While many might think that great nations need great leaders, I — along with most libertarians, for the matter — believe that great nations need great individuals.
Some years ago, around 2004, I attended a conference that former Uruguayan president and current pop icon José Mujica gave in San Carlos. The town is only 22 kilometers away from Punta del Este, one of the most expensive and exclusive seaside resorts in the world, once called “the Saint Tropez of Latin America.”
The theater that night was more crowded than ever, with Mujica seemingly already on his way to becoming the celebrity that he is today, but I still managed to get a seat.
To be honest, I barely moved — barely even blinked — throughout his speech. He sounded — and I don’t really enjoy admitting this — solid, mature, and experienced. I even shed a tear when, at the end of his speech, he said the words: “If you don’t change, nothing changes.”
It was an emotional moment for all of us in attendance. The crowd gave him a standing ovation, as Mujica shared with us a few nuggets of his supposed wisdom: “I have nothing, and yet I consider myself a rich man, since possessions and money don’t really determine wealth.”
Twelve years later, I’ve since learned that José Mujica is probably Uruguay’s biggest, dirtiest lie. I find myself arguing with my Argentinian, Chilean, or Spaniard friends when they say: “I wish we had a leader like him.”
No, my friends, you don’t. You, like most other people, like what Mujica represents, not what he is. He is a man who, as president, publicly stated: “As I say one thing, I say the opposite.” His administration oversaw the bankruptcy of two major companies: PLUNA, an airline co-owned by the state, and the entirely state-owned gas and oil supplier ANCAP.
Any libertarian could have seen this coming, I know. Milton Friedman perhaps best encapsulated this phenomenon in the phrase: “if you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years, there would be a shortage of sand.” However, the situation in Uruguay is far worse.
The country that was once a role model in terms of education is now showing its worst results in decades (PISA). Although oil prices around the world continue dropping, we pay the most expensive prices on oil (and therefore, on everything else) of any country on the entire continent.
But is Mujica — and his predecessor, and successor, the invisible and powerless Tabaré Vázquez — to blame for such a deplorable state? Surely, but not entirely.
The people of Uruguay — as well as the people of all nations of the world — should not accept this vileness from any government. Yet, here we are, as passive as we can be, doing what Uruguayans do best: complaining.
“There’s no strong candidate in the opposition,” the people will say, because of course, someone has to emerge to save us from ourselves. Another flash hero, another leader, another big, dirty lie.
“If you don’t change, nothing changes.” I still agree with those words, perhaps more than ever. It is us, and only us, who can turn the tables on the state. It is up to us to demand not just explanations but also resignations from several secretaries of the past three administrations (Vázquez, Mujica, and then Vázquez again).
It is up to us to refuse to actively fund the political career of our vice president, Raúl Sendic (former president of ANCAP) through unaffordable taxes. The power within the individual will always be greater than the one in oppression from the collectives. And we need to take heed of that, now.
Last September, I was traveling from Munich to Nuremberg by train. There was an old lady next to me reading the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. Mujica was on the cover. He was visiting some European countries, giving the same speech he had given in San Carlos years before. His words are exactly the kind of thing that people want to hear, and he enjoys the applause and the popularity.
He enjoys living the lie. He feeds it. The “great leader,” who urged us to change, is a photocopy of himself. The “genuine leader,” who implies wealth and vanity are a bad thing, enjoys the red carpet.
José Mujica is the last socialist celebrity of Latin America — or so we hope.
Priscila Guinovart is a teacher, blogger, and writer. She has lived in London and Santiago de Chile, where she wrote her book La cabeza de Dios. An ardent fighter for the cause of liberty, she has been based in her native Uruguay since 2014. Follow @PrisUY.