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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Uruguay and its famous President: What We Don't Know Does Matter

What most Americans know about Uruguay could be written on an average-sized postage stamp. That's true about what Americans know about the vast majority of the world's 196 countries. If they know anything, it is that 1. Uruguay's president, Jose Mujica, recently has received a lot of worldwide media exposure as the "poorest president in the world;" and 2. Uruguay has a football (soccer) team that regularly goes to the World Cup. The only reason I know anything much about the country beyond that is because I spent a period of time studying for a M.A. in Latin American Studies, about 100 years ago in New Mexico (which is not an independent country, by the way), and because my obsession with Latin America continues to this day.

Mujica, an old guerrilla warrior, longtime politico and one of the most genuine and beloved leaders in Latin America, is entering the last year of his term as president. He still lives at his quiet little farm (chacra) outside Montevideo, still drives his own VW beetle, lives without a bodyguard, gardens and makes his own tomato sauce, lives with his longtime partner and without any frills whatsoever. His is a colorful and picturesque story. It's appeared a hundred times in recent months, but this story in the Guardian is probably one of the better ones.

Uruguay, for those who spend their entire lives north of the Equator, is often confused with Paraguay. The differences could not be much greater. Paraguay is a tiny country sandwiched between Argentina, Bolivia and Brasil, is almost exclusively agrarian and dirt poor, and is one of the world's leaders in smuggling and contraband (because of that sandwich).

Uruguay, by contrast, is a tiny country on the Atlantic Ocean next to Argentina. It once was considered one of the hemisphere's leading democracies, the "Switzerland of South America," though that reputation was demolished by the military dictatorship that arrived along with those in Chile and Argentina in the 1960s and 1970s. All these countries thank the United States and its Cold War anti-communist mania for that fact.

Uruguay under socialist Mujica is undergoing a tremendous economic boom. His people love him. His neighbors love him. He is widely seen as a politician who actually does what he says he will do, and we all know how rare that is. Last year, he spoke at the United Nations. His speech, reprinted here in Spanish, gives a pretty good idea of who this man is, and why we should all know him and embrace him.

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