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World’s ‘poorest’ president: ‘I do not need much to live’

May 12th, 2014
03:14 PM ET

By Mick Krever and Claire Calzonetti, CNN

Jose Mujica is often referred to as the world’s “poorest” president.

“I'm not a poor president,” he told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour through an interpreter on Monday. “Poor are the people who need a lot – Seneca said that. I am an austere president.”

He donates 97% of his salary, drives a 1987 Volkwagen Beetle – the original “peoples’ car” – and sells flowers with his wife at their home.

Mujica, a former Marxist guerrilla, lives in the same modest Montevideo house he always has, forgoing the presidential palace.

“I do not need much to live. I live in the same way I used to live when I wasn’t a president and in the same neighborhood, in my same house, and in the same way. And I am a republican” – small ‘r.’

“I live like the majority in my country lives. It was a majority who voted for me. And that's why I identify with them. Morally, I do not have the right to live like a minority in my country.”

“A lot of people like a lot of money. They shouldn't go into politics. That's my way of seeing it. I am not improvising. I don't do marketing. This is my philosophy.”

President Mujica met with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House Monday. What is it like for a former Marxist guerrilla to enter the White House, that most potent of Western’s symbols?

“I cannot deny reality,” he told Amanpour. “I don't know whether I like this planet or not, but I have to accept it.”

There is not just one “United States,” he said. Yes, the country wields tremendous – “scary” – influence in Latin America, and the relationship between the region and America has a troubled history full of attempted coups and CIA operatives.

“However,” he said, “there's also a big debate in the States. There's human progress. There's a technological and scientific development that helps the whole of humanity. So we cannot just put everything in one bag and just say one word to describe the U.S.”

“I know that the U.S. is a bit of a global policeman, but I also recognize something really positive about the U.S. which has helped humanity.”

And lest Presidents Mujica and Obama feel at a loss for conversation topics, Mujica’s austerity is far from the only remarkable thing about him.

Uruguay is the first country to fully legalize the marijuana trade, earning it both praise and criticism from all over the world.

“We are regularizing a clandestine market that we want to legalize,” he said. “We are not expanding addiction. We are trying to resolve the problem in time for people who go into this addiction, which, like any other addiction, is a bad thing.”

Many people even in his country, he told Amanpour, do not yet fully understand the policy.

“It is a measure against trafficking, drug dealing. We are trying to snatch the market away from them, because it's 80 years now that we are repressing drug use.”

Uruguay, 'taking mystery out of marijuana'

“So like everywhere in the world, repression by itself doesn't do the job. We are trying to find another way.”

Regulating use of the drug, he suggested, could even lead to a decrease in usage.

“When you surround that with this forbidden aura, you are actually calling the younger to take it up. However, if you place it as a controlled product that you can purchase at the chemist – like some other drugs like morphine, which is used for certain prescriptions – then we are taking the mystery out of marijuana and we hit the drug dealers.”

As he shines light on the marijuana market, President Mojica is also cracking down on the tobacco industry – a product he, a former smoker, says is a killer that needs to be brought under control.

The American tobacco giant Philip Morris is suing Uruguay over its anti-cigarette laws.

“It's not about companies; it's not about suing. I am just asking that we do have to really fight against this. Life is worth everything, and we have to fight for it. Being alive is a miracle.”

President Mujica’s story is all the more remarkable because he spent 14 years in prison, some of it in solitary confinement.

To stave off the crushing loneliness and boredom that punctuates prison life, Mujica befriended any living thing he could find.

Urugayan leader befrended rats in prison

“If you catch a black ant, a normal common ant, you grab her with two fingers, you put her right inside your ear, and you hear it scream,” he told Amanpour. “But of course you need time to do that. And you have to be really lonely.”

“When you spend a long time by yourself in solitary confinement, a frog, a rat that comes to eat because you leave some crumbs there – it's life. It's the life you have there.”

“And probably there's nothing worse that loneliness after death. We are gregarious. We need society to live. We never save ourselves alone. We always save ourselves with the others.”

“These are very elemental things of life. Yet they're things that we forget too often.”

Filed under:  Christiane Amanpour • Latest Episode • Uruguay
soundoff (68 Responses)
  1. silvia bellizzi

    Our President he remembers my father as him he is a grandson of italian inmigrants he works his farm in his free time and part of his salary he gaves to help with houses for homeless and supports cooperative industries, thanks.

    May 12, 2014 at 10:46 pm | Reply
  2. Mark

    Sounds like a good man. We need more like him.

    May 13, 2014 at 3:03 am | Reply
  3. mich

    he is a good president.he must teach african leaders like mugabe who are stealing from the poor to live large

    May 13, 2014 at 3:44 am | Reply
    • guest100

      Oh yeah, right! Criminals WANT to give up stealing money. Sheesh!

      May 22, 2014 at 4:10 pm | Reply

      Agreed Mich. A lot of African leaders could learn a lot from this guy!

      June 10, 2014 at 4:35 am | Reply
  4. Emmanuel Davidson

    The living testimony of this President is assuring and I wish African Leaders will emulate. Kudos

    May 13, 2014 at 5:16 am | Reply
    • LatinLambo

      African leaders?? This man is the President of Uruguay, do you know where that is? It's not Africa.

      May 18, 2014 at 3:57 pm | Reply
      • guest

        The president of Uruguay can set an example for African leaders as well. Emmanuel Davidson didn't say he was not Uruguan.

        May 20, 2014 at 12:33 pm |
      • UFC iTard

        You are such a maroon.

        May 21, 2014 at 5:29 pm |
      • ned

        Go improve your English. No one implied or said Uruguay is in Africa. The commentator simply said that African leaders should learn from this great man's humbleness and wisdom! So next time don't jump to conclusions!

        June 11, 2014 at 12:29 am |
  5. Histo Chabangu

    Inspirational story. Awesome man.

    May 13, 2014 at 5:28 am | Reply
  6. zwelakhe

    I wish my President was like this man, God bless Him.

    May 13, 2014 at 6:07 am | Reply
  7. Paul

    We have a lot to learn from this honorable man .

    May 13, 2014 at 8:21 am | Reply
  8. Mar

    The first-ever book on Mujica in English has just been published:

    May 13, 2014 at 11:53 am | Reply
  9. Abdiqani Aadan Ibrahim

    He is a hero, he is attempting to put ahead the general interests of his people than his. I wish African leaders to follow his footsteps.

    May 13, 2014 at 12:32 pm | Reply

    A good example of a leader who serves rather than be served.... All men need to be humble for this world to be a peaceful place..what's with all the greed

    May 13, 2014 at 2:24 pm | Reply
  11. arek_poland

    inspiring personality, a man to look up to!

    May 13, 2014 at 4:34 pm | Reply
  12. Douglas

    A good country leader what are others waiting to be like him is time for we to have true leaders and not those that grab power to feel there pockets and go to war without end causing problems that will take time to solve in those countries like Iraq and Afganistan,Africa etc

    May 13, 2014 at 5:01 pm | Reply
  13. Asokere Daniel

    He's amazing please help the african continent to organize a forum or seminar for our presidents where president Mujica will talk to them about this philosophy of his

    May 13, 2014 at 6:59 pm | Reply
    • guest100

      Oh plese, they have no interest in his philosophy. Alll they are interested in is money and power.

      May 22, 2014 at 4:09 pm | Reply
  14. Ebrima Sanyang

    He is worth to be emulated all the leaders of the world. I love his act. He is a democratic leader by action. Long life president mujiru. I love the way you ruling. Keep it up!

    May 13, 2014 at 7:01 pm | Reply
  15. Fredy

    Wow... is the first word comes to mind after finished reading this article. Rarely we could find the man who sat in the top but still humble like President Mujica. What is really remarkable that he donate almost all of his salary to help others. I really admire for his act as a presidènt. Long live for Mujica.

    May 13, 2014 at 10:40 pm | Reply
  16. Joao

    President Mujica would fit in perfectly in John Lennon's song 'Imagine' – imagine if all the world's leaders were like him...:)))

    May 14, 2014 at 7:42 am | Reply
  17. hoyal09

    Reblogged this on orhun hakan yalincak.

    May 14, 2014 at 10:23 am | Reply
  18. Thabo Sithebe

    World leaders should emulate him.

    May 14, 2014 at 10:29 am | Reply
  19. Kyne

    Noble leaders can guide and inspire, but there have to be people willing to elect them and then follow them. You cannot put a noble person into the leader position and expect everything to be fine. Everyone has to contribute their share. A leader can serve as guide, example, inspiration and encouragement, but it's the people themselves that have to carry change and development.

    And as long as global powers like the US, China, Russia and the EU try to control an manipulate 2nd and 3rd world countries, those countries will have corrupt leaders whose main interests are power and money. Because such leaders are easier to control and manipulate. In many cases, local people's best interests collide with those power's global interests and they will openly or covertly support and supply leaders or groups who serve their global interests instead of those who want to serve their countries/people.

    May 14, 2014 at 10:40 am | Reply

    What a good leader, Oh God favour my country Nigeria with leaders like Mujica, Long live mujica

    May 14, 2014 at 2:20 pm | Reply
    • Mister Dee

      You'll notice,Mister,that you are the only one so far in this comments trail to mention 'God' in response to this article.You should know though that it's not God's responsibility to provide leaders for a nation,that's the job of voters.You may say God gave that responsibility to voters.

      Your riposte is akin to asking God to 'punish' PHCN when it cuts power supply to one's home. Isn't that ridiculous?What's the job of citizens then when God is the one to hold government responsible?

      Many ask when Nigeria will be fixed.I say it's when Nigerians reject their collective apathy,ignorance and irresponsibility to governmental matters. We can start from there.

      May 16, 2014 at 3:51 am | Reply
  21. rbmg

    I hope Philippine officials are like him. A call to Filipino voters...

    May 15, 2014 at 12:32 am | Reply
  22. Eoin

    Best president in the world.

    May 15, 2014 at 5:11 am | Reply
  23. buyaphi mdledle

    well done mr president

    May 15, 2014 at 8:34 am | Reply
  24. NDS


    May 15, 2014 at 4:02 pm | Reply
  25. TennSeven

    And this guy is president of which country? You have to read through half the article before it even mentions his home country, Uruguay, clumsily introducing it by referring to its legalization of marijuana. It would read a lot better if you had directly provided this little tidbit of information much earlier in the article.

    That aside, I wish politicians in the United States were more like this guy. Unfortunately only the rich really have the means to compete in most elections and even those who are not rich and actually make it into the federal level see the position as more of a way to enrich themselves than to serve the country's citizens.

    May 16, 2014 at 6:03 pm | Reply
    • CoughingSoul

      The article's fourth paragraph mentions that he lives in Montevideo, thereby implying...

      May 22, 2014 at 10:13 am | Reply
  26. Rheena

    Everyone's comments suggest that we need more politicians like him. I suggest that we all need to be more like him. And if we are more like him, then the people we elect will be that way too. Look nowhere else but to yourself to become the change you wish to see.

    May 17, 2014 at 2:08 pm | Reply
  27. vidal808

    I hope other leaders are reading this article. This is a man that needs to be respected!

    May 17, 2014 at 3:24 pm | Reply
  28. Mike The American

    "President Mujica met with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House Monday. What is it like for a former Marxist guerrilla to enter the White House, that most potent of Western’s symbols?"

    These days? He'll feel right at home except at least Mujica practices what he preaches.

    May 19, 2014 at 3:15 pm | Reply
    • guest100

      EXACTLY! Right on!

      May 22, 2014 at 4:07 pm | Reply
    • TexasVulcan

      Care to elaborate? Exactly what "Marxist" policies has the USA been following? Oh, I know, you are going to say "Obamacare". The insurance program of PRIVATE insurance companies that is making a huge PROFIT from Americans who are being "forced" to show a little financial responsibility for their own health care. Moron.

      May 25, 2014 at 6:59 am | Reply
  29. John

    Too bad there are not many more leaders like him, nice of Obama to invite him to Washington and give this humble man some of his time.

    May 20, 2014 at 12:31 pm | Reply
    • tasbem56

      Really? It was nice of Mujica to make time for Obama is the more correct statement.

      May 22, 2014 at 6:09 am | Reply
      • MirrorMirror

        Spoken like a true hillbilly teatard.

        May 22, 2014 at 12:18 pm |
  30. JJ

    I like how CNN doesn't even tell you what country he's from (Uruguay) until halfway through the if anyone even know who this guy was. Most people probably don't even know where Uruguay is.

    May 21, 2014 at 8:36 am | Reply
    • CoughingSoul

      Did you know that Montevideo is the capital? If so, you would've concluded in the fourth paragraph that he is the President of Uruguay.

      May 22, 2014 at 10:15 am | Reply
  31. Me

    Really? Paragraph 14 before it mentions what country??

    May 21, 2014 at 10:54 am | Reply
    • Skip

      It says early on in the article that he lives in Montevideo.

      May 21, 2014 at 11:38 pm | Reply
      • tasbem56

        Most US citizens have no clue as to the location of Montevideo.

        May 22, 2014 at 6:07 am |
  32. Koreazy

    Now if the CIA can just assassinate him. They can get back to their retard agenda of slowly destroying the future for everyone while remaining completely clueless.

    May 21, 2014 at 2:33 pm | Reply
  33. Mike

    No mention of the fact this guy is also an atheist? Notice how an atheist president is more moral than all the so called "religious" presidents.

    May 22, 2014 at 1:05 am | Reply
  34. Silva

    In Sri Lanka, the president takes his salary + commissions from all development projects + cut from drug dealers + he takes 97% of the domestic GDP as his income = made him a billionare in a few years...we need more like those in the world to make it a better place. God bless Sri Lanka!!!

    May 22, 2014 at 2:06 pm | Reply
  35. SWozar

    14 paragraphs in before we find out for which country he is President? Did your editor cut it out of an earlier paragraph? The only other clue was saying he lived in Montevideo, in the 4th paragraph. Interesting article, though.

    May 22, 2014 at 3:20 pm | Reply
  36. guest100

    MARXIST meeting MARXIST!

    May 22, 2014 at 4:03 pm | Reply
    • pander bear

      IDIOT posting IDIOCY!!

      May 23, 2014 at 12:37 pm | Reply
  37. Rick

    He's careful to not criticize the USA, lest Obama overthrow Uruguay and install an IMF banker like he did in Ukraine.

    May 24, 2014 at 9:49 am | Reply
  38. NML

    COME ON CNN- check your spelling.

    Re: As he shines light on the marijuana market, President Mojica is also cracking down on the tobacco industry – a product he, a former smoker, says is a killer that needs to be brought under control.

    ...It's Mujica NOT Mojica.

    Lazy. Sloppy.

    May 27, 2014 at 4:02 pm | Reply
  39. Colby

    That only took 33 lines into the article. CNN "leader in quality articles and information"

    May 31, 2014 at 12:17 am | Reply
  40. The voice of reason

    I would just like to praise this man as a shining example of a politician. All leaders in all countries can learn a lesson from this man. He is serving his people, not just his buddies that got him elected. I dont care what he has done in the past, everybody deserves a second chance in life, and he hasnt wasted it. I applaud this man for what he stands for, and feel like we all need leaders like this.

    June 1, 2014 at 8:51 am | Reply
  41. GilbertMontemayor

    How did Africa get in here?

    June 1, 2014 at 2:51 pm | Reply
  42. Skeptimist

    What a profoundly sensible man.

    June 3, 2014 at 9:07 am | Reply
  43. HenryMiller

    How 'bout this: we turn the White House into a museum and assign the American President reasonably nice quarters at some convenient military base? It's hard to be a dictator when you have to carry your own groceries in from the car.

    June 5, 2014 at 9:16 am | Reply
  44. Rajan S.Raj

    The reason why this planet is still rotating in it`s axis,... only for the sake of some genuine human beings like this president.

    June 8, 2014 at 6:47 am | Reply
  45. DoYourResearch

    If anyone would care to ACTUALLY learn something about this man, instead of blindly swallowing the processed article above, I recommend they do their research. What you would find is that this man was imprisoned for being a domestic terrorist in Uruguay. He and his political allies were responsible for kidnappings, bombings, and murders in Uruguay. They were responsible for making the situation so unstable as to force a military coup d'état. His wife alone is one of the most immoral and radical beings in the history of the country. In addition, if you would like to hear him speak in his native language of castellano, you would discover that he cannot string two sentences together without saying something profoundly ignorant. While surely his humble upbringing, which is CLEARLY evident in his speech and diction, cannot be held against him, it is misleading and wrong for CNN to polish what was in no uncertain terms a different speech by this man. That is, he is not capable of expressing himself this eloquently and clearly. He is a resentful man who takes from the rich to give to give to "the majority." He will destroy the middle class. An example of his hypocrisy: In Uruguay, people work all their lives with a certain quota taken from their paychecks to go to the government, which the government then repays them as "jubilación," or pension. This is the money they have been working for their whole lives and are now too old to work for, and rely heavily upon. This man has placed taxes on this pension of up to 25%. That means he is taking 25% of these peoples's sole income. This man is a criminal and a farce. It is typical of outsiders to opine without knowing. Be better than that; find out who this man really is because the real injustice is that the people of his country are just as hungry with a poor president as they were with a rich one. He is not a savior to the struggling people of Uruguay. Most would agree he is quite the opposite, and it is an injustice for him to reap the benefits of hypocrisy.

    June 8, 2014 at 10:36 pm | Reply
  46. Danny


    June 10, 2014 at 4:37 am | Reply
  47. antonio cano

    let Mexico, elect uruguay president MR MOJICA be Mexico next president so he can stop all the injustice in that nation.

    June 10, 2014 at 12:56 pm | Reply
  48. antonio cano

    in mexico the presidents protects all the two legged RATS.

    June 10, 2014 at 1:00 pm | Reply
  49. Shivraj

    I like his way of living as president...Hats off to him

    November 7, 2014 at 3:33 am | Reply
  50. Stella

    I am Uruguyan girl, in the 2010 i voted for him in the presidenciable elections and i am very proud of my president. Thanks everybody who admire him.
    The next 1/03/2015 he must send the mand to another new president, but i am sure that in Uruguay we are going to miss him.
    You can begin to imitate their actions and then slowly the world will be changing in Uruguay ... we do it ... and now my country is more beautiful, sure, we can live with a few things and we live very very well .

    November 10, 2014 at 1:25 pm | Reply
  51. Esameldin govindji

    real hero of nation

    November 28, 2014 at 11:44 pm | Reply

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