A search on Flickr images for Uruguayan President José Mujica renders the headshots of a pop cultural icon: Aylín Mújica, Cuban telenovela star and sometimes-nude model, strawberry blond, gazing with parted lips beyond the camera lens. In a playful accident of the Flickr search function, peppering the pastel waves of my image search are the bushy eyebrows of President “Pepe” Mujica, a president the world began to embrace after the November 2012 BBC video interview “Jose Mujica: The World’s ‘Poorest’ President,” and whose international acclaim reached a marked height on May 19—the night Mujica trended.
After an interview with Spanish journalist Jordi Évole, the hashtag #UnPresidenteDiferente (a different president) became one of the most popular hashtags on Twitter—“trending”—as Spaniards scorned their own political elites through their veneration of Mujica’s disdain for the necktie and the consumerism and political elitism represented by it.
That Mujica, and not Mújica, “trends” presents the complicated terrain that media makers and politicians alike find themselves grappling with today. Y en eso estamos here at NACLA.
This edition’s report on drug policy innovations in the Americas contextualizes the decades-long history of punitive drug control—policies that have only exacerbated violence and poverty across the hemisphere, and that Mujica has been so expert in defying. Mujica charts new territory alongside his Bolivian counterpart, drug-policy innovator Evo Morales, current reformers across the political spectrum, Otto Pérez Molina and Rafael Correa, and countless municipal-level officials, all following the lead of local communities with intelligent systems for managing drug production and dealing rehabilitatively with both addiction and justice.
It is in this context that Mujica’s leadership of the first country in the world to legalize and regulate a cannabis market has rerouted global perception of Latin America—not only in the fight against drug trafficking, but also in the causal fight against empire: it is in the undoing of punitive repression at the national level that we find ourselves one step closer to dismantling the punitive, highly conditional relationships between the U.S.-influenced regional elite and the working- and underclasses on the hemispheric level. And it is in this context of such substantive leadership that we must grapple with Mujica’s global reception—one that is increasingly influenced by social media.
In a May 21 article in Policy Mic titled “How the World’s Poorest President Became the Most Popular Public Figure on the Internet,” Cameron Combs explains Mujica’s web fame: “He’s actually just a sandal-clad Rorschach test for young, jaded liberals...It’s not the specifics that matter here, it’s the idea. Uruguay is the parallel universe where our dreams come true.”
As in all cases of political fantasy, the global embrace of Mujica is rife with erasure: of the U.S. funding for the very dictatorship that incarcerated him for most of his 14-year imprisonment, torturing him, and intermittently tying him to a toilet in a well; and of the glorification of a “poverty” that Mujica may “opt in” to, but whose widespread misery is far from glorious, and whose institutional presence Mujica has spent his entire political existence determined to reverse—often times, at all costs.
Mujicamania in the United States is unsurprising given the political trajectory most validated by mainstream U.S. attitudes toward Latin America: to reject the armed insurgencies of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, believing them naive, “polarized,” opting instead today for U.S.-sponsored neoliberal economic reign, softened by the reform-based, social democratic experiments being forged by today’s left-leaning governments.
Just four days after the night Mujica trended, Larry Rohter published a piece in The New York Times about Eduardo Galeano’s recent criticisms of his 1971 book Open Veins of Latin America. While Galeano’s remarks appear little more than the healthy self-criticism of an author reflecting on his work with over 40 years’ hindsight, Rohter seems to have conceded the terms to free-market-touting Latin American intellectuals who have seized the moment to wrap Galeano into their linear political narratives. Rohter cites exiled Cuban journalist Carlos Alberto Montaner’s response to Galeano’s comments: “Galeano Corrects Himself and the Idiots Lose Their Bible.”
It’s no surprise that Rohter cites the same group of neoliberals who have discovered in Mujica a tremendous concession. It was in his December article for El País that Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa wrote that Mujica, even from the “radical left” of the Frente Amplio, has been able to demonstrate “a pragmatism and realist spirit that has permitted the coexistence of diversity and the deepening of Uruguayan democracy, instead of the perversion of it” (emphasis my own). While Vargas Llosa cites the democratic traditions that preceded the dictatorship in Uruguay in order to arrive at his conclusions on Mujica, the fact that Vargas Llosa should play into Mujica exceptionalism may offer a clue into Mujica’s broad appeal.
Is it possible that the leftist tactics of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s might simply not “perform well” on social media? As a May Colombia Journalism Review article by Alexis Sobel Fitts on the impact of Upworthy on online media notes, it’s the “palatable,” the “inspirational,” and the “uplifting” that are read and circulated, that are “liked” and “shared.”
After Mujica’s November 2012 BBC interview, the progressive Uruguayan magazine Brecha published an article by Edison Lanza titled, “The Guy is What He is: The Outsider Mujica Fascinates the World,” one of many articles in Brecha that grapple with Mujica’s international personality-cult status, odd to reconcile with his more tempered reception within Uruguay—a country with a long tradition of leftist mobilization. We might recall the old phrase coined by President José Battle y Ordóñez, a president who oversaw the implementation of vast limitations on foreign investment in Uruguay and some of the most progressive labor legislation in the Americas throughout the first three decades of the twentieth century: “Seremos una republiquita, pero con leyecitas avanzaditas” (“We’ll be a small republic, but with advanced laws”). Or the theatrical tradition of the Uruguyan Murga, which gathers thousands during the yearly Carnival to observe the most incisive political commentary embodied in a long-standing national art tradition that few other countries in the world can boast.
On Mujica’s birthday on May 20, our NACLA Facebook page experienced an upsurge of activity, when we posted a photo of Mujica from the Foreign Policy In Focus website of an article written by Medea Benjamin, “Ten Reasons to Love Uruguayan President José Mujica.” The post brought us roughly 30 times the level of activity in “shares” and “likes” than we tend to see on our Facebook page. Six days later, our link to The New York Times dramatization of Galeano’s self-criticism also created an upsurge of activity, this time in the form of comments, and secondarily in the form of “shares” and “likes.” Even with little uplifting in the message, our community still responded.
How would Ernesto Che Guevara have “performed” on social media in 1959? Would he have “trended,” capturing hearts and minds evocative of the pro-armed-struggle political culture of the time? What are the political tactics and figures that social media has the capability of advancing, either by corporate design, or by common use?
These are but some of the questions NACLA grapples with now, as we continue to bring you analysis of the larger questions we were founded on: how to create a world in which the nations and peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean are free from oppression and injustice, and enjoy a relationship with the United States based on mutual respect, free from economic and political subordination. And as many a NACLA editor has written before me, how to make sense of the world in order to change it.
You’ll be observing many changes to our website over the next month, including the introduction of new editorial partnerships and multimedia projects that will launch throughout June and July. And if you turn to our masthead, you’ll see the growing contributing editor collective we’re creating at NACLA, edited by some of the sharpest minds in the field, so that you continue to get fresh perspectives on progressive Latin American and Latino politics, and on a more regular basis.
It is with this editorial collective and a resurgence of energy into our digital edition and multimedia projects that we strengthen the very intergenerational dialogue that is of such value to NACLA—so that the memory of the U.S. intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1965 that spurred NACLA’s founding, still present in so many of our readers’ minds, helps us understand now the dramatically daring role President José Mujica embarks on today in Uruguay.
— Colette Perold