“From far away stars are beautiful, but as you get closer, you realize that they are incandescent balls of fire” (translated from El Pais, A. Formento)
Every Christmas break I go to Uruguay to spend the holidays with my mother’s side of the family, and I can honestly say it is beyond beautiful. From the moment I learned the word “sanctuary” in 6th grade, it became my definition for Uruguay. Until now, it has been an image of perfection for me, but of course, nothing is ever perfect, and like any other country, Uruguay has its flaws. This past break I learned of an injustice in the Uruguayan world stemming from the government. I have never really been interested in politics or governments, but I have always been strongly bothered by injustice, and perhaps that is why I was so inclined to write this article.
One night we were all sitting at the dinner table when my 9th grade brother asked my grandmother about José Mujica (the president of Uruguay). He said that he heard on BBC News that Mujica is the poorest president in the world and asked my grandmother (who lives in Uruguay) if it was true. “He was a candidate for the Nobel peace prize, claimed a type of Mandela, and a version of Robin Hood, yet also the poorest man in the world…how?” he asked. She looked at him and laughed. “That’s a lie,” she replied, then shook her head and turned away. My mom’s cousin, a lawyer here in Uruguay, then said, “I don’t know if Mujica is the poorest president of the world, but he lives on his own ranch, he has a lot of land—you have to have money for that land…”
We spoke a bit more about Mujica that night and I couldn’t believe that most of the country didn’t like him. How could he have been elected as president if people didn’t like him? My mom’s cousin then described how he rose to power. She explained that the beginning of Mujica’s career was as a member of the group called the Tupamaros who tried by force to overthrow the elected democratic government of Uruguay. This group lied, stole great fortunes (e.g. the gold of the Mailhos), and killed people (e.g they put bombs everywhere around the country—restaurants, golf clubs, bowling alleys, etc). They wanted power and they killed unflinchingly to get this power; for them, the ends justified the means. Mujica is from the “Frente Amplio” party—a conglomeration of socialists, communists, and some smaller parties. They joined against the traditional parties of Uruguay, and they aspired to take power. Mujica became known for fighting and going to jail as a Tupamaro and after that, he involved himself in the government as deputy, senator, and then won legally in an official election with 52% of the vote, thus becoming president of Uruguay.
Once Mujica got power, the ones who voted for him and hoped for change were disappointed with him, and the ones who didn’t vote for him obviously didn’t like him, so where were his supporters? My mother’s friend came over to our apartment that night and I asked her what she thought of Mujica. She said she did vote for him, and spoke in a mix of spanish and english and continued, “A mi me gusta el. Me parece que the same way you look at him he is right that way” (I like him, I feel that the way he presents himself is a true image of himself). But then she went on to say that she was disappointed with him. She explained that he isn’t doing the things he promised he would do. She said she feels deceived. We spoke a lot about him that night. I felt bad that these people weren’t happy with their president, but as I said before, I’m not really interested in politics and I assumed all politicians never really keep all their promises.
The next day I saw three people on Facebook (there were most likely more I didn’t see) who posted this article on their walls and spoke about how cool and great the president of Uruguay was. Suddenly I grew upset. I hated that there was this discrepancy between points of view across countries. How could a situation be so bad in a country yet at the same time be covered in pretty wrapping paper for the rest of the world to be deceived? I called my whole family to the kitchen table to come look at the article and my grandma was shaking her head exclaiming, “Que verguenza!” (What a shame!) I couldn’t believe that people were being deceived into thinking that this man was such a great and selfless person. “Giving his money to the poor, living on his own ranch instead of a presidential palace, driving the same car for the past 20+ years…” My grandma said, “Anoush, tell all those people who are saying Mujica is great to come here and work here for 6 months and then write again about Mujica.” People were seeing the beautifully painted shield that covers Mujica’s real life and actions, and it made me frustrated that the truth was hidden from reality.
While I was mad that there was this discrepancy in points of view, I have not lived enough of my life in the country so I still didn’t really understand what was so bad about him, but I understood that this article had the entirely wrong view on him. The next day there was an article in El Pais, the newspaper my grandmother reads here in Uruguay, that helped me understand the situation a little better. It was a rebuttal to all the articles that have ever spoken about how “great” Mujica is. It asked: if Uruguay is such a great country, if we have such a great president, etc, then why do people leave this country to live somewhere else, then return only to leave again because living in another country was better? Better is a tricky and subjective term, but the quote in the newspaper said that people prefer to live in another country as unemployed than to live in Uruguay earning only a few pesos. Why does Uruguay have the highest suicide rate? Why is there one crime every 31 hours? I felt that I had connected with all that the El Pais article described, and I hated the fact that the appearance of the country was different from reality; I wanted to change that, or at least let people know that things are not always as they seem.
My brother gave me the idea of asking people in the street about their opinion of Mujica rather than just the people in my family. So I went up to people in the nightly fair, La Feria, and asked them what they thought about Mujica. When they told me they didn’t like him I asked them why, and probed to understand the reasons he is disliked within Uruguay. One woman said there is a sentence that is typical from Mujica, he says it often, “Como te digo una cosa, te digo otra” (As I tell you one thing, I tell you another thing). For example, he might say, “We’re going to legalize marijuana,” but the next day he’ll say, “No, we’re not going to do that.” He changes his mind every day. People are never quite able to trust their president. Another person said that when he talks to the people, he talks in a common, vulgar way, but when he talks with educated people it is as if he’s talking in another language. This conversation ended with the man trying out his English and exclaiming, “He is personally a liar.”
Some of the things I gathered from people in La Feria was that Mujica claimed he would fix things that still have not been changed. He declared that train transportation would be working, but after three years in office, it hasn’t changed. Montevideo has become a dirty city because Mujica’s government couldn’t solve the problem of collecting all the garbage from the dumps in the street. The Uruguayan airline company Pluna doesn’t exist anymore. There is also a large problem of security; when you leave the house you get robbed, your house gets robbed, etc; you are not safe in the streets. There are 10-11 year-old kids with guns in the street killing people—but because they are children they are not going to prison.. According to Mujica, “La politica está por encima de lo juridico” (politics lie above the law). When people say that he is great for giving money to the poor, they don’t see the other side; because the systems by which he distributes this money are typically flawed or nonexistent, the money often creates more problems than it solves. These people then don’t go to work because money is just being handed to them. Why should they try to earn a living when they can get by with no effort? One schoolteacher told me was that she was worried for the education of children nowadays. The education in the country is at the lowest rate ever—not enough kids go to school anymore.
As I was hearing all these issues and opinions, I couldn’t help but think that every country has its problems. I did not want to pass any personal judgments on Mujica from what I heard because I don’t believe I could ever have a valid opinion on the topic without living in Uruguay. I wrote this article not to try to demonize Mujica or his government, but to demonstrate that there are always two sides to a story, there are always different points of view, and in the end, it is difficult to say which one is better than another. However, I firmly believe that all sides of the story should be made known in order for a valid opinion to be made. I began writing this article out of indignation that people didn’t know the truth, and were being fooled. My intent is not to say, “you were wrong,” to anyone who defends Mujica, but rather to show that everything is not always as it seems, and remind people that perhaps the stars are not always as beautiful as one may believe.