Pepe Mujica a Libertarian? If Only…

José “Pepe” Mujica says “libertarianism” is in his heart, but his actions speak louder than words. (Flickr)

EspañolUruguayan President José “Pepe” Mujica is well known and increasingly admired internationally. His recent interview with The Economist continued this trend, as one of his most influential media appearances to date. For the most part, the publication portrayed him accurately.

However, when asked about his current political position, his response was striking: “The philosophy in my heart is libertarian.” Let us assess the legitimacy of this statement.

Liberty Defined

To begin, we must clarify the principles of the libertarian philosophy as it is currently conceived. As the name implies, personal liberty is the supreme value.

With this goal in mind, if not outright elimination of the state, libertarianism proposes limited government with strictly enumerated powers. Although limited in size, it can be strong enough to achieve its essential purposes, with checks and balances among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

Libertarianism also affirms private property as the cornerstone of individual freedom, because without economic liberty, political liberty is an illusion. It defends the intrinsic dignity of every person — whose individual rights are consecrated by a constitution and enforced by the judiciary, in an effort to protect citizens from government abuses.

The libertarian system is based on mutual respect that assures peaceful cohabitation, which is possible if people understand their rights will be respected. Work ethic is a virtue, and it is immoral to seize the fruits of someone else’s labor. According to this doctrine, it is “fair” to “give each one what is his.”

How Does Pepe Stack Up?

Actions speak louder than words. Pepe may be admired internationally for his austere way of life, but how does he manage taxpayer money that is taken by force?

His administration is responsible for the largest increase in government spending since democracy was restored in Uruguay in 1985. In his first four years in power (2010-2013), the average growth of state expenditures was 6 percent annually. In comparison with his predecessor, Tabaré Vázquez, the real growth during his first term was 36 percent.

Despite the historical increase in tax revenue – due to high international commodity prices – the total tax burden grew. However, what is more unbelievable is the Uruguayan fiscal deficit has risen to 3.2 percent of GDP under his leadership.

A substantial portion of the national budget is allocated to pay public officials and subsidize tens of thousands of families.

The fact that Uruguay’s labor force is roughly 1.6 million, of which 300,000 are public officials, is a clear sign of government waste. During his current term, 39,000 new state employees were hired. There is no doubt pork-barrel politics is greatly responsible for this unfortunate situation.

Mujica and Vázquez, both members of the progressive political party Broad Front, strengthened unions during the past decade, establishing a quasi-fascist system in the country.

Thanks to their legislative majorities, the Executive branch imposes legislation with no consensus at all, and many of these policies have been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Justice (SCJ).


The SCJ ruled the Tax on the Concentration of Rural Property (ICIR) unconstitutional, citing Article 297 of the Constitution. The article forbids the overlap of taxes, which would have occurred if the ICIR and the Rural Property Contribution were both enforced.

Mujica was not able to mask his anger in reaction to the ruling. During his regular radio address, he mentioned the possibility of “reforming” the nation’s Constitution. “It seems the Constitution is opposed to having those who earn more pay more in taxes,” he said. Mujica even defended the “morality” of the tax, despite the Court’s constitutional objections.

Immediately following the decision, the Movement of Popular Participation (MPP) — Mujica’s wing within the party — began the search for another tax to replace the ICIR. Senator Ernesto Agazzi warned that if the replacement tax was rejected by the Senate, the government would “find another dog with a similar collar.” The idea is to “punish the powerful,” he said.

The SCJ further angered Mujica by striking down legislation that voided certain articles within the Statute of Limitations Law which would have otherwise allowed the prosecution of authorities for crimes committed during the 1973-1985 military dictatorship. 

Lucía Topolansky, Mujica’s wife and Uruguayan Senator, requested an explanation from the Court for these decisions. She said if their answers were not satisfactory, she would encourage her entire party to seek the impeachment of the Supreme Court justices.

Congress is also considering a “media law,” with support from the president. The new law would restrict freedom of expression, and increase government control in the communication sector, including television, radio, and internet transmissions. According to opposition figure Deputy Álvaro Delgado, this law “offers Antel (the state-run telephone company) a public monopoly on fiber optic data transmission.”

More then Meets the Eye

Mujica tries to portray himself as a “wise and affable grandfather” to an international audience, but Uruguayans are witnesses to his angry outbursts and verbal abuse of diverse sectors of society when they do not obey his will.

After the ruling came down on the ICIR, the Supreme Court was not Mujica’s only target. He also called agricultural workers who appealed the tax “immoral,” and referred to lawyers who litigated and won the case against the state as “leeches” — the same expression he used to describe notaries, accountants, and economists. Mujica also warned of “the dangers of confusing press freedom with licentiousness.”

This analysis would not be complete without mentioning a very serious issue that Mujica’s wife revealed in an interview published in Argentina on April 28, 2012. In the interview, Topolansky advocates for the creation of an armed military force loyal to the Broad Front and confirmed that the president was working toward this end.

“I’m not saying this will have an immediate magical effect and from there we’ll have a revolutionary Armed Forces, because I am not a utopian. What I can confirm is that we have begun to set a course to transform the military by working to change their mindset.” She went on to say that it is their goal to “get a third of the officers and a third of the soldiers” on their side. Although, she admits, she would “like to have them all.”

To erase any doubt of the sort of political project she had in mind, she added that her government needed to take a good look at what happened in Venezuela under Hugo Chávez. “We in the Ministry of Defense, we had a young man — a history professor — review all of the training programs for the military. We’ve modified them all, because that is where these things take shape,” she said.

The only leading politician in the country who, when approached by the press, did not question Topolansky’s comments was her husband, Pepe Mujica.

Given these facts, there is clearly no way Mujica can be considered a “libertarian.” To discover what a person really thinks, we must be guided by their actions, not their words. Through his behavior we discover the true Pepe Mujica. The man that hides behind the mask of “philosopher of democracy,” as writers for The Economist have taken to calling him.

In addition, further insight is offered by the fact that Mujica has never apologized for his past actions, and to this day prominently displays photos of Fidel and Che in his study.

What remains clear is that Mujica and his partners — after a military defeat and years of imprisonment — have thought long and hard about where they failed in attempting to impose a Castro-style regime in Uruguay. After being released, they made a tactical overhaul, but their ultimate objective and philosophy has changed very little.

Translated by Adam Dubove.

Subscribe free to our daily newsletter
Sign up here to get the latest news, updates and special reports delivered directly to your inbox.
You can unsubscribe at any time