Pepe Mujica: “If the left is not capable of building unity, it will not be able to defend the interests of the neglected”.

José Mujica receives CTXT at his farm in the Cerro neighbourhood of Montevideo. Cordial and attentive, he talks for 50 minutes about politics with his usual lucidity. He admits that he may be wrong when he says that Europe has decided to abdicate the historic leadership it had in the creation of contemporary civilisation. The 88-year-old former president said that many things unite us with Spain and that “Spain hurts us”. He points out that the bridges between our continent and Europe are complicated because it is difficult to understand where Europe is heading today. Mujica, President of Uruguay from 2010 to 2015, is pessimistic about the war in Ukraine: “I am not seeing a way out. The political solution does not appear and if the solution is military “there will be a war for a long time”. Concerned that humanity is heading towards an “ecological holocaust”, he once again requests unity, this time to improve the “barbarities we have inflicted on nature”.

By Ana María Mizrahi/ctxt

-What is your vision of the unity of the left in Uruguay and what was the experience like?

-The Uruguayan left had more than half a century of testimonial presence in Uruguayan politics, it was reduced, from 1900 onwards, until the foundation of the Frente (Amplio), to two traditional parties – the Socialist Party and the Communist Party – and to some groupings of libertarian tradition closely linked to the old trade union movements, which as in many parts of America were founded by the libertarian currents brought by immigrants, with some student presence, but never able to generate an important mass gathering that would allow them to influence the destiny of the country. I remember that when I was a young man, those of us who went to the Primeros de Mayo all knew each other, we were like a big family of people who knew each other, very far from being a mass party, and it didn’t take much to get us together. Here there came to be three workers’ centres, each one responding to an ideological tendency. After the 1950s, an agreement was reached between independent unions and unions that were a bit more politicised and responded to different tendencies, to make a single central that had the characteristics of being a confederation, not a central that imposed, but one that carried as a whole what it agreed with and what it did not agree with, it did not carry; differences were respected. This was important because it was the background to what was to happen after, the construction of the Frente Amplio. The different left-wing groups were learning that it was worth coming together, negotiating our differences and moving on short programmes, we didn’t want to agree until the no end, we realised that this separated us and some began to practice a slogan: “action unites us, words separate us”. That was a long process that lasted a few years, and in the country, there was a very strong change when the Korean War ended: the world in which we had grown up changed because the laws of exchange changed, what we sold to Europe we sold more and more cheaply, and what we bought we bought more and more expensively. That was going to generate an economic crisis and an abysmal change in the country’s politics, which for 90 years had been governed by one party, the Colorado Party. By the 1950s, the Colorado Party in this country had won the national elections and all the departmental governments – departmental is the type of territorial division in Uruguay. Four years after that, it lost everything and was left with only the Artigas mayor’s office (departmental government) and there came an alternative, more right-wing government, with a series of reforms. What was going on? Although we didn’t realise it, the terms of trade were affecting our economy and the traditional distribution of the country, a somewhat social-democratic country was ceasing to be so, and a crisis that was to last for many years was beginning to take hold. The same crisis that took away Perón in Argentina took away the Colorado Party. The basic element was that our work, as an exporting country, was becoming less and less valuable and more and more difficult. The propertied classes did not want to lose their privileges and began a gradual retrenchment. The political response is that in the face of the crisis, we came together more, we are children of a crisis, we learned that to defend ourselves we had to come together, and to come together we could not remain entrenched in a closed ideological proposal, we had to do it around a short programme, for a few years, and so we ended up founding the Front, where there came to be between 25 and 30 groupings of different origins.

-From Christian Democrats to Marxists, how was the Frente Amplio formed?

-Yes, Christian Democrats, Marxists, communists, socialists and free thinkers.

-The key was unity.

-The key was unity. In those years, in the 1960s, with the impact of the Cuban revolution and other revolutions such as the Algerian revolution, there was a discussion on the left about the way forward. Some of us, including myself, opted for the armed road, as in many parts of America, in any case, we had a leg on one side and a leg on the other, on both roads, to such an extent that some of us, while in prison, supported the construction of the Front. That is to say, it was an alternative and we decided to support an electoral solution, we sent people from the armed struggle to paint posters, etc….

In general, the guerrilla groups never had this flexibility, except in Uruguay, because for many years we maintained a double militancy, on the one hand illegal and on the other hand legal. It was a long process and we built the Front, the Front is a marvel expressed in a Statute.

The Statute is so demanding that you can’t throw anyone out and that was wonderful in the long run. Why?
Because by being together we began to build an alternative in the eyes of the people in the street, we were no longer crazy protestors, we were crazy people who could be an alternative to the government. We began to grow, but we began to grow because we were together, and a curious thing, it doesn’t mean that there weren’t discrepancies and differences, but that big corral that was called Frente Amplio brought this circumstance: when we disagreed on one side we went to the other, but we stayed in the big corral. Some who disagreed and left disappeared politically, but over time the acronym Frente Amplio began to be a rallying point, to such an extent that it became a tradition. It took years, but it managed to become a tradition that also carried weight in the eyes of the people. How was this possible? It was made possible by flexibility and by understanding that maintaining unity multiplied our strength, which meant that we had to learn, sometimes to disagree, sometimes to eat the occasional toad, but to maintain unity. It is not an idyllic path, it is a path where sizzles and differences appear, but because we are very clear about the importance of the whole, of maintaining unity, the discrepancies cannot have the gravity to break that. Why?
Because Tyrians and Trojans lose, that is to say, we all lose.

-Today, Spain is facing three elections: regional, municipal, and general elections in December. On the one hand, there is the PSOE, the recent left-wing conglomerate SUMAR headed by Yolanda Díaz and there is also PODEMOS. Díaz has directed her candidacy for president and has said: “I want to be the first female president of Spain. Because now is the time for women. Meanwhile, Pablo Iglesias of PODEMOS has said that if “SUMAR decides to go without PODEMOS, it will be an electoral and political tragedy”. Spanish political analysts agree that if the left splits, it runs the risk of losing not only elections but seats in Congress. Your reading?

-This is a chronic problem on the left. Spain paid a tragic price in its history, because in upholding the Republic, when the chips were down, the confrontation between communists, socialists, and anarchists took away the force to defend the Republic and confront Francoism. It paid a historic price and it also happened to the German left in Europe, the confrontation between communists and socialists had such a character that it opened the door to the advance of Nazism. Yes, humanity has paid a tremendous historical price for the blindness of the left because of the high value of the part as opposed to the importance of the whole, and it would be good for today’s militants to know their own history a little better because history does not repeat itself, but certain things must be learned. Generations have the right to make the mistakes of their time, but they cannot make the mistakes of the past, because then we have lived uselessly. It is nonsense that the left cannot come together and it is nonsense not only for the left, it is nonsense for the fate of the great inequalities that exist in society because we have to think and have an empathetic attitude. We may have many defects and many limitations, but any left-wing government, however bad it may be, will always tend to remember the most neglected in society. That is to say, whoever has sympathy for the human question, for the feeling of equality, has to realise that in politics there must also be an ethic that goes beyond power and convenience, and the points of view that it may have. You can’t build an important tool that starts in reality if everyone goes their own way, you have to join forces and this joining of forces means that there are things left by the wayside, that there are things that we have to swallow, which is not idyllic but that, in the end, it suits the weakest in society and we don’t militate for ourselves, we militate out of a feeling of empathy for the most neglected in society. If the left is not capable of building unity, it will not have the weight or the tools to defend the interests of the most neglected people in society. What happens is that human vanity gets in the way, we are not so perfect, we are what we are, personalities and points of view have a lot of weight. Sometimes the passion generated by these confrontations makes us forget what we are there for. We are not just here to discuss programmes in a café or at an intellectual tournament, we are here to serve the most neglected people, because our deepest guiding thread is that we belong to that leg of the French revolution, equality, and we know perfectly well that in contemporary societies, there can be anything you want, but the least we have is equality, at least in terms of the right to begin with.

– At the moment, Spain has the presidency of the European Union and the Brazilian President Lula da Silva presides over CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States). Can the relationship between Europe and Latin America improve with two progressive, left-wing presidents?

-They are not magicians; they have limitations, many limitations.

-Do they at least talk?

-Yes, I’m sure they talk, Lula is very open, but I’m very suspicious of the contradictions that Europe has, which are very severe. Curiously, Europe, seen from afar, and I could be wrong, gives the impression that it has decided to abdicate the historical leadership it had in the creation of contemporary civilisation. It is as if Europe has decided not to take charge and has placed itself too much in the shadow of the American powers and has lost its own identity. I sometimes regret that there are no more those old conservatives, very shameless, even colonialist, but who saw far ahead.

-For example?

-For 20 years we have been discussing an agreement with Europe, and Europe cannot cope with the contradictions, the weight of French and Polish agriculture, which feels threatened and has chosen to be a shadow of the United States and not to be itself. Europe has shied away from being a pole in this world.

-Including Spain?

-Yes, Spain has a historical contradiction. There is a Spain of charanga and pandereta and there is the other Spain, we are united by many things, and Spain hurts us, some important people have wanted to be a kind of bridge between America and Europe, but it is very difficult to share and to understand where Europe is going today. The world is going to live through a very tough confrontation, as it is today, between the development of China and that of the United States, which will not want to lose its pre-eminence. The existence of another alternative would be an element of détente for the world, but Europe does not understand this role. And it is as if it is managed from afar. The war in Ukraine is a monument to stupidity, and nobody is considering a political solution, it seems that it has to be a military solution, and a military solution puts us in danger of an atomic war, it is a matter of days before low-intensity nuclear weapons start, tactical but nuclear weapons… And after that, where do we end up?

-Are you not visualising a way out?

I’m not visualising a way out, because the way out has to be an intelligent way out, the way out has to be Korean-style, like the Korean War was, by organising mistrust. You can never trust [Vladimir] Putin, obviously, but Russia will never trust NATO either, and in life you can’t ask for what they won’t give you; there is no great power that will accept another power placing rockets on its border, it won’t accept it. Those of us who lived through that old dispute in the time of Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) know that politics worked there, a red telephone worked there. The Americans withdrew their rockets from Turkey and the Soviet Union withdrew the ships with rockets (from Cuba). Now the policy is not working, because to propose a negotiated solution is like a kind of betrayal, the only thing they think about is a military solution. And if the solution is military, there will be war for a long time.

-And how is Latin America?

-Latin America is on the sidelines (observing without participating), but we can be victims: there cannot be a war strategy based on war, and yet that is what they are for.

-After the pandemic, poverty and inequality deepened in Latin America.

-Yes, we are also suffering the consequence of this, the world is very intertwined and war is a waste of energy and we are doing the opposite of what needs to be done with regard to climate change, now we have a new problem, humanity has become a geological phenomenon. And how are we going? We are heading towards an ecological holocaust and the last thing we need is a war, we need to organise ourselves to fight with nature and to be able to channel and improve the set of barbarities that we have inflicted on nature. For the first time in history, humanity has become a geological force in the balance of the planet and we are altering it, this has a serious effect on the existence of life on earth and we don’t want to take responsibility for this. At least 32 years ago, science in Kyoto told us that “extreme phenomena are going to become more frequent and more intense”, and that is what is happening.

-In Barcelona, in peculiarity it is happening to Mayor Ada Colau, where the action of economic powers seeks to wear down her government. She has had to appear in court following a lawsuit brought against her by a “vulture fund” that had been condemned for evicting vulnerable families. How do you see the phenomenon of the judicialisation of politics?

-This is another contemporary problem, the Nation-State in which we have been educated is increasingly questioned, because a set of international powers have appeared which have nothing to do with the Nation-State, but which take away its force and capacity for realisation. We are facing a political crisis and I believe that there will be many movements; representative democracy today does not represent all the conflicts and contradictions that exist in society. Nor do I believe that the parliamentary democracy we have known is the last step of the human species. I think there are going to be institutional changes, and every time of change means a lot of conflicts. People who study foresight predict that representative democracy is going to have to evolve into a kind of set of interior governments; for example education is a world that is going to have to choose its government, industry is going to have to choose its government, and the role of central governments is not to say what they have to do but to stop what they don’t have to do, and that they have a certain harmony, because the complexity of phenomena is impossible to summarise in a single government, but that means an era of chaos. When there is chaos, there are dreams of vertical solutions of a government that will bring order. For me, there are going to be long conflicts. What is clear to me is that it is impossible for a central government to understand and manage in profundity the world of education, the world of industry, everything is so complex that you feel illiterate, but to achieve a government of harmony with those tones, we are neither educated nor trained for that. Here the limits of man will appear, I’m talking about prospective, about nothing for tomorrow. I realise that there are going to be ups and downs like this, because in American history, for example, there has never been a harshness and confrontation like the one between Republicans and Democrats today. In France, for example, we have witnessed the disappearance of historical parties and the rise of others. Macron appeared and soon the Yellow Jackets were on the streets, it’s like madness. It could be a right-wing or extreme right-wing expression, as happened in Italy. In Italy they had the biggest parties in the West and now there is a far-right government. This is expressing a phenomenon of a crisis of representation at the bottom of society and I think it is going to define an era and that we have to get used to living in a time of chaos.

Redacción Madrid