Uruguay's Mujica: widly popular abroad but questioned back home

Uruguayan President Jose Mujica's cantankerous personality, homespun oratory and simple ways have made him wildly popular abroad.

American rockers Aerosmith and actors Sean Penn and Glenn Close are huge Mujica fans and have visited him in Uruguay. The former leftist guerrilla has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and his speech at the Rio-20 environmental conference urging simplicity in a world of conspicuous consumption has been viewed millions of times on YouTube.

But back home, "Pepe," as he's known to many, fails to generate as much devotion.

Mujica has a 47 percent approval rating, according to poll by the Cifra consulting firm. The survey of 1,000 people was carried out in February and has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Mujica's rating is still better than any other Uruguayan president since the country's return to democracy, except for his predecessor Tabare Vazquez.

But many are disappointed with his presidency.

Cifra's director, Adriana Raga, says there is a widespread criticism of perceived inefficiency. "Many people share Mujica's ideas, but they feel that very few of them materialize."

Mujica, who still lives on a flower farm with his wife, rarely dons a tie and drives an old VW Beetle, has led Uruguay through stable economic growth and better wages. His social agenda has included laws approving gay marriage and the creation of the world's first national marketplace for legal marijuana.

But critics say his government failed to address improvements in education, security and protection of the environment, pillars of his presidential agenda.

In the results of the 2012 Program for International Assessment, or PISA, evaluating high school students around the world, Uruguay got its worst grades in math, reading and science since 2003.

Gang shootouts and armed robberies have also raised security concerns and taken a toll on the popularity of Mujica, who is also questioned for his support of a huge open-pit mining project.

"People are not concerned about how weed is going to be smoked or about gay marriage... they're not at the core of their concerns," Raga said. "People are worried about security and education, where the government has real troubles."

Government officials contend that the problems in education and security began years before Mujica came into power.

Another survey by the Cifra consulting firm shows that Mujica's contribution to his coalition's victory in October's presidential elections will be smaller than his predecessor because he's less popular and his mandate is not rated as positively.

That might come as a surprise to many in Europe, where the Dutch NGO, Drug Free Institute, and 115 professors at Germany's Bremen University nominated him to the Nobel.

The German professors said Mujica deserves the award because of his "rejection to individual riches and excessive consumerism" and his "courageous launch of progressive drugs policy." They also praised his decision to leave the guerrilla life behind to embrace democracy.

Mujica's popularity began to grow in Uruguay in 2002, in the midst of a severe economic crisis that partly bankrupted the financial sector and brought unemployment to nearly 20 percent.

"In 2002 people changed the way they valued the attributes of politicians. 'Being just like us' became as important as intelligence," said political analyst Daniel Chasquetti.

"Now that Uruguay is doing well people don't think it's so wonderful to drive a Beetle or speak against consumption," he said. "In a world in crisis that goes a long way, but now Uruguayans want something else."


Associated Press writer Eva Vergara in Santiago, Chile contributed to this report.