Interview: the “philosopher president” of Uruguay

Martin McQuillan meets José Mujica to discuss education and philosophy

April 9, 2015

Universities must create another culture. We need a universal humanisitic culture, above nations, that must create common values for the species

It has taken 18 months to negotiate through numerous press and legal offices, but I and my colleague, the British film director Ken McMullen, have finally come face to face with José Mujica, the “philosopher president” of Uruguay.

Since his election in 2009, Mujica has been known throughout the world for his modest lifestyle, donating 90 per cent of his salary to charities for the poor and entrepreneurial start-ups, preferring to live on the farm owned by his wife just outside Montevideo rather than the president’s official residence, and eschewing state limousines for his battered Volkswagen Beetle.

We meet soon after the most recent general election, in his last days in office before handing over to his successor, Tabaré Vázquez. Mujica is much in demand. He has just returned from a summit in Mexico and, after a few hours’ sleep, greets us at the farm just in front of the humble house where Lucia Topolansky, the first lady, is hanging out the washing while their three-legged dog Manuela roams about. The 79-year-old Mujica is wearing a loose white shirt, three-quarter length tracksuit bottoms and open-toed sandals. As he lays out cushions on the rusty garden furniture, we are advised to set up quickly and get on with it: stick to filming me, he says, “no tourism”.

Mujica has led an eventful life. He is a former member of the Tupamaros guerrillas, who in the 1960s and 1970s raised an armed struggle against the government of Jorge Pacheco Areco, which had suspended the constitution in the face of communist unrest. Under Areco and then the military junta that followed him, Mujica spent a total of 14 years in jail.

After the restoration of democracy in Uruguay in 1985, the released Mujica and the ex-Tupamaros took to parliamentary politics, joining the Broad Front coalition of the Left. Mujica served as minister of livestock, agriculture and fisheries in the left-wing government formed in 2005 before winning a second term for the coalition as their presidential candidate. From the beginning, he declared that his five-year term would be his only time in office and he has used his presidency to initiate social reforms at home and to act as a statesman on the world stage as a representative of the poor and dispossessed of Latin America.

We are here to talk about education and philosophy. Mujica has acquired a reputation as a profound thinker in modern politics, employing philosophy to analyse the global scene. He is fond of quoting Seneca to his fellow world leaders and is known for his metaphysical reflections on life.

Despite his fatigue and the pressing issues of state, as the interview progresses a remarkable thing happens. Over the years he has become used to a series of stock questions on his presidency, including the usual ones on the legalisation of cannabis and gay marriage in Uruguay. However, given the chance to speak about philosophy, he finds a second wind and offers an eloquent testimony to the importance of critical thought in the world today.

Mujica says that one of his biggest regrets during his time in office is not having managed to make further progress with the country’s investment in education. He recognises that education has the transformative power to contribute to greater justice and less inequality in society. However, educational policy, he says, is not neutral and also needs to be guided towards a purpose by a political agenda. Education, and especially the university, can be an instrument of division that serves the interests of elites, preserving or increasing inequality. “You cannot separate education from democracy”, he says, “as a tool that has to assist the most people to improve their condition in life.”

Mujica tells me that “even the most conservative university can play a progressive role in the history of humankind”. But higher education must not be a refuge from the challenges of life or a place for entrenching the privilege of the elite. The aim in Uruguay, he notes, is that in the future all members of society will have access to tertiary education. However, academics are not the “absolute owners of knowledge and wisdom”. Knowledge is to be found in the most humble people, says Mujica, and we must learn how to listen to such wisdom with patience.

In short, his basic political principle is that there are human values beyond the materialistic imperatives of market economies, and governments should prioritise the importance of lives and community over facilitating the massively unequal accumulation of capital.

The world faces great challenges, from ill-health, hunger and poverty to the melting of the polar ice caps, which no nation, no matter how powerful, can solve on its own. Mujica advocates a world forum and international fiscal policies to address these problems beyond the competing interests of nation states and national governments’ short-term interests. “This is why”, he says, “universities must create another culture. We need a universal humanistic culture, above nations, that must create common values for the species.”

For Mujica, the developing world’s issues are global problems. He is optimistic that humankind possesses the knowledge and technological innovation to solve these problems, but what is missing is a political mentality of generosity. “What is failing is politics. Policy is failing because it does not have a philosophical horizon that puts life first over the accumulation of wealth.” Universities, he says, must be part of the struggle to imagine another culture of values; they are “the place where we charge our batteries to create new ideas in society”. The struggle lies outside universities but higher education must engage with it by cultivating the value of solidarity.

Jose Mujica with dog

Graduation rates have been much lower than the rate of enrolment. And, along with corned beef, one of Uruguay’s principal exports is its educated young

Mujica’s government has been extremely practical in its investments in a developing economy but, he says, “you cannot be an economist, engineer or agronomist without philosophy”. For Mujica, philosophy is not just something to be learned in a university but must be a permanent questioning, especially in a secular world where the influence of religion is in decline. “In the modern world the abandonment of philosophy is the main cause for the loss of values” beyond market economics, he argues. He believes that we are in fact all philosophers. “You cannot sell philosophy as a product; that is why it is not considered a success judged against market values”. However, “if the modern world gives us so much to see, we do not really see it without philosophy”.

The sage of Montevideo bears a passing resemblance to Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher, and offers a convincing argument for a transglobal revival of the humanities that would not be out of place in the late writings of Jacques Derrida. The farm and the barn – to be converted into a school when Mujica steps down – remind me of pastoral scenes from Rousseau. However, there are limits to what even the most enthusiastic philosopher king can achieve in five years of power.

Uruguay has only two public universities. The oldest, the University of the Republic, was founded in 1849. In a final act by the army generals before ceding power, the private Catholic University of Uruguay was granted university status in 1984, with the aim of breaking the secular monopoly on higher education. While tuition is free at the University of the Republic, participation rates are relatively low (23.7 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds attend university, according to the National Statistics Institute’s Household Survey, 2012).

The Uruguayan educational system is also notable for the large disparity between outcomes for the most advantaged quintile (who achieve better results in maths in Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) exams than the average student in Norway or the US) and achievement among disadvantaged groups (which rank lower in the Pisa tables than the average scores for students in the worst-performing countries, Indonesia and Peru).

Historically, graduation rates in Uruguay have been considerably lower than the rate of enrolment. And along with corned beef from the city of Fray Bentos, one of Uruguay’s principal exports is its educated young. It is an ageing country that, while making progress under Vázquez and Mujica in raising wages for the poorest, still faces challenges on inward investment and the creation of high-skill jobs.

The left-wing government has sought to raise money for capital investment by opening its resources to the growing Chinese economy. It has been able to successfully adopt the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-inspired programme of a laptop for every primary school child, or the “Plan Ceibal” as it is called after the Uruguayan nickname for the computers. This investment in early years development will likely have long-term beneficial effects on future university participation rates but it does not address higher education issues in the here and now.

Our interview with Mujica forms part of a wider film project about Latin America, asking what Europe can learn from South America after austerity. We have also been filming in the town of Punta del Este, a well-to-do seaside resort two hours’ drive from Montevideo, and were invited to meet its mayor, the audaciously named Martin Laventure, a member of the right-wing opposition National Party. He speaks warmly about the town and the economic progress being made across the country. He tells me about plans for a new university campus in Punta where the University of the Republic will lease land to private providers in order to expand higher education provision in the region. This public-private initiative involves the old favourites of for-profit higher education, a business school and catering and hospitality degrees. There is no mention of a new philosophy department.

Sitting in the mayor’s office in Punta, I realise the limitations placed on Mujica’s transformative, philosophical vision by the realities of the Uruguayan economy. The country of 3.4 million people finds itself in one of the classic double binds faced by small nations: a simultaneous commitment to free public higher education and a lack of funds to expand that free education to those most in need. As a pragmatic politician first and a philosopher second, Mujica has picked up every tool at his disposal to achieve the best results for as many people as possible in the time allotted to him as the country’s leader. However, this may not necessarily have been achieved without compromising on some of his more treasured theoretical principles.

Mujica says that as a young man he was a great reader, spending eight hours a day in libraries because his family could not afford to buy books. This autodidact philosopher also had help from teachers along the way, he adds. However, it was only later when he was in jail and spent eight years without seeing a book that he began to rethink everything that he had read. Consequently he warns against a life of material and financial satisfaction that can make you “frivolous, superficial, even passive”. Rather, he says, “what pushes you to fight” are not those times when you are taught safely at a school or university but those moments when you have to live off meagre rations. “Learning that you will never forget comes from pain and adversity.”

It is difficult to imagine one of Mujica’s peers in a Western government giving generously of their time to speak about the meaning of life. He is not a saint or a guru or a politician without failings. But he does offer an example to the rest of the world, showing that it is possible today to imagine and to practise a different politics of love and generosity for planetary life that goes beyond militarism, bond yields and soundbites.

Uruguay students in Montevideo

Multiple choices: study what you want, where you like

Until 1984, Uruguay had only one university, the state-controlled University of the Republic.

It has since been joined by four private universities and, as of 2013, a second public institution, UTEC – Technological University of Uruguay.

However, the vast majority of students continue to attend the University of the Republic, where tuition is free. The latest available official statistics, for 2013, show that the University of the Republic accounted for 86 per cent of all enrolments.

While private universities charge tuition fees, substantial discounts will often be offered to attract the best students or to support those from poorer backgrounds.

Admissions are non-selective across the entire sector. Students finishing secondary school may be admitted to whatever university they choose, to study whatever they like.

For Julio Fernandez, academic vice-rector at ORT Uruguay, the country’s largest private higher education institution, the low cost of higher education and the lack of admission controls in Uruguay’s academy has mixed consequences.

There is a “popular feeling of easy access to higher education”, says Fernandez, but he warns that very large cohorts may impact on the quality of teaching, particularly at the University of the Republic.

Completion rates are dismal, with dropout rates of 80 per cent to 90 per cent for first-year students “not uncommon”, says Fernandez.

Even at private universities, which tend to attract students from better secondary schools, according to Fernandez, dropout rates in the first and second years often hover between 30 per cent and 50 per cent.

This picture is borne out by the 2013 official statistics which, he says, show that the Uruguayan higher education system received 27,442 new students, but produced only 8,034 graduates.

Undergraduate degrees involve a minimum of four years of study, while courses in disciplines such as engineering, law and medicine are longer.

A focus on undergraduate tuition has come at the expense of postgraduate education, Fernandez believes.

In 2013, Uruguay produced just 39 doctorates, about half of which were in experimental sciences. In other disciplines, PhD programmes are “very weak or do not exist”, Fernandez says.

Fernandez contrasts this performance with the chemical engineering department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which alone awarded 37 doctoral degrees in 2011-12.

“Our whole country is producing PhDs at the same rate as a single department in a single research university in the US,” says Fernandez. “This must change.”

As a result, Uruguay’s research output is small. However, says Fernandez, bibliometric indicators suggest that publications are of good quality.

Nevertheless, many Uruguayan researchers choose to pursue opportunities abroad, often in the US or Europe.

Among them is María Soledad Montañez, a teaching fellow in English studies at the University of Stirling, who took her undergraduate degree at the University of the Republic.

When she was a student in the late 1990s, Uruguay’s government of the day was less benevolent towards universities, and regular strikes by lecturers meant that it took her six years to complete her bachelor’s degree. Facilities were poor and there was just one computer available for all the students in her cohort.

Things have improved, Montañez says, although some lecturers still have to hold several academic posts because a single salary is insufficient.

For Montañez, however, Uruguay’s universities produce well-rounded graduates who perform well in their jobs or in further study.

“There are a lot of things to improve, but I’m so proud I got a degree and didn’t pay a penny,” she says. “The fact that the university is open and public and free for everyone is a great thing.”

Chris Havergal

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