Ex-guerrilla who sought to overthrow state is now set to run it

Mon, Oct 12, 2009, 01:00

LETTER FROM MONTEVIDEO:José Mujica spent 13 years in jail as a hostage of the State. Now he is favourite to win the presidency

FOR OVER two years in the 1970s José Mujica was held by his military jailors at the bottom of a well with only ants for company.

“I learnt that these insects can scream.”

He was a hostage of the state, to be executed if his comrades on the outside continued their armed struggle to bring about a socialist revolution in Uruguay.

The revolution was crushed and Mujica was only released as part of a general amnesty after 13 years in prison.

Now the man more commonly known as “Pepe” is the favourite to become his country’s next president, leading in all the polls ahead of elections on October 25th. Should he win, the 74-year old will become the first South American president who includes on his CV active service in one of the guerrilla movements that operated across the continent in the decades following the Cuban revolution of 1959.

Mujica was a leader of the Tupamaros, a group that had something of a Robin Hood reputation during its early years in the 1960s, before losing public support after it became locked in a spiral of increasing violence with the state that ended with the group broken and democracy extinguished by a military coup in 1973.

With the return of democracy in 1985 the remaining Tupamaros transformed themselves into a political party and joined the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) alliance, which in 2005 formed Uruguay’s first ever left-wing government.

Its five years in power have been hugely successful, with strong economic growth, impressive inward investment and popular social policies designed to tackle entrenched poverty.

If Tabaré Vázquez, the current president, were allowed seek a second term he would cruise to victory in the first round.

But Mujica makes many voters somewhat nervous, partly because of his militant background. His main opponent, Luis Alberto Lacalle, of the traditional right-wing National Party, has sought to play on those fears saying Mujica’s thinking at times reminds him of Chairman Mao’s.

During the campaign Mujica has sought to allay voters’ concerns about a possible turn towards a more authoritarian or radical left-wing line by saying he represents continuity with President Vázquez and that economic policy will be largely left to his running mate Danilo Astori, the Frente Amplio’s moderate finance minister.

Many of Mujica’s closest confidantes, including his wife, are like him former Tupamaros, whose political movement is now the largest component of the Frente Amplio.

But while they did not always agree with their more moderate colleagues, Mujica ensured that the former guerrillas remained disciplined in supporting the Frente’s agreed programme for government and says he will similarly stick to the new one laboriously hammered out in negotiations between the various parties that make up the alliance.

His record in government shows an inclination towards pragmatism rather than radicalism. As agriculture minister he intervened to keep down the price of beef, a staple of the Uruguayan diet, in a move that became known as “Pepe’s barbeque”.

But otherwise he did nothing to scare off the huge foreign investment in the country’s dynamic rural sector that remains one of the main motors of the country’s economy.

The ex-guerrilla is not the only candidate burdened with a past. The father of the race’s third main contender, Pedro Bordaberry, is awaiting trial for his role in the murder of two opposition politicians in the 1970s when he was the civilian figurehead of the military-controlled government that threw Mujica down a well.

Meanwhile Lacalle stirs memories of the financial scandals that involved several close associates during his previous stint as a free-marketeer president in the early 1990s.

This record stands in stark contrast to Mujica’s reputation for frugality in a country that disdains showy wealth and is proud of its ranking as South America’s most egalitarian society.

After being elected to congress in 1995 he rode up for his first day of work on a battered scooter and even while serving as a senator and agriculture minister still tended his smallholding on the outskirts of the capital Montevideo, while placing much of his salary to his party coffers.

Should he fail to win outright at the end of the month he will face a run-off in November. Whoever wins faces more difficult times ahead.

Uruguay’s economy will grow this year, but only at a little more than 1 per cent, and not the near 6 per cent per annum of the last five years.

But even this gloomier outlook should help Mujica. A majority of Uruguayans are deeply attached to their paternalistic state and will look to it to help shelter them from the economic downturn. And the candidate who believes most in the role of the state is the man who once wanted to overthrow it.