“Plotzlich one needs a palace”

Jose Mujica, alias El Pepe, the former president of Uruguay, shows the Erdogans of this world that things can be done differently

In those days, in which many people look tense and critically in the direction of Turkey, or rather, in the direction of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose party has reached the absolute majority in the recent elections, there was a man on the Bosphorus, who could probably be described as anti-Erdogan par excellence.

Jose Mujica, alias El Pepe, the former president of Uruguay, is touring the country together with his wife. The reason for the couple’s stay is, among other things, Mujica’s latest book, which he wanted to present at several local events and conferences.

The couple did not travel by private jet, but by Turkish Airlines, economy class. On the road, they are in an old VW car, which was made available to them. Mujica also drives the same model in his home country and did so also during his term in office, which he spent in complete modesty.

Mujica did not live in an ostentatious presidential palace, such as the one Erdogan recently loved to build. Instead, the trained flower grower continued to live near the capital, Montevideo, in his small, simple country house, where he received journalists from all over the world, who called him, among other things, the "poorest president in the world" designated. The bulk of their income was donated by Mujica and his wife, Lucia Topolansky, who is currently a senator in parliament. Thus both lived also in financial respect like most burghers in the country. The average income in Uruguay is about 775 US dollars. Suit and tie have never been El Pepe’s thing. Finding it in the supermarket around the corner was something completely normal for the burgers – and continues to be so.

The official summer residence, which every Uruguayan head of state is allowed to occupy, was made available to Syrian orphans by Mujica last year. There was so much space and he didn’t live there anyway, he said at the time, quite naturally. At the same time, Europe continued to argue about how many people should be taken in from Syria.

In contrast to Erdogan, who during his time in office divided the whole of Turkey, repeatedly attacked critics and members of the opposition, imprisoned journalists and pursued a policy in neighboring Syria that can only be described as disastrous, Mujica has always acted with foresight in many respects. He is best remembered for passing the law that legalized a limited trade in cannabis and also made its cultivation possible under state control. In this respect, Uruguay remains unique in the world.

And Mujica made his contrast with other politicians clear in other ways as well. Towards the end of his term, when no state in the world, not even an Islamic state like Turkey, was willing to take in six newly released prisoners from Guantanamo, it was El Pepe who offered the men a new home in Uruguay. Mujica, once a political prisoner himself who was tortured, could understand all too well how the men, who came from Syria and Tunisia and were held without charge for thirteen years, felt.

Last March, Jose Mujica was replaced by Tabare Vasquez. Another time Mujica, who had been in office for five years, was not allowed to run for office, according to the country’s constitution. However, he had not done so anyway. Again and again, Mujica pointed out that permanent power corrupts and must not become a normal state of affairs. Politicians are to come – but also to go again. "As soon as politicians ascend, they feel like kings. The splendor of the buro is like something from the feudal past. Plotzlich needs a palace, red carpets and a lot of people behind him, who permanently say yes. I think all this is terrible", Mujica said in an interview.

El Pepe’s advice would probably be good not only for Erdogan, whose sultan-like behavior has reached its zenith, but also for some Western politicians, who have not only completely lost touch with their citizens, but are increasingly acting in the interests of financial institutions or the arms industry, while occupying their seats in parliament and barricading themselves in their secure fortresses.

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