Have we missed a silent revolution?
Presidents Evo Morales and José Mujica are quietly reshaping Latin American politics.
It’s been so gradual and so peaceful that we have barely noticed it, but Bolivia and Uruguay, both under the leadership of unconventional political figures, have undergone political transformations from corrupt quasi-democracies to growing socialist nations.
Evo Morales was elected as the president of Bolivia in 2006. He identifies himself ethnically as Aymara (the second-largest indigenous group in the country), and was the first indigenous person to be elected president in a country where 55% of the population is indigenous.
He has been very popular during his time as president, and looks set for a successful campaign for re-election. Morales has appeared to Bolivian citizens as a supporter of pre-Columbian religions, and is a champion of equal rights, plurality of religion and race in government.
Recently, Morales has featured in international news stories because he has signed with a first division football team in Bolivia, for which he will only accept a salary of $213 (£127) per month, in line with Bolivia’s minimum wage. This story has further cemented his reputation as a man of true socialist principles, who lives by the egalitarian principles he preaches.
Latin America has a large and active Catholic population, and Bolivia is no exception. 81.6% of Bolivians claim to be Catholic, and Catholicism’s prevalence has greatly affected the politics of the region. Morales has ruffled some feathers by criticising the corruption he sees in the Catholic Church, although for the most part his movement towards a more secular government and religious and ethnic equality have made him very popular.
Christian leaders have expressed fears that Morales’ severing ties between Bolivian politics and the Roman Catholic Church has been a mistake, or even that it is part of a ploy to reconquer Bolivia for the indigenous populations and reinstate animist religion as the official faith of the country.
However, it seems to me that he is more concerned with creating a secular state that permits religious autonomy. Morales is involved in processes of decolonisation, or at least of removing the remnants of Spanish colonial culture that he sees as inhibiting potential for growth in Bolivia. In Oliver Stone’s documentary ‘South of the Border’, Morales identified himself as a ‘new Bolivarian,’ and to many of the indigenous population of Bolivia he is seen as a sort of liberator.
But his politics have been described as Marxist Tribalism, and I think his principles lie in egalitarian and socialist values, not reconquest.
Uruguay’s president José Mujica is an ex-guerilla. In the 1960’s and 70’s he was a leader in the group Tupamaros, a division of the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Movement). He was captured in 1972, and served 14 years in jail for his violent guerrilla activity. Mujica was elected president of Uruguay in 2010.
Known as ‘Pepe’ to all, Mujica is a human before he is a politician. Famously, he lives with his wife in their small family home on outskirts of Montevideo, with no domestic staff and a security team of two plainclothes officers. This is a deliberate statement; not living in the presidential mansion, and remaining in the frugal home he has shared with his wife for many years is one way in which Mujica demonstrates to his public that he is serious about transforming the political structure in Uruguay.
In the past, Mujica has offered the presidential palace as a shelter for homeless families, and although this idea has not come into fruition, it remains an option for emergencies. He is said to donate around 90% of his salary charities and social projects, and in response to questions about his modest way of life he has been careful to remind us that many Uruguayans live in much worse conditions that he does, and that he has no need for more than he has.
In this way, Mujica is quietly radical. I do not think that his generosity and modesty is for publicity, although it has certainly earned him international attention. I think Mujica has true socialist values and wishes to live by his principles, and eschew the hypocrisy of political life.
Mujica’s policies could be described as social liberalism. Since his election in 2010 he has legalised same-sex marriage, reformed abortion laws, and invested in renewable energy such as wind and biomass. Most controversially of all, he has legalised marijuana, which has lost him the faith of some of his voters.
Mujica has over the duration of his presidency been reshuffling the government’s priorities from economic growth to social welfare, and the economy is doing well out of it, reporting consistent growth.
Last June 2013 Mujica had a 45 minute audience with Pope Francis, which was by all accounts very successful, and although they may not share religious convictions, they share mutual friends and similarly radical ideals. Pope Francis has also been shirking some of the privileges of his position, condemning the excess and naming inequality as one of the greatest global challenges of today.
Like Morales, he has caused controversy in his religious ideals. Has made references to his atheism in the past, expressing his struggle to believe in God, and recently ‘came out’ as an atheist.
This is not the only way he has upset the political establishment. His rejection of the superfluity of the political lifestyle in Uruguay has not been well-received by some of the political elite.
But there is a great charm in his humanity, and more than any other politician in the world he is a picture of solidarity. Some might say Mujica’s guerrilla past means that he is a reformed man, but I think he has actually just found a different way to represent the principals he fought for as a guerrilla.
Both Morales and Mujica represent a new idea of what it means for a politician to be a ‘man of the people’. They are not charismatic leaders who the public admire and fear in almost equal measure. Morales is in a football team, Mujica drives a beaten up Volkswagen Beetle. They are men of the people in the sense that they share the same life as their public.
All over the world, citizens are expressing their dissatisfaction and alienation with politics, and Morales and Mujica are exemplary of a new model of politics that has the potential to spread across the globe; one in which action presides over rhetoric, and in which politicians must truly lead by example. We need more people in politics who truly embody honesty, humility, compassion.
Their revolution has been a quiet and peaceful way, but this makes it no less important than a revolution of armed conflict.