MONTEVIDEO Ė Jose Mujica knows what it is like to live in confinement. The former Uruguayan president (2010-15) was a member of the left-wing Tupamaros (MLN-T) guerilla group in the late 60s and was held in inhumane conditions for 15 years.
The Covid-19 pandemic that has caused tens of thousands of deaths around the world has forced 84-year-old Mujica, now a senator, back into isolation, albeit under distinctly different conditions.
Far from considering it a problem, Mujica tells EFE in an interview via videolink that he makes the most of his new-found spare time to stroll around his farm and to think. He urges everyone who finds themselves in isolation to look inwards and to consider the value of life.
QUESTION: How has Covid-19 affected your life?
ANSWER: Itís simple. First of all, I live on a farm, I have a lot of space, around 20 hectares, to go for walks. For that reason, I define myself as a sort of frustrated peasant farmer.
I like the land not for what it gives me but for what it suggests to me and Iím therefore kept entertained. But, on the other hand, Iím an old man who spent many years as a prisoner in terrible conditions in terms of loneliness. I spent seven years alone, without a book. I learned a few things.
Thereís something called introspection, which can be summed up as learning to speak with the person within. It is someone we donít know that well, because it is hard to Ďget to know yourself.í
Itís very useful to take stock of life from a distant perspective and we will be surprised to learn things we didnít notice the first time around. This (the virus) has changed everything and we are entering a different kind of history. If anything is globalized, itís that. It hasnít respected borders, nor rich or poor. It seems to me that weíll have to take some time to learn how to live with this enemy that walks alone, that we do not see, that is among us and will not magically disappear, because it also has the ability to mutate. Until science is able to provide us with answers to this, we wonít know how long it will take to round the corner. We therefore still donít know the cost of all this.
Q: Are we facing the possibility of changing the capitalist system for something more cooperative?
A: Capitalism wonít change because of this. What we can change, to an extent, is us human beings óto change the way we look at certain things. In recent decades, we have been observing, on the one hand, the defects of the nation state, of bureaucracy, which is a failed human construct, seeing the failures of the Soviet model, and it has led to a kind of hatred toward the nation state. But now when push comes to shove, we resort to the nation state because we need something to make universal decisions, something to give us obligations.
We donít realize that the nation state is a necessary tool to deal with the increasing complexity of modern societies. You can have any kind of political belief but we are consigned to have nation state and for that reason we need to fight to ensure the nation state is the best it can possibly be.
If we neglect it, if we donít put the ball in its court, then we end up with a tool that we can blame all of our ills on when push comes to shove. What a contradiction. Perhaps we will learn that the market is important but it is not everything because there are things it can never fix. For those potholes the market canít repair, we need the nation state.
The other thing is to have a bit of humility, to spend more on science, nurture it. It cannot be that rich countries donít have the mechanisms in place for people who have dedicated themselves to science their whole lives in preparation for epidemics, because they stand at the doors of history. They are not overcome. Do not disseminate nonsense like the president (...) of a very rich nation who is withholding, in a moment of battle, resources from an organization (the WHO) that could be good, bad or neither, but is the only thing we have to fight this pandemic at a global level.
You will yet have time to settle the score, but donít break the only tool we have to fight this at a global level. We have to learn political lessons. The biggest of those is that we have to learn to live in an era in which we need political decisions that could affect the entire world. We are not yet in a position to implement that.
Q: Did weak nation states and policymaking prompt countries like Spain and Italy to collapse?
A: They were at least not on top of the circumstances. Furthermore, this situation came as a surprise and they began to make decisions based on speculation ó ďthis is just a little fluĒ ó and they gave the advantage to the virus and it overtook us. These are cases when political decision-making has to be backed by scientific advice. I know that scientific advice isnít ready yet, itís not absolutely clear. But we must at least take heed of their warnings. There are therefore places that are paying too high a price for not having implemented the only tool we had, which was to isolate in time. I think that was a mistake.
Q: Europe, the United States and other world powers have been ravaged by this illness. How does Latin America resist the advance of the coronavirus and the socio-economic crisis it brings with it?
A: It will pay a high price for it as always. We have to understand that solidarity must be organized compulsively. In modern societies it canít be denied: the most sensitive human organ is not the heart, it is the pocket. There are people who spontaneously give what they can and everything, but in reality this is not sorted out with charity. There needs to be a long time period of systematic and planned solidarity which means sectors with higher incomes help out others for a couple of years.
Why? Because this is going to take time. Iím not talking about pulling it out of capital, but people confuse capital with income.
Suddenly I donít have capital but I have a good income and Iím planning on getting a new car within two years or traveling to Venice with my wife. This is the person who has to do their bit, to offer a helping hand. Not to withhold it because it is worth doing a little even if over a long period. We need capital to be invested and risked because we have to shake this off.
Q: Will the Latin American wealth gap grow because of this?
R: Yes, the gap is likely to widen further. It is a trend in modern economies for the economy to grow but to become much more concentrated and it becomes accentuated if policies arenít used to correct it. Life has taught me that no lamb was saved by bleating, everything depends on the will of people when they collectively organize to fight: rights, equality and mitigating differences will all be vicissitudes to come. We will have better societies if we are able to fight for them, and at the same time, we will all improve.
Q: What positive things will come of this health crisis?
A: I think it instills a sense of humility because we have to give a great amount of importance to science, we see that not all that glitters is gold and, in reality, you should not always be in such a hurry ó life is the only miracle we have before us. The only miracle for each of us is having been born. We come from a state of non-existent and we shall return to a much larger, infinite state of non-existence. The adventure of life is a marvel despite all of its contradictions. For that reason we have to work to live and cover our material needs. Make an effort. But we must leave time for life, for affection, to cultivate affection. Not everything is business, not everything is technological progress, not everything is about boosting material possessions.
There is one thing that is not a market and that is the feeling of living collectively with all the small and big things that surround us in life. Itís time to spend part of our time with our children, friends, the wife, with the adventure of human relations. Why? Because life gets away from you and you canít go to the supermarket to buy more years. And when you come to the end, youíll ask yourself this: What has my life been? Have I spent all my time collecting resources to pay the bills? It is possible that some people will learn the value of being alive.