Power and corruption by Angela Caldin

Lord Acton

‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ Famous words from 19th Century historian and politician Lord Acton to Bishop Creighton. He also said, ‘I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as power increases.’

I was thinking about these wise words in the wake of the revelations this week in the Pandora Papers which show how the love of money motivates so many successful and powerful people to keep it all for themselves. It’s hard to come up with people in positions of power who have not succumbed to greed and corruption.

One exception is José Mujica, born 20 May 1935. He is a Uruguayan politician and farmer who served as the 40th President of Uruguay from 2010 to 2015. A former guerrilla with the Tupamaros, he was imprisoned for 12 years during the military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s. A member of the Broad Front coalition of left-wing parties, Mujica was Minister of Livestock Agriculture and Fisheries from 2005 to 2008 and then a Senator. As the candidate of the Broad Front, he won the 2009 presidential election and took office as President on 1 March 2010.


He has been described as ‘the world’s humblest head of state’ and these are some of the reasons why:

Mujica getting out of his Volkswagen Beetle
  • austere lifestyle
  • refusal to live in the presidential palace or to use its staff
  • donation of around 90% of his $12,000 monthly salary to charities that benefit poor people and small entrepreneurs
  • informal style of dress
  • personal charisma and attractive speaking style
  • car is a 1987 Volkswagen Beetle which in 2010 was valued at $1,800 and represented the entirety of the mandatory annual personal wealth declaration filed by Mujica for that year.


Mujica with a cannabis leaf
  • Mujica formed a cabinet made up of politicians from the different components of the Broad Front
  • His government made a controversial move to legalize state-controlled sales of marijuana in Uruguay in order to fight drug-related crimes and health issues. Mujica said that by regulating Uruguay’s estimated $40 million-a-year marijuana business, the state would take it away from drug traffickers, and weaken the drug cartels. The state would also be able to keep track of all marijuana consumers in the country and provide treatment to the most serious abusers.
  • Mujica passed same-sex marriage laws and legalized abortion for women
  • In September 2013, Mujica addressed the United Nations General Assembly with a long speech on humanity and globalization, calling on the international community to strengthen efforts to preserve the planet for future generations and highlighting the power of the financial systems and the impact of economic fallout on ordinary people. He urged a return to simplicity, with lives founded on human relationships, love, friendship, adventure, solidarity and family, instead of lives shackled to the economy and the markets.
  • Social expenditure in total public expenditure rose from 60.9% to 75.5%. Unemployment remained at about 7% while the national poverty rate was reduced from 18% to 9.7% and the minimum wage was raised.
  • Trade Unions were strengthened and according to the International Trade Union Confederation, Uruguay has become the most advanced country in the Americas in terms of respect for ‘fundamental labour rights, in particular freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike’


The ex-president in his tractor

Mujica could not run for re-election because the constitution does not allow presidents to run for consecutive re-election. Thus, on 1 March 2015, Mujica’s term as president came to an end.

Here are some of his wise words:

‘Life can set us a lot of snares, a lot of bumps, we can fail a thousand times, in life, in love, in the social struggle, but if we search for it we’ll have the strength to get up again and start over. The most beautiful thing about the day is that it dawns. There is always a dawn after the night has passed. Don’t forget it, kids. The only losers are the ones who stop fighting.’

Last of all, his own take on power:

‘It is a mistake to think that power comes from above, when it comes from within the hearts of the masses.’

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