When the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October, many analysts rolled their eyes. The award was handed to an organization that is currently (poorly) managing a sovereign debt crisis, and has struggled to keep the continental unemployment rate below 15%. The official reason for the award was “for [having] over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.” Although true to a point, to many people the award was the easy way out for the Nobel committee. A way of saying, we don’t necessarily have a great candidate for this year, so we have decided to pull this out of our back pocket. It reminds me of when I would have been the only 11 year old to not win an award on my first year of swim team; they gave me the spirit award. Everyone could see through that as well.
And yet many people bought into that reasoning, saying there really is not a good candidate from 2012 to take the Nobel Peace Prize. Unfortunately, this seems like an all too common excuse over the past five years. The European Union joins an underwhelming list of winners from the past decade that includes Barrack Obama, Al Gore, and Liu Xiaobo. Although all three of those winners have made contributions, I think most people would agree that at their time of winning, for various reasons, they failed to live up to the incredible prestige associated with winning the Nobel Peace Prize. So what does this mean for the world? Are we are totally defunct of people worthy of winning the Nobel Peace Prize? I think the answer to that question is an unequivocal no, and that we have criminally overlooked worthy several worth candidates of 2012 because their names do not shine in the lights like the European Union. Perhaps the best example of a man deserving the award, but whose name was not even in contention because of his “lack of celebrity” comes from Uruguay, their president José Mujica.
A little research on President Mujica tells you the relatively uninspiring story of a man who participated in guerilla warfare in his home country of Uruguay, sat in jail for fourteen years, and now, finally at the ripe age of 77 years young, is president. Almost everything about President Mujica is unassuming. Unlike many of his presidential counterparts in South America, he is unassuming; from the way he dresses to the way he speaks. His language isn’t fiery, it’s controlled and calculated, and yet he’s leading one of the greatest social and economic transformations in the history of South America.
Understanding Mujica involves first understanding Uruguay. Most college students (especially males) will understand Uruguay through the lens of their soccer team, which won the Copa America (South American soccer championship) last summer by beating out both Argentina and Brazil, the traditional powers of the sport. They also placed fourth at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, a tremendous achievement for a country with just over 3 million people. Located just south of Brazil, the nation has a terrible history of military rule, and was only recently indoctrinated with democracy in 1984. The country has had tremendous debt issues over the past twenty years, and drug cartels remain a problem, similar to many South American nations.
As the leader of the Broad Front, a Uruguayan left wing coalition, President Mujica won the Uruguayan Presidential election in 2009, appealing to the masses as a down to earth pragmatist who can think outside the box. His comfortable, folky style of speaking and laid back attitude appeals to the population of Uruguay, and he is known amongst his friends as an “anti-politician,” while one citizen referred to him as “a roly-poly former guerrilla who grows flowers on a small farm and swears by vegetarianism.” For many rival politicians, he is seen as “fluky,” or “kind of a joke.” But what’s not a joke are his results, his ability to revitalize Uruguay in his three years in office has been nothing short of incredible.
Though pragmatic and centrist, Mujica does lean left, especially on social issues. Since 2009, Mujica has leveled down many of the barriers separating Uruguay from social progress. Moving faster than many South American counterparts, Mujica is pushing legislation to legalize marijuana, a move which analysts expect to decrease cartel violence in the country, and provide a larger tax base to the Uruguayan government to further implement social reform. Mujica has also made Uruguay one of the first South American nations to legalize same-sex marriage, a big move for a nation that is traditionally very conservative-Catholic, and his stance on renewable energy such as wind and biofuel has poised the country to become the region’s leader in wind energy by 2015. As a man who sat behind bars for fourteen years, he is also behind the country’s move to investigate human rights abuses that occurred during the country’s years of dictatorship and military rule. Lastly, Uruguay remains the safest country in South America in terms of violent crimes, burglaries, and gun violence, an impressive fact for a country placed between nations where urban violence and resulting decreases in tourism have plagued local economies.
Speaking of the economy, probably Mujica’s most interesting characteristic remains his management of the economy, and the management of his own personal finances. Having sold many of the nation’s Presidential palaces, Mujica has vowed to live on the average median salary in Uruguay during his time as president, donating 90% of his paycheck to charities and social programs. The man drives a 1987 Volkswagen Beetle and does not wear a tie unless meeting with foreign diplomats, and his current net value is $1,800. In terms of the national economy, he has lowered the nation’s debt/GDP ratio, and Fitch just recently upgraded the nation’s credit rating to positive. He, along with the coalition party he represents, has been overwhelmingly credited with saving Uruguay’s economy over the past decade.
Now that we’re all jazzed about Mujica, and his presidency, and perhaps wondering why American politicians are so awful, perhaps it’s time to consider why this man was never considered for the 2012 Nobel Prize, and why in 2013 I can almost guarantee he will not be on the ballot. This is a man who has accomplished more for the country of Uruguay and the continent of South America than anyone would have imagined. He is tremendously popular in his home country and he has brought Uruguay to the modern age, socially, culturally, and economically. The statistics don’t lie either, he has decreased crime, increased economic activity, and if his legalization of marijuana is passed, will probably cut the influence of drug cartels in the country in half.
There are many reasons Mujica could be conspicuously absent from the list. He is unassuming, not a big talker. His speeches to the media are usually short and sweet, not bold and propagandist. He is from a really small country in South America that is not involved in many daily headlines. He is not a sexy choice, but perhaps he is the right choice. For many years analysts of the Nobel Peace Prize have complained of the lack of worthy candidates, the lack of people who have truly changed a region or a culture. Perhaps it’s time we dig a little bit deeper to find the truly diamonds in the rough, the people who are making a difference without making a huge deal about it. Perhaps it’s time to look at the people who are changing parts of the world that were deemed unsaveable, uncovering issues such as drug violence and social regression that were deemed unsolvable. Perhaps it’s time for someone like José Mujica.