The Rich President

President José Mujica
By Roosewelt Pinheiro/ABr (Agencia Brasil), via Wikimedia Commons

José Mujica is the president of Uruguay – but he lives like a simple farmer. Why does he choose to live this way? Ryan Geertsma and Robin Basselin look at the man some people call “The World’s Poorest President.” Why does he call himself rich?

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Voice 1 

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Ryan Geertsma.

Voice 2 

And I’m Robin Basselin. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 1 

Imagine a major world leader - like a president or prime minister. How do you think they live? Do you imagine they live in a large and costly home? Do they travel in big, black cars, with many security guards? Or do you think they fly in private airplanes? Many of us think of world leaders as people with great wealth. And often, this is true. But this is not the life of José Mujica. Mujica is the president of the country Uruguay, in South America. Many people call him "The World's Poorest President." Today's Spotlight is on President José Mujica and his example of a different kind of world leader.

Voice 2 

President Mujica could be an extremely rich world leader. Uruguay is one of South America's wealthiest countries. It has a strong government and a low crime rate. Uruguay's government offered to pay President Mujica a lot of money. They also offered him a huge presidential palace to live in. But President Mujica did not want to live this kind of life. Instead, he chose to live simply. Mujica gives away 90% of what the government pays him. He keeps only what an average Uruguayan citizen makes. And he gives the rest of the money to organizations that serve the poor and help people start small businesses.

Voice 1 

Mujica lives on a small farm near Uruguay's capital city. There, he and his wife farm and grow flowers. He has offered his presidential palace as a shelter for homeless people in times of emergency. He drives an old car - a 1987 Volkswagen Beetle. And he does not have a driver or many security guards. When Mujica flies, he does not use private airplanes. He does not even sit in the first class seats! Mujica is definitely an unusual world leader. He lives a peaceful and simple life. And he is not afraid to live among the Uruguayan people.

Voice 2 

But Mujica’s peaceful life is very different than his past. In the 1960s and 70s, he was part of an anti-government group called the Tupamaros, or the MLN. They wanted to force change in Uraguay's government. Uruguay was a social democracy. But the MLN did not believe the government was serving the people. At first, the MLN was non-violent. But the government of Uruguay used heavy punishment on the Tupamaros, including torture. In response, the MLN began to use violence.

Voice 1 

The MLN decided to operate a plan that they called "armed propaganda." They used guns to create shocking events. They hoped these events would spread their message. They robbed food trucks, and then they gave the food away to the poor. They raided banks so that people would learn about the illegal acts that the banks were doing. They even kidnapped foreign workers who were helping the government. The situation in Uruguay became a crisis. And in 1973, the military took over the country.

Voice 2 

By that time, police had shot José Mujica 6 times. And he was in prison for 14 years. Much of that time he spent completely alone. For 2 years, prison authorities put him at the bottom of a well. He began to talk to insects and frogs. He almost became insane. He survived, but his time in prison changed him.

Voice 1 

In 1985, Uruguay's military rule ended. Authorities released Mujica from prison. Mujica saw what violent revolution had done to his country. He still believed in revolution - that sometimes, it is necessary to change the government. But he knew violence was not the way to achieve it. He told The Guardian news organization,

Voice 3 

"The world will always need revolution. That does not mean shooting and violence. A revolution is when you change your thinking. Ancient Chinese thought and Christianity were both revolutionary."

Voice 2 

So instead of fighting the government, Mujica decided to join it. The new government of Uruguay was a democracy. At first, he served in the law-making part of the government as a senator. Then he became the Minister of Agriculture. And in 2009, the people elected him to be Uruguay's president.

Voice 1 

President Mujica’s rule has not been perfect. Some Uruguayans like his policies. Others do not. But many people respect him. This is because Mujica lives what he believes. He believes poverty is a major problem. But he does not think just helping people make more money is the answer. He wants to help the poor in Uruguay develop their lives in positive, lasting ways. In a famous speech to the UN in 2013, he said,

Voice 3 

"We have been talking for hours about lasting development. To get the masses out of poverty. But what are we thinking? Do we want the model of development of the rich countries? This model is based on consumption - on buying and owning more and more. Does this planet have enough resources so that 7 or 8 billion people can have the same level of consumption and waste that rich countries do? It is this level of hyper-consumption that is harming our planet."

Voice 2 

President Mujica told the UN that global culture presents a lie to people. He said that the average person in modern cities lives his life between banks and offices. He said this person dreams of holidays, of being able to pay his bills, and of freedom. But President Mujica told the UN that this kind of life - this model of development - is not the answer. He said,

Voice 3 

"We are proposing a life of waste which is a bill that moves us backward. It is against simplicity, against society, against nature, and even worse, against freedom. Freedom means having free time to enjoy human relations and the only eternal things: love, friendship, fun and exploration, unity, and family."

Voice 1

President Mujica’s simple life is a living example of his political message. But he does not like to be called "The World's Poorest President" - because he does not think he is poor at all. He told Al Jazeera,

Voice 3 

"Poor are the people who describe me as poor. My idea of poor is people who need too much. Because those who need too much are never satisfied."

Voice 2 

President Mujica may not have private airplanes or costly homes. But, even without these things, he is rich.

Voice 1 

The writer of this program was Jen Hawkins. The producer was Michio Ozaki.  The voices you heard were from the United Kingdom and the United States. All quotes were adapted and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at This program is called, “The Rich President."

Voice 2 

You can also leave your comments on our website. And find us on Facebook - just search for Spotlight Radio. We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye!

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What do you think about a leader who chooses to live as if he or she is poor?


Avatar Spotlight
said on September 17, 2014

great president! model leader for countries over the world.

Avatar Spotlight
said on September 18, 2014

Im trying to be him, not as President but as his thinking. Always life throw us in to incontrollable feeling. Living for survival, living for family and living for social pressure.
Sometime, stop and think about his life, have some different feeling and living continue.

Avatar Spotlight
Mss Flamboyant
said on September 22, 2014

“My idea of poor is people who need too much. Because those who need too much are never satisfied” I like this sentence so much. Greed of people is unlimited, so we will have to try and try to get more and more. Instead, people should try to live better and better. Giving time to take care family, friend and people around us. If we can do that life is wonderful.

humble71's avatar
said on September 26, 2014

Thanks to Spotlight family I could learn some interesting life of President Mujica . He really demonstrates that life is so simply . He is a good example for all human beings to be humble and patient in our acts. 
Have a good day , Spotlight famiy..

Avatar Spotlight
said on October 05, 2014

I am starting to love this website and i like the way that this president lives in this way he IS the richest president in the world.

Severino Ramos da Silva's avatar
Severino Ramos da Silva
said on January 25, 2016

Dear Robin Basselin, Ryan Geertsma, Jen Hawkins, and Michio Ozaki:

Congratulations for more one important matter that you have showed for us. Thanks!  I think that this man is a noble Uruguayan citizen. The time that he was in prison talking with insects and frogs he thought that nothing is more important than honestly and simplicity. And the most important thing is to live in a simple way and peace. Although, President Mujica deserves all the best as a President. My country BRAZIL needs a President like Mujica. Congratulations President Mujica.
All the best,
Severino Ramos

Avatar Spotlight
said on January 29, 2016

We learn about sufferings to know about sufferings and to respect truth. We learn about difficulties to know about difficulties and to respect beautiful good things. Sufferings in our lives are big. Difficulties in our lives are big. We build for true peace. We build for true happiness. Truth makes us free. There are many beautiful good things in the life.

Avatar Spotlight
Omar Méndez
said on February 13, 2016

Pienso que si todos los políticos tuvieran esa mentalidad para trabajar por sus países, seria distinta la situación social.

En especia en lo que respecta a nuestro país, ya que en los últimos años quienes han llegado a ostentar el poder se han dedicado a enriquecerse a costillas del dinero del país, el cual debería de utilizarse e invertirse en todas las necesidades con las que cuenta la población, que dicho sea de paso son muchas.

La figura de José Mujica, debería de ser el estereotipo de todos los políticos, en especial de los países en vías de desarrollo.  hemos visto y oído de la humildad con la que se manejó este hombre en su mandato en Uruguay.  Un gran ejemplo para todos los políticos.

Avatar Spotlight
said on January 05, 2018

I can not imagine this until I read these words. He is very special among current world leaders. Wish you well, thanks!

Kaleb Kolaibi's avatar
Kaleb Kolaibi
said on January 05, 2018

I raise my hat.
God bless you

Avatar Spotlight
said on January 23, 2020

This is a incredible story, I hope this esample will spread around the world.

Avatar Spotlight
said on January 23, 2020

You don’t really know who José Mujica is, but that’s okay! Everyone believes what they want to believe ...

Avatar Spotlight
said on February 02, 2020

That’s man should get award of the greatest president in the world I hope all presidents learn from him
And I like his idea of poor, poor is people who need too much those who need too much are never satisfied
Satisfaction it’s the most important thing and with it you can see happiness,joy,love everything is pleasant
There’re too many people have much money but they need more they’re greedy and they don’t feel happiness at all
Like celebrities who committed suicide even they had almost everything but they didn’t feel satisfied with their lives so with satisfaction you can see the beauty of the world
And Happiness depends upon our satisfaction
Thank you so much spotlight I always learn from you ♡