External Affairs

Rock in Rio! How an 80-year-old Rebel is Giving Hope to the Young

In a whirlwind visit, the former Uruguayan president Pepe Mujica breathes life into the embattled Brazilian left as Lula prepares to enter politics again.

The former Uruguayan president gets a rock-star like reception at Rio University. Credit: Yasmin Botelho

The former Uruguayan president gets a rock-star like reception at Rio University. Credit: Yasmin Botelho

Rio de Janeiro: It’s a cloudy, chilly afternoon in Rio. At the University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ) campus, just ahead of the Maracana stadium, young men and women are rushing to an open-air auditorium. With a spring in their walk, they are all trying to get as close to the stage as possible. By 2 pm, the place is packed: 6,000 students in the well of the auditorium; more have gathered outside, some even on the high rises towering over the arena. Crammed with young souls armed with smart cameras, the place is humming with excitement as if a rock show is about to begin. Then a hush falls on the crowd. From a corner emerges an old man in beige baggy trousers and a crumpled pink shirt. As the heavy-set man moves slowly towards the edge of the stage, the crowd breaks into an impromptu chant: “Ole, ole, ole, ole, Mujica, Mujica… Ole, ole, ole.” Jose “Pepe” Mujica [pronounced moo-hee-ka] raises both his hands to greet the crowd and the chanting gets louder. The show has begun.

The Uruguayan needs no introduction in this part of the world. He has several sobriquets: the former Marxist guerrilla who spent 14 years in a military prison; the leader who legalised abortion and marijuana in his country; the president of the world who donated 90% of his salary; a South American statesman who travels across the region, giving talks – and hope – to millions.

At this gathering in UERJ, a prestigious public university, thousands have turned up to listen to Mujica. He begins slowly, almost sounding grumpy, but comes straight to the point. “We will never have a better world if we do not fight to change it ourselves. We have to live as we think because if we do not, we end up thinking as we live,” says Mujica in beautiful Spanish rolling from his tongue. A roar ripples through the auditorium.

No big words. No complex theories. No catchy stories. Mujica just connects the dots between life, politics and social values. And he makes instant connection with the crowd. “I can’t understand how some people can talk about a military coup. We have seen this movie many times in Latin America. This democracy is not perfect because we are not perfect. But we have to defend it to improve it, not to bury it,” says Mujica, his gruff baritone rising in pitch. “There’ll be no coup, there will be no coup,” the students shout in unison, as Mujica walks up and down the stage.

Mujica is a regular visitor to Brazil. From his tiny country (population 3 million) to the south of Brazil, he often hops across to meet Brazil’s leaders or attend public seminars and civil society conferences in South America’s biggest country and economy. But this particular visit is happening in difficult times. Since her re-election in December 2014, President Dilma Rousseff’s government has been under siege from a hostile Congress and belligerent opposition parties. In recent months, Brazil’s right-wing groups have rallied on the streets, demanding a roll-back of the centre-left government’s social welfare programmes; the main opposition party has mobilised its constituency – mostly white and middle-class – to call for Rousseff’s impeachment; and some fringe politicians and groups have been campaigning for the military to take over the government. For the majority of Brazilians, it’s an attack on democracy, an elected president and social justice. Given its history of coups and dictatorship, Brazil is a bit shaken.

Mujica is aware of this context. He tells the students to stand together in the time of crisis. “In life we have to defend freedom. Doing something for others is called solidarity. And without solidarity there is no civilisation,” he says. Then he drills home his main point: “The only losers in the world are those who refuse to fight or dream. Raise your flags, even when you are not allowed to raise it.” Waves of applause rise and fall across the campus. “Ole, ole, ole Mujica…” is bouncing from wall to wall.

In Brazil and its neighbouring countries, as conservative forces push their neoliberal agenda, Mujica tells the students that there should be no room for any form of fundamentalism in their lives. Then he gives them a mantra about how to achieve this. “We have to overcome individualism and create collective consciousness to transform society,” says Mujica. The auditorium is filled with applause.

By hosting Mujica in difficult times, the university is maintaining its old tradition of inviting the region’s iconic figures. In 1985, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua filled the same auditorium with a fiery speech about the need for democracy in the region. In 1999, it was Fidel Castro who mesmerised a huge gathering with a talk on Latin American solidarity. Today, it’s Mujica, who retired as Uruguay’s president in March and now serves as a senator, focusing on the challenges being faced by Latin America. In these times of economic slowdown, when the conservatives are pushing for slashing welfare budgets, Mujica rejects austerity. He, instead, demands more tax on the wealthy. “Those who have more, should pay more,” he says.

Clash of two models

File photo of Mujica and his VW Beetle. Credit: Telesur

File photo of Mujica and his VW Beetle. Credit: Telesur

In the past decade or so, South America, led by Brazil, witnessed a booming economy coupled with unprecedented social welfare schemes that have reduced poverty and inequality and created massive opportunities for the young and marginalised.

But now, with most economies facing a slowdown, governments across the region are under pressure to give in to the markets’ clamour for austerity. The young, who have just begun to enjoy the fruits of welfarism, are wary of such campaigns. In the past 15 years or so, a unique form of socialism has taken deep roots in South American. The kind of misery and hopelessness caused by austerity in Europe has few takers here. Mujica’s message against austerity goes down well here. “We need leaders who do not want to impose austerity on the poor and give all the benefits to the rich. This kind of injustice has gone on for decades in this region. We can’t go back to those days,” says Sylvio Nascimento, a black student who lives in a favela. “Mujica told us that another world is possible. We can create a better society based on solidarity and sharing. There is no better leader than him. For him, austerity is all about living simply. Other leaders need to follow him,” says Nascimento, a first-generation university goer from his family.

Mujica’s life has been his message. As Uruguay’s president (2011-15), he preferred to live in his modest country home on the outskirts of Montevideo rather than the luxurious presidential palace in the capital. He drove to work in a beat-up old VW Beetle. In his deeply Catholic country, he legalized abortion and cannabis. And after one term in office, he stepped down to make way for a younger successor from his party. Mujica’s work in the most vibrant and peaceful country in the continent is the stuff of legend.

Retired at 80, Mujica has the option of relaxing at his home in a village by a river. But he is no mood to take it easy. He wants to say what he has to say. The day after his talk at the university, Mujica and a few colleagues walk into an old house with green walls in one of Rio’s poor neighbourhood. It’s Bar do Ze (Joe’s Bar), which has a handwritten menu taped on to the door of a rickety fridge and a radio blasting black music from an open kitchen. Even as the shocked owner stares at Mujica, the former president settles into a wooden chair and orders the traditional Brazilian food of bean stew, rice and beef. As Mujica digs into his plate, a small crowd gathers around the table, expecting him to say something. Mujica talks about his favourite topic: socialism. “I believe we have a crisis of values in our civilization. This stage of capitalism does not generate goodness; it generates corruption. We can’t confuse consumption with happiness,” says Mujica. All heads nod in agreement.

In these testing times in Brazil, his words work like a balm.

Two days later, Mujica is headed to Sao Bernardo de Campo, a city in the state of Sao Paulo. Till the early ’60s, the land here was all green hills. Then came the great automobile revolution and in few years, the hills had been replaced by factories, shanties, markets and public buildings. It was here in 1975 that a new union movement was born as the auto workers created the biggest central union in Latin America. It was here, on the fringes of Sao Paulo city, the financial capital of South America, that the Workers Party (PT) was born 35 years ago. It was from here that an auto mechanic called Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva ran for Brazil’s president on PT platform in 2002 and won the election. The rest, as most Brazilians believe, is history.

Today, however, PT is facing its moment of truth. With some of its top leaders in prison for involvement in a corruption scandal, the party – and its policies – are under attack. But it’s fighting back.


Lula and Mujica energised a gathering of city workers, union activists and PT supporters at Sao Bernardo de Campo. Credit: Shobhan Saxena

Lula and Mujica energised a gathering of city workers, union activists and PT supporters at Sao Bernardo de Campo. Credit: Shobhan Saxena

It’s a Sunday morning and a small convoy of cars is moving towards a convention centre in the city centre. In a car, Mujica and Lula are engaged in an animated conversation. As they arrive at the centre, where a conference on “The importance of citizen’s participation in democratic management of cities in 21st century in Latin America” is taking place, the crowds break into “Ole, ole, ole, Mujica…ole, ole, ole, Lula…” chant. As the city mayor, Luis Marinho of PT, begins to speak, someone from the crowd shouts: “Lula, we want you back.” Marinho repeats those words, gets applauded and turns serious: “Brazil is passing through a very tense moment. Some people are even questioning democracy.” The stage is now set for Mujica.

Just like in Rio, Mujica comes straight to the point. “Democracy has its problems, but it is the best system we have. Now is the moment to improve what we have achieved, and not to turn our back on it,” says Mujica. “There are no indispensable men, only indispensable causes”. Someone from the crowd, comprising city workers, union leaders, social activists and PT cadres, shouts Che Guevara’s famous phrase: “Hasta la victoria, siempre” (Till the victory, always). Both Mujica and Lula raise their fists in the air.

Amid shouting of revolutionary slogans, the air is heavy with expectation. The crowd seems eager to hear Mujica’s views on PT and the work it has done in 12 years in power. He doesn’t disappoint them as he shreds neoliberalism to pieces. “We can’t separate the economy from ethics, philosophy and dreams. The wealth we need to create is in the people, not the money. Not everything is a product. Not everything can be bought and sold,” says Mujica. “More than ever before we need progressive political parties. Don’t despair. Have patience. Engage in activism. We need to fight for what we believe in.”

The crowd is now on its feet.

With his life story, Mujica has become a global icon. And in Latin America, he is an elder statesman whose words, always brutally honest and often brusque, carry real weight. Today, he has thrown his weight behind Lula, who now rises to speak. A natural orator, Lula begins by saying how he was disappointed when he ran for governor of Sao Paulo state in 1982 and ended in fourth place despite getting 1 million votes. “I didn’t want to do politics again. But in 1985, when I went to Cuba, Fidel Castro asked me: ‘Do you know any other worker in the world who got 1 million votes in his first election?’ I immediately changed my mind.”

Soon, says Lula, PT began to win in small cities around Sao Paulo. As they took over more cities, the party began to change the way Brazil was run. “We called the poor people to decide how the municipal office would spend their money. We changed the administrative culture of the cities. The biggest heritage of my administration was how we changed the relationship between the government, society and social movements,” says Lula. “Our aim has been to build a better, just society, and not just run government.”

In the past few years, the PT government has been under attack for corruption, with attempts being made to drag both Lula and Dilma into a burgeoning scandal, which, ironically, also includes several top figures from the opposition parties. Lula has kept generally quiet about personal attacks on him. But today, in Mujica’s presence, he is in his element. In a long monologue, Lula launches an attack on the Brazilian elite. “PT is being portrayed as criminals by conservative forces. This was done to the Communist Party in the 40s. The elite hate us because we have given minimum wages to the maids. We have given a quota to black people in universities. We have eradicated poverty and ended hunger in Brazil. We did what we were voted for. But this is not acceptable to the rich elite of this country. They want to maintain the old order,” says Lula amid a thunder of applause.

Then Lula drops his voice. “We have to build the dream again. I was waiting to retire but my opponents don’t give me peace. When a bird is sitting on a tree, it is easy to shoot and kill it. But if this bird is flying, it is difficult to target it. So, I have decided to fly again…”

The convention centre is now a riot. The feverish speculation about Lula’s return to active politics and as presidential candidate in 2018 is more or less confirmed. Though Lula didn’t say so in as many words, his use of an apt metaphor in the presence of Mujica leaves little doubt that the PT leader is back.

As soon as Lula’s emotional speech comes to an end, some in the crowd climb the stage. Amid the shouting of “Ole, ole, ole, Lula, Mujica..” the young flock to the Uruguayan for selfies. Lula pulls his leg by telling everyone how a 20-year-old girl in Rio wanted to marry the Uruguayan leader. Mujica just smiles. He seems to enjoy talking to young people as much as they like listening to him. And what is it that they have in common despite the 60 years separating them? Nothing more than a common belief that another world is possible.

Shobhan Saxena is a Brazil-based journalist who reports on South America and writes on international affairs