By Alejandro Alvarez
The following was published by The Eagle on 22 May 2014.
José “Pepe” Mujica, president of Uruguay, addressed a full atrium at the School of International Service on May 13, speaking to AU students about democracy, the importance of change and Uruguay’s lesson to the world.
Mujica took time from his official state visit to participate in a conversation-style event in the SIS atrium moderated by SIS Dean James Goldgeier. The event was open to the public, including AU students and Mujica’s delegation, and was primarily presented in Spanish. Audience members had the option of listening to an English translation via headset.
Mujica presented Uruguay as a leader of human rights and progress in a region which frequently suffers from social inequity.
Carlos Pita, Uruguayan ambassador to the United States, thanked AU for its contributions to Latin American development before welcoming Mujica to the stage.
“It is a great honor that our president will speak to you here,” he said. “It’s a demonstration of the feeling and gratitude that the Uruguayan people have toward those who helped us out during our most difficult times.”
Mujica began by pondering the meaning of democracy, an issue which Uruguay has historically struggled with, having been under military rule from 1973 to 1984.
He was quick to underscore that democracy was more than just a form of government.
“What is democracy,” Mujica asked. “Democracy, first and foremost, is to coexist with and tolerate people who think differently.”
Democracy as Mujica sees it is a way for people to set aside their differences and come together peacefully.
“[In Uruguay] we have made things less complicated by accepting people for who they are, and not telling them how they ought to be. That is democracy.”
Uruguay has long been home to a large middle class, and many of the government’s actions since the 1980’s have been aimed at providing for the welfare of as many people in the country as possible, Mujica said.
Uruguay, Mujica claimed, is right now at the forefront of a new form of democracy which is focused on the common good and vouching for human rights and equality for all. The world should take notes, Mujica said.
“Social democracy was really founded in Uruguay,” Mujica said. “That is the foundation of our Uruguay. We feel proud of our history and identity.”
Mujica also discussed his country’s experiment with the legalization of marijuana.
Late last year, Uruguay gained international attention after it enacted legislation completely legalizing the marijuana trade – meaning that citizens of Uruguay could now freely grow, distribute, and consume marijuana, with close government supervision.
The move was controversial. No widespread legalization of marijuana had ever been attempted on a national scale.
The ultimate goal of the experiment, Mujica said, was to present a new way to solve the failing Drug War but not to create a haven for pot smokers.
“What we’re aiming for is to take drug trafficking out of the market,” Mujica said, “but we’re not recommending that people be Bohemian and smoke marijuana.”
It’s only through the willingness to make drastic changes like these, he added, that progress can really be made.
“We learned that if you want to change things,” said Mujica, “you need to do something different.”
Mujica ultimately called on youth to fight for change and push back against the world’s growing dependence on money.
“Keep working towards a world where we can all coexist and tolerate one another,” Mujica said. “The world doesn’t stop. Get back up, go back out to the streets. There will never be a better world if each and every one of us are not capable of standing up and fighting for what’s right.”