The Great Mujica: Portrait of a Person

03/03/2015 03:42 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2015
HECTOR GUERRERO via Getty Images

The Uruguayan president that stepped down on Sunday could sound strident and empathetic at the same time, appear both hopeful and defeated, uttering one sentence, and offer a strange confluence of political beliefs while addressing a single issue. In short, the world famous Jose "Pepe" Mujica was a person. He represented all the paradoxes and contradictions inherent in that state of being. Mujica became the distinction for all that he was, and, almost in equal measure, all that he wasn't.

True, Mujica's remarkable personal narrative -- he endured 10 years in solitary confinement during Uruguay's dirty war -- singles him out. But he is not riding on victim clout. Mujica distinguished himself, not only through his fantastic story, but also by saying what he thought.

We all know officialese when we hear it. And people the world over have something in common: When their head of state speaks, he or she adopts that certain presidential affectation. In the United States, in particular, the president's words are vetted, edited and packaged until becoming a consumer product. Our presidents seem almost ready for trademark.

Mujica's forthright style came to have broad significance. It led to action. Those actions earned the attention of people all over the globe. That a head of state from little Uruguay garnered so much attention is remarkable, particularly in an age where GDP and strategic positioning are so paramount.

Mujica changed Uruguay. He embodied the principles and essence of the country, but he also willed it to change through sheer force of personality and good will. He welcomed the Guantanamo detainees that the United States had cleared for release, but no one else wanted. He legalized same-sex marriage. He created a legal marketplace for marijuana, while at the same time denouncing the health effects of the drug. Most importantly, he made all those major reforms, despite the fact that a majority of Uruguayans opposed every single one of those initiatives. Nevertheless, he managed to maintain the support of the Uruguayan electorate.

Mujica wasn't perfect, but he was reliably honest and original. Most importantly, the Uruguayan president was earnestly optimistic amid a disastrous global context. After having intervened with such human and financial expense in the Middle East, the United States is witnessing a horrifying conflagration in the region -- of the likes not seen in perhaps a millennia. The horrors are worse than unrelenting -- they are escalating. The situation in North Korea, which some years ago seemed destined for improvement with the ascension of a young leader, is now a dangerous crapshoot. Uruguay's large neighbor to the south, Argentina, is on the verge of country-wide nervous breakdown, given the near-fictional political turmoil and corruption. Indeed, there seems to be no good news anywhere.

And then there was Mujica -- who in his latest, pudgy, scrunched-up-eye incarnation seems the opposite extreme of the wildly alert and Hollywood-handsome guerrillero of his youth. Mujica seemed to project a luminous spot on a shadowed globe. He became known, not only as the poorest president for living in a ramshackle cottage and getting around on an old VW bug, but also as the president people around the world would like to have for themselves. Regardless of where people live, a great multitude want a different kind of leadership. The kind of president that just talks.

Mujica didn't disappoint in his last days in office. Shortly before stepping down, he expressed the awe-inspiring depth and range of his individuality when addressing the complaints that one of the former Guantanamo detainees had about his situation in Uruguay:

"If these people were humble people of the desert, poor people, they'd surely be stronger and more primitive, but they're not," Mujica said, adding: "Through their hands, features and family histories, it seems to me that they're middle class."

There is no doubt that Mujica is the first head of state to hurl the lexicon of class warfare against a former Gitmo inmate. Perhaps he is the first person to ever do so. And if that wasn't enough to blur conventional political lines and boundaries, Mujica tapped into conservative meritocratic principles for the dressing down -- basically telling the former detainees to get out there and get their hands dirty with honest work.

When Mujica gets downright testy, he can deliver a unique ideological rebuke. And while the Uruguayan leader later expressed greater sympathy for the Guantanamo refugees, people in pain and paralysis sometimes benefit from a no-nonsense drubbing -- particularly from a head of state who was, himself, imprisoned without trial.

Mujica projected, from his presidential perch, the wildly innocent virtue of Uruguay itself -- and magnified it. If Uruguay as a country is part exile, part refuge, Mujica made the country more the latter. One thing is certain, the world will remember Mujica -- the president, the person.

Postscript for the Reader: As a first-generation American of Uruguayan descent, Mujica evokes in this writer powerful feelings of childhood nostalgia. In short, Mujica reminds me of an Uruguayan uncle. Not any particular uncle per se, he just looks and feels like family. This portrayal should be interpreted and registered with such partiality in mind. Reader beware.