured, imprisoned for 14 years (three of which were spent in solitary confinement in a drained swimming pool covered with sheet metal) who subsequently renounced violence, entered into politics, quickly ascended the ladder and was elected president of Uruguay in 2009.
President Mujica’s implausible path to the highest office in Uruguay is extraordinary in itself, but makes him so prodigious are his political accomplishments.
Accomplishments that could catapult Mujica to be this year’s front-runner for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Mujica's name was submitted for the prestigious award in January for a second consecutive year by members of his liberal political party, the Frente Ampilo, and two international NGOs that cited Mujica’s efforts to legalize government-controlled sales and distribution of marijuana as the reason for their nomination.
“I’m very thankful to these people for honoring me,” Mujica said in Havana while attending a summit of Latin American leaders in January, according to Argentine daily La Nación.
We are only proposing the right to try another path because the path of repression doesn't work. We don’t know if we’ll succeed. We ask for support, scientific spirit and to understand that no addiction is a good thing. But our efforts go beyond marijuana -- we're taking aim at the drug traffic.
While Mujica’s decision to legalize weed in Uruguay – a country the size of Missouri with a population of less than 3.4 million – in order to combat drug trafficking have endeared him to political liberals and marijuana advocates throughout the world, it is but one of many trailblazing efforts during his tenure in office that position him as a viable contender for the Nobel Prize.
Here are 10 reasons why “Pepe” deserves to don the golden medal when the winner is announced in December.
1) A Champion for the Poor
In the 1960s, Mujica joined a revolutionary group called the Tupamaros, who used “armed-propaganda” to combat social injustices. Inspired by Che Guevera’s tactics in Cuba, the group robbed a number of banks and distributed the money back to people in the city, earning the nickname: “The Robin Hood Guerrillas.”
Mujica’s prominent role in the Tupamaros also earned him a prison sentence of 14 years following military coup in 1970. After he was released in 1984, Mujica renounced violence and embarked on a legitimate political career.
Opting for oration over automatic rifles, Mujica continued to combat economic inequality and consumerism as he had for most of his life. But while most politicians lambaste economic injustices while profiting from their personal prominence, Mujica has unequivocally rejected excess and perks.
He rebuffed the presidential motorcade, instead choosing to drive a 1987 Volkswagen Beetle to work each day, and opted to live in a one-bedroom house on his wife’s farm instead of in Uruguay’s elegant Presidential Palace.
He donates more than 90 percent of his $12,000 per month salary to charity in order to live off the same salary as the average Uruguayan citizen.
While these choices have prompted many to label Mujica the “poorest president in the world,” Mujica doesn't consider himself to be poor.
“A poor person is not someone who needs infinitely more, and more and more,” he says. “I don’t live in poverty, I live in simplicity. There’s very little that I need to live.”
2) Pledged to Allow 100 Syrian Children Refugees to Live in Presidential Palace
In late May, Mujica offered to house 100 children orphaned by Syria’s civil war in the Uruguayan presidential summer retreat home, a riverfront mansion estate that is surrounded by rolling pastures.
In all, there are more than 2 million Syrian refugees, and while the lion’s share have been taken in by Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, many more are still looking for a country to provide asylum.
Senior regional United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) official Michelle Alfaro described Mujica’s offer to take in 100 children as “a drop in the ocean, but each effort by each country is very important and welcome.”
Mujica’s wife, Sen. Lucia Topolansky, described Mujica’s offer as a symbolic gesture of sorts, saying that the decision to take in orphans is aimed at motivating “all the countries of the world to take responsibility for this catastrophe” in Syria.
3) Legalized Gay Marriage
Early in his presidency, Mujica pushed for adoptions for same-sex couples and to allow openly gay people to serve in the country’s armed forces.
To expand on these efforts, Mujica signed a bill legalizing gay marriage in August 2013. Uruguay became the second Latin American nation to legalize gay marriage, after Argentina legalized it in 2010.
Television producer Sergio Miranda, 45, and artist Rodrigo Borda, who were dating for 14 years at the time, were the first to tie the knot under the new law, according to USA Today.
“This is an historic day for us and for the country,” Borda said following the wedding ceremony. “No longer will there be first- and second-class citizens. This will be seen in many countries where this option still isn’t possible, and hopefully help people in those places live more freely.”
At the time, Uruguay was only the 12th country in the world to legalize gay marriage, despite the country being overwhelmingly Roman Catholic.
4) Country-Wide Legalization of Marijuana
It is the political accomplishment most responsible for elevating Mujica to cult hero status among young progressives around the world.
In December 2013, Mujica managed to amass enough support in the Uruguayan legislature to pass a law fully legalizing and regulating marijuana sales and consumption across the country.
Though the law won’t fully go into effect until late 2014, it will make Uruguay the first country in the world to legalize the drug nationwide.
While Mujica maintains that he has never used the drug itself and fully believes it should be heavily regulated, he announced in an address to the United Nations General Assembly in 2012, “What we want is to take the market from drug traffickers.”
Proponents of the decision have called Uruguay’s approach to drugs an important experiment, arguing that if it proves successful, it could serve as a model for the rest of the world in waging the war on drug cartels and traffickers.
5) Legalized Abortion
Despite Catholicism being the dominant religion in Uruguay, Mujica managed to lead a charge in 2012 to have abortion decriminalized across the country in 2012.
While the law is limited compared to those in the United States and Europe, it allows women to receive an abortion within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
However, they must meet with a panel of doctors and social workers first to discuss the risks and possible effects that come with the procedure.
Though it isn't perfect, it’s still preferable to accessing an abortion in Texas or Virginia, where women seeking abortions must first submit to a transvaginal sonogram (an ultrasound that requires a probe to be placed in the vagina).
6) Took on Big Tobacco
Last month, while meeting with President Barack Obama, Mujica defended his country’s actions to preserve stringent anti-tobacco laws as a worthwhile fight to combat the mass “murder” of smokers across the world.
In March 2006, Uruguay became the first Latin American country and fifth nation in the world to ban smoking in enclosed public spaces, required tobacco manufacturers to place large health warnings on packages and banned advertising and multiple product distribution for individual tobacco companies.
Mujica has led a long fight against tobacco, describing it in his meeting with Obama as a product that kills 8 million people each year.
“That is more than World War I, [and] World War II,” he said. “It’s murder. We are in an arduous fight — very arduous — and we must fight against very strong interests,” Mujica said through a translator. “Governments must not be involved in private litigation, but here we’re fighting for life.”
Mujica has continued to wage this war in spite of a $25 million lawsuit filed by Philip Morris at the World Bank’s International Center for Settlements of Investment Disputes.
7) An Environmentalist Who Walks the Walk
Mujica leverages his own simplistic lifestyle to promote responsible energy consumption policies for his country.
At the United Nations’ Rio+20 conference on sustainable development in 2012, Mujica admonished governments who have a “blind obsession” for achieving economic growth through increased consumption.
“I'm opposed to waste – of energy, or resources, or time,” said Mujica. “We need to build things that last. That's an ideal, but it may not be realistic because we live in an age of accumulation."
Citing environmental concerns, Mujica showed how committed he is to environmental protections when he recently rejected a joint energy project with Brazil that would have provided Uruguay with cheap coal energy.
“We can almost recycle everything now. If we lived within our means – by being prudent – the 7 billion people in the world could have everything they needed,” he said. “Global politics should be moving in that directions. But we think as people and countries, not as species.”
8) Offered Asylum to Cleared Detainees from Guantanamo
Last month, Mujica offered refuge in Uruguay to five Guantánamo Bay detainees cleared of wrongdoing, which would make Uruguay the first nation in South America to do so, should the United States accept the offer.
“It’s a disgrace,” Mujica said of the US detention facility in Cuba recently, suggesting that Uruguay take a leading role in helping to shutter Guantánamo’s doors. “I’m doing this for humanity.”
Human rights activists have long fought to have the detention center closed.
9) Calls a Necktie a "Useless Rag"
For all the white-collar workers out there who loathe ties, Mujica might just be your foremost champion.
Mujica, who has attended a number of international summits wearing a simple button-down shirt and "Newport" sandals, has raged against the “useless rag” for quite some time.
While speaking to an interviewer on a progressive Spanish television show, Mujica used his anti-tie sentiments to engage in a larger criticism on leaders who live too lavishly.
“The tie is a useless rag that constrains your neck,” Mujica said during the interview. “I’m an enemy of consumerism. Because of this hyperconsumerism, we’re forgetting about fundamental things and wasting human strength on frivolities that have little to do with human happiness.”
True to form, even when he met with President Obama in the Oval Office last month, Mujica opted for a simple blazer… sans tie.
Give the man his Nobel Prize already.
Photo Credit: Getty Images