Pope Francis and Pepe Mujica: Why Are Modest Leaders Making Waves?

Pope Francis and Pepe Mujica: Why Are Modest Leaders Making Waves?

Other top figures could learn from the popularity of a slum-visiting cleric and a Beetle-driving president.

At first glance, they are natural opposites. One was a successful priest, a high-ranking cleric, and now the leader of the world’s largest religious institution. The other, a lifelong atheist, started his life as a flower salesman, became a Marxist urban guerrillero, and is now a progressive president.

But in fact, the two men are remarkably similar. The first, Pope Francis, and the second, Uruguay’s President José Mujica, share a common leadership style, in which the dominant principles are modesty and humility.

The Pope caused a stir last July when reporters asked him about gay priests. “Who am I to judge?” was his reply. Not satisfied with the subversion implied in a mere call for tolerance, he doubled down by phrasing it in a way that questioned his own authority. This is hardly out of character for the Argentine. He has repeatedly called for an impoverished church. He dresses, lives, and speaks in a plain, austere manner. Francis also makes a point of scolding wasteful, vain clerics, while at the same time demonstrating compassion and care towards the weak and forgotten: those devastated by ruinous diseases, African migrants crawling to life on the sands of the Mediterranean shore, and even atheists.

Uruguay’s Mujica also leads by example. The former Marxist guerrilla famously drives an old Volkswagen Beetle, flies coach on diplomatic trips, and donates about 80 percent of his salary to charity. The president has been found casually shopping for toilet seat covers, helping neighbors affix loose planks during a thunderstorm (injuring his nose in the process), or loading up gasoline on his own. Recently, when the results for the global PISA primary school tests were published, he made a point of visiting the worst-performing school in Uruguay, rather than the best.

Parallel Lives

The similarities between the two leaders are not coincidental. Both men grew up geographically close to each other, and at the same time: Mujica was born in mid-1935, while Bergoglio was born in late 1936. Despite Argentina and Uruguay being separate countries, their societies and culture are nearly identical. In fact, one may well argue there are fewer differences between them than there are between the United States and Canada.

In the culture of Bergoglio and Mujica, politicians and other aspirants to hierarchy are often treated with little of the deference seen in the rest of Latin America. Religion, even for cardinals like Bergoglio, is also comparatively weak. The police and the military have little prestige. Women are well integrated, especially in politics. A common saying goes “No one is more than anyone else”.

Naturally, this does not mean all is bright. During the Cold War, a period of decay in Uruguay led to the rise of Mujica’s Tupamaros guerrillas, as well as their enemies in the military. In Argentina, very few governments since the 1930s have not been either a military dictatorship or a Peronist regime. In fact, this latter movement has produced cults of personality that are anathema to the simplicity described above. Because of this, Argentine democracy has been in a crisis for close to a century.

However, these political ups and downs had little to do with the early lives of Bergoglio and Mujica. What they absorbed into their personalities was, instead, a mix of the respect for personal autonomy of classic liberalism with the collectivist preoccupations of both Christian and socialist thinking.

Bergoglio and Mujica also share working class backgrounds. The former studied chemistry and worked menial jobs, even as a nightclub bouncer, to make ends meet. As a priest and much later a cardinal he rode the Buenos Aires subway, officiated at minor ceremonies, and constantly visited the worst slums. A video available on YouTube shows him arguing passionately against modern-day slavery at a small street rally, less than a year before being handed the alleged keys to Heaven. Today he is said to make nocturnal escapades to serve the homeless of Rome. He possesses vast knowledge of the ways of the street, and of what the daily lives and concerns of people are really like.

Mujica helped his widowed mother sell flowers since childhood, and dropped out of high school to contribute to the family economy. As a lawmaker he rode to Parliament successively by bus, by motorcycle, and by Volkswagen Beetle. His entire political career has been built around being a man of the people. This is clearly a populist practice, but at least it is authentic: no one disputes that Mujica shows himself the way he truly is.

There is thus no expectation of being addressed as Presidente Mujica, but rather as Pepe. There is no imposition of His Holiness Pope Francis, but rather a simple “Bergoglio” or even “Jorge” will do (as Francis has insisted on referring to himself when making calls to Argentina). While multiple factors explain each man’s personality, this shared background helps to discern how they arrived where they are now.

Tapping on Political Discontent

Power changed neither the president of Uruguay nor the new Vicar of Christ. That is in itself a major statement for modern leadership. However, the bigger issue is the sensational success both have had with international audiences.

Consider what observers see when comparing these leaders to their own. When Mujica enters a room, people greet him casually. When Barack Obama does so, a band of uniformed men plays a song with the title “Hail to the Chief.” There used to be a time when Thomas Jefferson received visitors in his slippers, and when Lafayette Square did not have to be cleared of people for the seven-hundred-foot presidential walk from the White House to St. John’s Episcopal Church. Ironically, if there was one U.S. politician who brought an outsider’s perspective to high office, it was Obama. His poor performance in this regard might benefit from meetings with Francis and Mujica, both scheduled for 2014.

The contrasts continue. Bergoglio’s escapades are to help the poor. Those of the president of his country, Cristina Fernández, involve pricy handbags and are a constant source of ridicule. While Francis forgoes private apartments and golden crosses, Silvio Berlusconi owns an artificial volcano for his wild parties in Sardinia. Iran’s top cleric heads a multibillion-dollar economic empire. Russia’s owns expensive watches and publicly venerates Vladimir Putin.

In fact, the greatest abuses are found among the undemocratic ruling classes of the Arab world, the Indian subcontinent, China, and numerous developing countries. Indignation is gathering at the Porsche-driving sons of Chinese Communist apparatchiks, the luxuries of Russian magnates, and the many excesses of Persian Gulf petrocrats. Injustice has a way of causing outrage.

What do these comparisons mean beyond the anecdotal? The arguable case is that the outsized privileges of leaders are under greater scrutiny in an age of global online awareness. When there are poignant examples of sober conduct, the juxtapositions become inevitable. The media of various countries, including Brazil, Spain, India, Thailand and South Korea, have covered Mujica with gusto (in the latter case visiting his house, bedroom and all). Same with the Pope, whose global appeal is already evident.

Francis has been named TIME’s Person of the Year. Mujica joined him in Foreign Policy magazine’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers. On top of that The Economist named Uruguay its “country of the year” for his policies –not least the legalization of marijuana- and leadership style. This week, Rolling Stone put Francis on its cover. The impact of these leaders is thus uniquely dual: Francis and Mujica fascinate both elites and common folk.

There is a great political lesson here: leaders are just people. It’s an old republican principle that never gets stale.

Pablo Brum is a security analyst based in Washington, D.C. He is currently writing the first English-language history of the Tupamaros.

Image: Merge. Left: Wikimedia Commons/presidencia.gov.ar. CC BY-SA 2.0. Right: Flickr/Vince Alongi. CC BY 2.0.