Humility is the best policy

Joko Widodo, the Indonesian president, is an able successor to Uruguay’s José Mújica, widely seen as the world’s most humble leader

A student takes a selfie with Indonesian President Widodo (Reuters)

A student takes a selfie with Indonesian President Widodo (Reuters)

The quiet man sitting on his haunches in a farmer’s field. The casually dressed father taking selfies at his son’s graduation. Joko Widodo took office six weeks ago and the president of Indonesia likes nothing more than going for an impromptu walkabout. He is the first person to lead his country who is not from the military or the elite and he uses his commoner’s background as a plus-point.

Mr Widodo campaigned for the presidency on the back of a ‘man of the people’ tag and he certainly is a man amongst the people, worrying his minders as he chats to residents on wanders through markets.  Once a furniture salesman in the family business, he is now in charge of the world’s biggest Muslim country, where 250m inhabitants are spread across 18,000 islands.

A country that is far away from Indonesia in geography, size and population is Uruguay. It is a tiny nation of 3.4m people, sandwiched between two muscly neighbours in Argentina and Brazil. Indonesia dominates its next-door nations, sprawling all over South East Asia. It is the biggest economy in the region with GDP last year of $868bn, towering over Uruguay’s output of $55bn.

But these differing places do have something in common: a down-to-earth president who shies away from the trappings of power. To call José Mújica, the president of Uruguay, modest is an understatement. In the five years he has led his country he has shunned the presidential residence, choosing to stay in his small farmstead outside the capital with his wife and three-legged dog. He dresses in a relaxed manner, far more comfortable in jeans and an open shirt than a pin-stripe suit.

José Mújica outside his garage on his farm (Reuters)

José Mújica outside his garage on his farm (Reuters)

Widodo is also at ease in his home clothes, admitting he only really wears white shirts and practical shoes, often stopping on his walkabouts, or blusukan, to buy local market clothes. Both men have forgone official transport, too. The Uruguayan drives an old VW Beetle and he flies economy class when taking to the skies.

His Indonesian counterpart recently declined to use the presidential plane flying to Singapore. Mújica is affectionately known as “Pepe” and the shared down-to-earth image of the two men is further underlined by the fact that almost everyone knows the Indonesian leader by a nickname as well, in his case “Jokowi”.

There are distinctions between the two countries. Mújica has overseen the legalisation of gay marriage and marjiuana in Uruguay. The use of cannabis is illegal in Indonesia and parts of the country have introduced sharia law, under which homosexuality is a criminal offence.

Jokowi is only getting started but José Mújica is on his way out. Tábare Vázquez will replace the understated man in power in Montevideo on 1 March next year. But though Pepe is leaving office, he won’t have to change desks, as he’ll still be sitting at the little cottage table he’s always sat at, in his humble home. Meanwhile, 9,400 miles away in Indonesia, Jokowi appears to be a willing follower carrying Mújica’s humble mantle.


No change, please

Bolivia and Brazil have voted their incumbent presidents back in; Uruguay will have a new leader, probably from the same party as the outgoing José Mújica, by the end of next month

For the third successive time, Bolivia chose to put Evo Morales in the hot-seat. The popular president took his established brand of ‘indigenous socialism’ to the electorate again and they faithfully returned him to power. There was no need for a second round: the incumbent won 60% of first-time votes. Under Morales, Bolivia has been a staunch member of the ALBA coalition of countries and the president praised two of his leftist colleagues – one aged and ailing, one deceased – in his celebratory speech after claiming victory:

“this triumph is dedicated to Fidel Castro, to Hugo Chávez – may he rest in peace – and to all anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist presidents and governments”

Morales has stabilised the Andean country and overseen growth driven by a commodities boom. But he has had to manage contradictions in office. He supported new roads and building projects in previously untouched indigenous lands, while at the same time standing up for his roots in the coca-growing low-income community. But these cracks have not been big enough for the opposition to expose, such is the overall, nationwide strength of Morales and his Movement to Socialism party. His nearest opponent, conservative Samuel Doria Medina, eventually came in well behind Mr Morales with 24%.

In Brazil, the electorate also plumped for the incumbent, which gave them four more years of Dilma Rousseff, the Workers’ Party candidate. After eight years of government under her predecessor and political father figure, Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva, it was widely thought that Rousseff could also cruise into a second term herself.

But some significant factors made this the closest run election Brazil has seen since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985. Firstly, the entrance of Marina Silva into the race after her running mate, presidential candidate Eduardo Campos, died in a plane crash, ignited the campaign. There was now the possibility that Brazil could have its first black leader in Silva, the daughter of poor rubber tappers from the Amazon. But when one poll showed her winning a possible run-off against Ms Rousseff, the attack cogs of both the president’s party, the PT, and Aécio Neves’ PDSB, grinded into action, and Silva’s campaign was dismantled. She came a distant third in the first round.

Secondly, the Petrobras corruption scandal hurt Dilma Rousseff and her staff. A long list of kickbacks allegations, where ministers received cash siphoned off the state oil giant’s coffers, is being investigated. She firmly rejects any involvement and has hinted she will sue the right-wing magazine that has been printing splashes about the scandal. The kickbacks allegedly took place when she headed the Petrobras board but, in the end, her rival Aécio Neves was just as tainted by claims he would be a ‘rich president for the rich, upper classes’ as she was by the oil corruption story. Ms Rousseff has slashed poverty and increased welfare support, especially in the poor north-eastern states, but this has come at a cost to the economy, which is drifting away from the export-power growth witnessed during the eight years of the previous PT leader, Lula da Silva.

That was something that Aécio Neves’ team hoped to capitalise on, in particular Arminio Fraga, a respected economist and would-be finance minister. Coupled with the stumbling weakness of its rivals in the Rousseff administration, it made the Neves PDSB machine a viable replacement for the government. The markets certainly favoured Neves, and they rose whenever he had a surge and, tellingly, collapsed six per cent when the Rousseff victory was finally confirmed.

It ended up as a battle of the poorer north-east versus the richer south-east and one that ran to a nail-biting conclusion, the incumbent seeing off her challenger 51% to 49%. Brazilians seemed to be aware that the economy needs bolstering, and the finances need more structuring and less ministerial meddling, but the successes of the Rousseff administration in combating poverty still rung loudly. But this was a negative campaign fought on the back of sleaze allegations, mass protests last year against failing public infrastructure, a weak economy and a controversial World Cup that the country limped out of embarrassingly, losing their last two matches, the semi-final and third place play-off, 7-1 and 3-0 respectively. Dilma has a tough job on her hands for the next four years and has already said she hopes to be “a better president” this time around.

Just to the south of the biggest country in Latin America is one of the smallest. Uruguay has also been in electoral mood recently, with the first-round of its vote to replace the inimitable José Mújica. The humble leader, well-known for eschewing the trappings of the presidency by giving away 90% of his salary to charity, living in a farmstead and driving himself around in an old VW Beetle, cannot run for immediate re-election and was elected to the Senate. Mújica’s presidency was defined by a series of liberal reforms, including the legalisation of gay marriage and the production, sale and consumption of marijuana but there are signs that some of the policies could be amended by the incoming leader. That will either be Tabaré Vázquez, from Mújica’s leftist Broad Front or the conservative National Party’s Luis Lacalle Pou. Vázquez looks the more likely of the two to win at the moment. The two men meet one month today in a run-off.

A las urnas…

Eight Latin American countries go to the polls next year – what can we expect?

First up across the region are Costa Rica and El Salvador, where there will be legislative and presidential elections on 2 February. The Costa Rican president, Laura Chinchilla, is constitutionally barred from running for consecutive terms. So although the number of female leaders across the region has risen to four recently with the re-election of Michelle Bachelet in Chile, it will soon drop back down to three as Chinchilla leaves office (Dilma Rousseff in Brazil and Cristina Fernandez in Argentina are the other two women leaders). In fact, although it is unlikely, the number could be down to two by the autumn – as Brazilians go to the polls in October. Back in San José, no one candidate is storming the race, meaning that the country could need a run-off to split the field, an electoral practice that is common in Latin America but that has not taken place in Costa Rica since 2002. Johnny Araya of the National Liberation party and Broad Front’s José Villalta look to be the strongest of the candidates so far.

El Salvador is another country that prohibits presidents running again straightaway and, as such, Mauricio Funes will be stepping down this spring. The leading contenders to take his place go head-to-head on 2 February, with a run-off scheduled for 9 March if needed. It is the smallest country in Latin America and much of the new president’s focus will be on gang violence, which has been increasing recently despite a truce between the criminals in 2012.

Next up is Colombia, which has elections to both houses of parliament on that Sunday 9 March. Nearly three months after that, on 25 May, is the race for the hot-seat as the presidential candidates face the public. Incumbent Juan Manuel Santos is going once more and it looks as though he will follow his one-time mentor, ex-leader Álvaro Uribe, in securing consecutive terms in office. Peace talks with the Farc rebels are currently taking place and Santos has said that 2014 will be a crucial year for peace – he feels that it is his national duty to see the talks through to ‘the end’. He has so far wavered between moderation and muscle: at once trying to maintain the talks without completing retreating from the hardlines drawn up by Uribe during his two terms in office – ten more militants were killed in a bombing raid just after Christmas.

But in Panama there is no chance of seeing the same face again as Ricardo Martinelli is leaving office. On 4 May the isthmus nation is due to hold legislative ballots to its one National Assembly as well as the ballot for the head of state.

The Dominican Republic has a vote for the chamber of deputies and the senate the week after, on 16 May. Only legislators are on the ballot papers in 2014 because Danilo Medina was voted into the presidency in 2012 for a four-year term.

Evo Morales, the charismatic Bolivian president, is seeking a controversial re-election next year on 5 October. Technically, Evo has served two terms in office – the maximum that a politician can reach in the Andean nation. But because his first term (2006-9) predated the constitution that was re-written in 2009, the courts ruled that his time limit re-started under the new legal framework in 2009, rather than in 2006. As such, he is free to run again next autumn. Another victory and a full term in office would take his reign in the mountains up to 2019, which at 13 years would be almost as long as Hugo Chávez served in Venezuela. Evo’s time in office so far has been celebrated and criticised and has swung from a defence of coca farmers, to facing protests over subsidy cuts and road-building plans, to a cosy familiarity with other leftist countries, such as Venezuela and Ecuador.

Brazilians head to the polls on the same day in October, also for a general election. The country has been a regular in the world news this year, from widespread and – at times – violent protests against poor public services, to the visit of Pope Francis, and the excitement about and criticism of the upcoming World Cup. The festival of football happens thee months before the election and although the soccer-mad nation would love to see a sixth victory for a seleção there have also been the calls for the money to have been spent elsewhere in the economy. Dilma has continued with the Workers’ Party’s statism but has not had quite the popularity that her predecessor Luíz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva enjoyed. That said, her recent poll showings have improved from over the summer of civil discord and should be strong enough to see off her efficient main challengers, Aécio Neves of the Social Democratic Party and the Socialists’ Eduardo Campos.

Uruguay is the last of the Latin American countries to vote in 2014, with a general election on 26 October. The little South Atlantic nation has been making headlines of its own this year, with a ground-breaking legalisation of marijuana and same-sex marriage. Its football team stands a good chance of doing well at the World Cup, with several tremendous players blooming right now. Its outgoing leader, José Mújica, has won widespread acclaim for his low-key presidency, as he eschews many of the presidential trimmings and stylings by driving himself in slacks and jackets to work from his small farmstead and flying economy class. And much of this contributed to Uruguay being the inaugural winner of The Economist‘s ‘Country of the Year’ award. Whoever takes up the mantle in Montevideo will certainly have interesting shoes to fill.

Feliz Año!

Long-grass policy?

Cannabis policy moves in the US and Uruguay re-ignite calls for drugs strategies to be reviewed

Earlier this week the Mexican president Felipe Calderón joined several regional counterparts for talks. One of the topics up for discussion was the possible social implications of legalising the sale and possession of cannabis. The Mexican leader, who has two weeks left in Los Pinos before the handover of power to Enrique Peña Nieto, has spent most of his six-year term waging a brutal and costly war against drugs gangsters in his country. On Monday he spoke of another tactic: legalisation. This is a popular idea in Latin America and former Mexican presidents Vicente Fox and Ernesto Zedillo, along with ex-Brazilian leader Fernando Henrique Cardoso, have all said legalisation has to be considered.

Another country in the Americas that has thought about scrapping national penalties on the sale and possession of pot is the US – albeit at the moment on a state rather than federal level. On 6 November the vast majority of the United States was focused on a very different set of policy arguments: the tax plans; jobs measures; foreign ideas; and grand-standing of the candidates in its presidential election. But in three (safe Democrat) western states, voters were also going to the polls over the issue of legalising the sale and possession of marijuana for recreational use. Colorado and Washington passed the vote whilst Oregon rejected a move to get rid of criminal penalties for possession and cultivation of cannabis recreationally. At a federal level, the United States does not currently favour the national legalisation of pot-smoking but that position is changing in the presidential offices of some of its regional neighbours.

In Uruguay, the government has faced up to the issue of weed consumption rather than trying to deny it or only discuss further penalising it. Montevideo is set to establish a ‘National Cannabis Institute’ through which the state will regulate the production, sale and consumption of marijuana. The government has said it is determined to offer what it describes as ‘better quality’ pot than that which is currently bought and sold on the Uruguayan black market. It is a novel way to confront the issue.

Socially, the Americas seem to be driving the global discussion on drugs regulation. But there are still differences from country to country. Unlike Mexico, Uruguay is not fighting a bloody civil war, wrought with the images of decapitated men and women set against a backdrop of hillsides flaming as fields of confiscated cannabis are set alight. To say ordinary Mexicans are tired of the destruction would be an understatement. They long for a way out of the violent mess. Is that exit labelled ‘legalisation’?

Consumption within Mexico is not the issue at hand – but would more wide-ranging reform of the system in the US, particularly on a federal level (or with the compliance of federal authorities to laws passed in individual states) calm the warfare to the south? Gangs would have less reason to smuggle weed into a country where it could be grown and sold legally. Mexican politicians have tried forging secret pacts with the gangs; they have tried to crush them with the civil deployment of the armed forces. They need a new way.

The policy moves at either end of the Americas underline the international dimension to the drugs debate. Could the gangs be defeated through cross-border measures and agreements? Mexico has lost a lot of energy in the war on drugs. Surely the talks hosted by Felipe Calderón this week with the leaders of Belize, Honduras and Costa Rica demonstrate that there is everything to gain by closer neighbourly chats: talks over how to deliver a social policy blow to the gangs rather than using bribes or bombs?

An Arab and his amigos

Colonel Gaddafi appears to be increasingly isolated. Will he look to his Latin friends for an exit route?

William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, suggested (erroneously) back in February that Muammar Gaddafi had fled Libya and sought refuge with the friendly face of Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president – a claim which Caracas criticised heavily. However, that idea was not a whimsical prospect dreamt up by Mr Hague at random – Mr Chavez has made it a habit of his to befriend states with clear anti-US rhetoric and ideals, such as Iran and Cuba. Libya has been no exception and in 2009, Gaddafi named a football stadium after the Venezuelan premier (only for rebels to rescind the honour a few weeks ago). (Football seems to be a peculiar source of mutual content for states which take pleasure in upsetting the US.)

Now Colonel Gaddafi is losing support in the Maghreb and in his own cabinet , can he look west across the Atlantic for help? Chavez has derided the ‘no-fly-zone’, calling it ‘total madness’ and his thoughts have been echoed by many across Latin America.

Brazil abstained from voting on the UN Security Council’s Resolution 1973, the document which gave the allies their international legal permission to crackdown on Gaddafi’s forces. Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, did not agreed with the UN’s decision and announced his ”condemnation, repudiation and rejection” of the intervention.

Similar noises were made by Nicaragua, where Daniel Ortega, a constant thorn in the side of the West, criticised the UN for turning itself into ”an instrument of warmongering and death for these powers”. Fidel Castro accused NATO of ”demonstrating the waste and chaos that capitalism perpetuates” and the President of Uruguay, Jose Mujica, although ‘lamenting’ the attacks by Gaddafi, pointed out that ”saving lives with bombs is an inexplicable contradiction in terms”. Argentina, Ecuador and Paraguay also came out against Resolution 1973.

But there were some resolute stances from the Latin Americans in favour of the allied action. Mexico, Peru, Chile and El Salvador all came out in favour of the Security Council’s decision. Colombia said that the Gaddafi regime had ”made fun of” the resolution and President Santos called for an end to the fighting.

So Gaddafi seemingly has a few open doors in Latin America. Whether he will choose to walk through them remains, at this stage in the crisis, very hard to predict. However, public opinion can be fickle in Latin America and presidents are always on the hunt for high approval ratings – giving the Colonel some free bed and board might not go down too well. So as this situation develops, despite their previous announcements, it is not a given that the Latin capitals will continue to be so welcoming to the dictator.

Lula wading into choppy waters one last time

Never one to shy away from the chance to promote Brazil on the world stage – and try to reaffirm the country’s growing global stature – Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the outgoing Brazilian president, has angered the US once more.

The government in Brasilia has announced that the time has come for the country to recognise the Palestinian state, a move which has immediately drawn criticism from the US and Israel.

Lula has played this game before. In May, he refused to vote for energy sanctions to be placed on Iran. Only Turkey and Lebanon joined his call-to-arms. Many saw Lula’s decision as a signal of support for embattled Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who he had welcomed to Brazil on a tour earlier.

However, Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s chosen successor who will replace her mentor as president next month, has attempted to scupper claims that she is nothing more than Lula’s puppet. She has admitted that the Brazilian position on Iran was unpopular and warned that there will be a more ‘cautious’ foreign policy on her watch.

But Brazil is not the only Latin American nation to recognise Palestine: Cuba, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Venezuela have all formalised relations with the disputed territories.

Last month Uruguay joined the list and on 6 December Argentina added its name to the group. Latin American nations have powerful backers (Colombia – US; Venezuela – Iran) but are seizing the mantle more and more now to become outspoken defendants of global causes themselves.

They are still learning the trade, though. On 30 November, Ecuador’s deputy foreign minister, Kintto Lucas, made a forthright decision to offer the since-arrested Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ founder, the platform to speak publicly. President Rafael Correa then rubbished the idea that an offer of accommodation would be made (in all likelihood because Ecuador will not escape complicity in the compromising cables).

Ecuador’s confusion demonstrates its infancy on the vocal world stage. Lula is no such paddler; he has been swimming against the current for a while. It will be up to Dilma whether to maintain Lula’s defiant oratory or to change tack and go with the flow.