As the US goes to the polls, Passport goes there too. But not to America. Take a break from the anxiety and divisiveness of the US election with two stories that show the true, positive, power of democracy across the globe.
The 2020 US presidential election is probably the most important in a century. Everything is at stake: from the health of the world’s most powerful nation to the very nature of truth in the modern world. It’s been a frantic race, with many despairing at the divisiveness of modern US politics. But elections don’t always have to be doom and gloom. This week on Passport we take a look at two elections from around the world which tell us a lot about each country and prove the true power of democracy.
First, to the UK, for a bizarre story about election night, satire and two intergalactic space lords vying to become Prime Minister. In 2019, a character from an obscure 1980s Star Wars spoof known as Lord Buckethead – picture a budget Darth Vader – was resurrected to stand for election. But he had cylindrical headed competition: Count Binface. In a tale which highlights bizarre copyright law and some absurd quirks of UK politics, these two joke candidates faced off against Boris Johnson, proving British comedy goes all the way to the top, and that satire is the best way to bring politicians down to size.
And next, to Uruguay, a tiny country on the Atlantic coast of South America. Well, to a tiny farm in the grasslands outside the capital Montevideo, really. It’s not the most obvious place to look for someone who genuinely changed the world, but on this farm you’ll find Pepe Mujica – an old farmer who ran the country from 2009 – 2015. His story, which saw him transform from anarchist guerilla to peace-loving man-of-the-people president, shows what can happen when pragmatism meets progressive politics.
So, if you’re nervously watching the polls or want some respite from it altogether, come on a journey around the world to see what really happens when the smallest of people speak truth to power.
MORE TO EXPLORE
- Get to know Lord Buckethead and Count Binface.
- Watch Lord Buckethead and Count Binface face-off in the 2019 election.
- Witness Lord Buckethead’s origins in Gremloids the Movie (released as Hyperspace in the US).
- Watch Emir Kusturica’s documentary on Pepe, El Pepe – A Supreme Life.
- Pepe Mujica speaks at Oxford University.
This episode of Passport was written and edited by Harry Stott.
The music was written by the wonderful Nick Turner, with extra tunes from Thirst Follow, The Jingle Punks, Auracle, And Sometimes Y, Listen with Sarah, Krayb David, Cape St. Francis, Foxy Basey, Musicbox, The Ehs and Automatic Panic.
The show is mixed and mastered by Julian Kwasneski.
Eliza Engel is our production assistant.
Stacey Book, Dominique Ferrari, and Avi Glijansky get our vote for President (and not just because they also executive produce the show).
Which is hosted by Neil Innes and a man who is Buckethead below, Binface on top and all round monster raving loony, Andrés Bartos.
We’ll see you in the next place.
EPISODE 29 – TRANSCRIPT
NEIL: What year is it?
ANDRÉS: Yeah. It’s hindsight 2020 I think is the name.
[PASSPORT MAIN TITLE]
ANDRÉS: A destination isn’t always a place.
NEIL: Sometimes it’s a new way of seeing things.
I’m Neil Innes
ANDRÉS: And I’m Andrés Bartos.
NEIL: From Frequency Machine, this is Passport.
ANDRÉS: Your ticket to everywhere.
[END MAIN TITLE]
NEIL: So Passport is supposedly a show about bringing people together so this episode is about how we can all learn something from each other, no matter how far away we are.
ANDRÉS: And today on an election day, a day where millions of people are either casting their ballots or watching to see where things go, we are kind of brought together in this crazy experiment that we’ve called democracy.
NEIL: Democracy is a great thing, no matter how you practice it. So here are a couple of stories where the practice of democracy is also an art form.
ANDRÉS: Whether you’re waiting in line to cast your ballot, or whether you’re at home watching the returns, or maybe you just want to escape from all this, to be frank, I think we’ve got you covered.
NEIL: It’s been a long ass year.
ANDRÉS: Yeah, it’s, it never, never has not watching Game of Thrones served you well for the winter’s coming meme.
NEIL: I mean, I was thinking about this today actually. We were, on that fateful day of 2016, we were together.
ANDRÉS: That was a day, when Donald Trump was elected president.
NEIL: Yes. And it was like, uh,
ANDRÉS: we couldn’t work.
ANDRÉS: we had to stop working.
NEIL: Yeah, we had, it was like sitting in a lake and trying to work.
NEIL: With fish nibbling on your balls.
ANDRÉS: It’s funny because we got a really nice message from somebody that said something to the effect of like they’re not highly, or they’re not very political, you know? About us, about Passport in general, which I thought was nice.
ANDRÉS: But this does feel like a year where it’s, it seems important. Like it’s happened more than once in the stories that we’ve done recently where it’s like, we, you can’t sit on the sidelines somehow like
NEIL: Sure. It feels like a, like a world cup game or something. Everybody’s watching the frame, no matter how far away.
ANDRÉS: No matter where you are.
NEIL: I mean, how do you, how are you feeling right now about the whole thing? I mean, it’s,
ANDRÉS: For the first time I’m having conversations with the American friends I know. Where I’m kind of like walking them through it, like a, a shaman at an Ayahuasca ritual as a Latin American, where I’m like, we’ve been through this
ANDRÉS: Where things seem a little shaky and it’s, it’s, it’s purely a numbers game.
Okay. We, we found ourselves in this situation. Passport, a travel show
ANDRÉS: Where we’re faced with one of the most important elections and most important years.
We’re not a political show. We’re not, we have nothing to do with that. We’re about connecting people and we’re about trying to kind of break down walls and, and find new places.
So we’ve, we thought, how do we deal with this situation that we’re in? What do we do with this? So we came up with this semi idea to look for a stories around the world that would give us an interesting election story for you. Maybe you’re waiting in line at the polling station. Maybe you’ve already voted, but you’re watching the polls nervously.
And maybe this will give you a little break from that. Let’s put it that way.
ANDRÉS: So this is not about America, so this will be, uh, a trip away from your elections to some other places.
NEIL: So we’ve chosen one place that has suffered a little bit of turmoil in the last couple of years to the United Kingdom and talk about satire and its importance in politics.
NEIL: And to Uruguay
ANDRÉS: To a place that very few people have any idea about, but that can teach us a lot.
NEIL: So, I guess before we go into this first story, I have to say, we have to say, we have to say thank you to Harry Stott for writing these stories for us. And, uh, I hope you enjoy them.
NEIL: When mustachioed fascists are at the gates, when civil liberties are under siege, when chaos and political pandemonium is dragging your country into the Maya, what’s the best way to undermine its oppressors? Pamphlets? Protests? Guns? Revolution? No, it’s comedy.
NEIL: Whether it’s those World War Two propaganda posters of Hitler with this panzers down, Trump being floated as a giant blimp in a diaper on his recent visit to the UK or gay Twitter taking over the Proud Boys hashtag with photos of happy same-sex couples.
Political satire, using irony and sarcasm to criticize people in power is undoubtedly the best way to bring politicians down to size.
An example, try this from the iconic British show, The Thick of It.
[Archival: People don’t like their politicians to be comfortable, They don’t like you having expenses, they don’t like you being paid. They’d rather you live in a fucking cave.
NEIL: Political satire is something that Brits do better than probably anyone. Sorry, America, you can keep Saturday Night Live. And it should come to no surprise that this particular brand of British humor has made its way across the pond.
In fact, some of the U.S’s biggest political comedies in recent years were all made by the Brits. British writer Armando Iannucci took The Thick of It’s acerbic wit to the U.S. with Veep. And the relentless dark comedy aimed at the American ultra elite in Succession was created by another British national treasure, Jesse Armstrong.
Even those late night talk shows of which Americans are so fond. The best these days, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, is hosted by you guessed it, another Brit.
Satire is a particularly British art form because British comedy revels in failure, celebrating and even rooting for life’s losers. While American comedy as Ricky Gervais so well puts it, applauds ambition and openly rewards success.
Just compare the British and American versions of The Office and you’ll see what he means.
NEIL: This kind of satire isn’t just confined to newspaper columns and TV fiction though. You see it within the realms of real politics too, and nowhere better than on election night.
Because there’s one small quirk of British elections that reveals a lot about their national psyche, their eccentricities, their proclivities towards the absurd.
The UK has a proud and wonderfully weird tradition of letting anyone and everyone stand for election, even evil intergalactic space lords.
NEIL: Joke candidates standing to become members of parliament in British elections go back a long way. It’s maybe because of an electoral tradition which sees all candidates in a constituency stand on stage together when the votes are announced on election night. It shows that in politics, no one is above anyone else. It’s democracy at work.
But staging it like this also has the unintended consequence of hilarious photo ops. Where you have the sitting prime minister standing on a stage, sweaty and nervous on the most important night of their life next to a guy in a leopard skin bow tie and a comically oversized top hat.
[Archival: Hi, my name is Howling Laud. I am the leader of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party.
NEIL: The guy in the hat, Howling Laud Hope of the Monster Raving Loony Party, the most famous purveyors of joke candidates. The monster raving loonies have been around since 1983 and their platform is, in a word, insanity.
NEIL: Here’s some policies.
Greyhound racing will be banned to prevent the country going to the dogs.
Innocent prisoners will be released in order to reduce prison overcrowding.
How do they do in the polls? Well, not great. Not that that is ever the point though. They function more as a protest vote. A vote for all those disillusioned with politics and the absurdity of the democratic system. Joke candidates don’t come much weirder, much more absurd or much more terrifying than this guy.
[Archival Lord Buckethead: I am lord buckethead. Intergalactic Space Lord.]
NEIL: Enter Lord Buckethead. The UK’s biggest electoral phenomenon since he went viral after standing against prime minister Theresa May in 2017. This is a candidate who won’t hide his evil plans for world domination, a candidate who doesn’t need to show his birth certificate, a la Obama.
He’s willing to tell you about his other worldly origins on planet woop. A candidate dressed in a black cape and all in one leather suit, black cricket pads, and some massive thing which resembles a postbox on his head.
His story, and that of his biggest rival, Count Binface, brings the absurdity of modern politics and indeed the modern world to the fore like no other.
NEIL: Intergalactic space lord, supervillain turned antihero, and a political candidate and founder of the Gremloids Party by day, these are just some of the ways that the myth and the legend that is Lord Buckethead describes himself. He’s part Darth Vader, part Batman, part monster raving loony.
[Archival Lord Buckethead: All I have to say to you is this. So many of your politicians on this planet, they’re rubbish. Together we will hold the politicians to account and when they get it wrong, we shall royally take the test.]
NEIL: His politics are equally ridiculous. Lord Buckethead promised he would abolish the UK’s House of Lords. Except him, of course. And he called for the UK to stop buying arms off Saudi Arabia and buy laser guns off him instead.
As per tradition, he got to stand on stage next to Theresa May while the results were announced, A man dressed as Elmo and howling Lord Hope were there too. It was a seriously motley crew. Lord Buckethead didn’t win, but he did become a worldwide sensation.
[Archival news on Lord Buckethead]
NEIL: He amassed a few hundred thousand Twitter followers. He got a slot at Glastonbury music festival in the UK. John Oliver even invited him onto the Last Week Tonight show.
NEIL: I’ll level with you though. Lord Buckethead isn’t really an intergalactic alien. He isn’t even really one guy. He’s a character. But that doesn’t make the rest of his story any less bizarre or hilarious.
Lord Buckethead has been played by a series of different people over the past four decades. The actual place he comes from, a little known low budget Star Wars spoof from 1984 called Gremloids with Bucket head as a hapless Darth Vader.
For some strange and inexplicable reason, people in the UK quickly started using the costume to stand as joke candidates in general elections, like Margaret Thatcher in 1987. But the whole idea of Buckethead for PM went quiet for a while, but it was resurrected by a small-time British comedian named John Harvey in the 2017 election.
After putting campaign posters on red buses and appearances at rallies, John got in the suit and took to the stage with Theresa May and promptly lost, getting 249 votes. He came seventh out of 13 candidates though. So not a bad showing.
NEIL: When these videos of Lord Buckethead standing on stage next to Theresa May started floating around the web in 2017, everyone loved it.
[Archival John Oliver: I never thought I’d say this, but that intergalactic space lord has a point. Look…]
NEIL: Well, almost everyone. Because this is where the story takes a strange turn. A turn into historical copyright law claims and a bizarre legal dispute over who is allowed to take part in UK public events dressed as a bucket headed space lord from an obscure 1980s science fiction movie. Because there was one person who saw the whole election stunt, and wasn’t at all happy.
NEIL: Todd Durham, the American filmmaker behind the original Gremloids movie and creator of Lord Buckethead.
John Harvey got in touch with Todd to talk and have a laugh about the character’s new found success. But initially friendly talks broke down. Todd Durham decided to take back control over his previously forgotten creation.
Durham got the lawyers in, so he eventually acquiesced and stopped the Buckethead appearances and stunts, gave the Twitter to Durham and put away his costume.
The story of Lord Buckethead doesn’t end in a mire of legal disputes and copyright infringements. His Lordship, now being played by a new comedian picked and approved by director Todd Durham, returned to British politics over the next few years to attend anti Brexit rallies.
NEIL: But it was the general election of 2019. Lord Buckethead knew it was time to once again stand for the highest office. Only this time, he’d have cylindrical headed competition.
NEIL: Because John Harvey, the 2017 Buckethead, wasn’t going to let some pesky American stand in the way of his plans for world, or UK at least, domination.
He had come up with a new intergalactic space lord to stand in the election. A character, if you can believe it, even more trashy than the Gremloids villain.
Forget Boris Johnson vs Jeremy Corbyn, left versus right, labor versus conservative. The biggest race of the 2019 general election was Lord Buckethead versus Count Binface.
NEIL: Count Binface, Harvey’s new creation, is exactly what you’re picturing. He’s got the same Lord Buckethead style, but this time with a cheap gray suit rather than all black. And swapping out the tall black bucket for an enormous gray trashcan. It’s even more budget and his policies followed his suit.
Binface’s manifesto included massive expansion in recycling in all sectors, except in a Hollywood movie plots. 1 trillion pounds a week for the national health service and abolition of the Lords. All of them this time
[Archival News: We’re going straight to Oxbridge…]
NEIL: Election night arrived on December the 12th and both Lord Buckethead and Count Binface were standing against Boris Johnson in his West London seat. It was a race that pitted big money against the underdog. Evil intergalactic space lord versus evil intergalactic space lord.
The whole election ended up being a bleak day for fans of the underdog. And an even bleaker day for progressive British politics.
[Archival: Boris Johnson, 25,000…]
NEIL: Boris Johnson’s populous conservatives demolished Jeremy Corbyn’s inept labor party, getting over 3 million more votes. And in the coming months, Johnson would march forward with his plans for Brexit and in the more important race of the night,
[Archival: Formally known as Count Binface, 69. Lord Buckethead, 125]
NEIL: Lord Buckethead, with his stolen Twitter following and more recognizable outfit, ended up winning. So not the result anyone following closely wanted, but such is evil intergalactic space lord politics.
NEIL: Buckethead and Binface actually say some pretty profound things about the fundamental democratic notions of the UK. Reminding people of the freeness of the democratic process. That the great and powerful aren’t above us all. Yep, there might be an unelected monarchy, but if you’re in power in the UK, you’re going to be ridiculed, not revered.
Picture that in America today. Kind of changes your perspective, doesn’t it? But that is democracy at work. When no one is above anyone else, no matter how weird. And the humor, the sense of the absurd, it’s something we can all do with a little bit more of right now.
NEIL: It’s so wild, man.
ANDRÉS: I didn’t figure the actual director of the film would be involved in this story.
NEIL: Yeah. He’s also behind, um, the very popular Hotel Transylvania films.
ANDRÉS: Oh, really?
NEIL: Same director. So he’s kind of a, well, he’s a biggish deal. I just love how it goes into just like weird copyright law.
ANDRÉS: Yup. It’s just that detail.
NEIL: It is odd. I remember when I was quite young screaming lord sutch and the raving loony monster party.
ANDRÉS: So you have that in your DNA.
NEIL: I didn’t understand it at all, but, you know, I was there till I was 10 or 11, so I grew up watching television shows like Yes Minister and watching Spitting Image, The Grotesque Puppet Show and just having this different, open, crass, satirical form, especially on television.
All of these shows would just ridicule and lambast. It’s just always done.
ANDRÉS: Like I have my theories about why British satire is so good. What, how do you define it?
NEIL: The greatest recent example is, is The Thick of It, which Harry used in that clip off in the show, where it’s the opposite of the United States.
You know, in the UK, In the Thick of It is about like, it’s kind of mediocre politician and everything is behind the scenes. It’s all about what’s going on behind it. And you get to deal with politicians through the actual normal people who are making this thing work. No one cares about who’s at the top.
ANDRÉS: Yeah. The British have this celebration of like the antihero in a way that no other place has. I mean, the French have a version of it, but it’s very different than the way the British do it. And I’ve had this experience with all my British friends, which I love, is that they’re simultaneously laughing at you and, you know, loving you.
NEIL: Yeah. If a British person insults you, it means that you’re kind of loved.
ANDRÉS: Yeah. You’re you’re all right.
NEIL: You’re all right.
ANDRÉS: Yeah, definitely.
NEIL: You big wanker.
ANDRÉS: I mean, the, the nice thing about Lord Buckethead and even Binface. The fact that even in their platform, they’re actually saying something and having the piss at the same time. Like we’re not going to sell arms to Saudi Arabia anymore, but you have to buy my laser guns.
NEIL: Or, uh, recycling is allowed everywhere except in American movie plots.
ANDRÉS: Exactly. It’s wonderful.
ANDRÉS: We’ll be back after this short break for a man from a tiny farm in Uruguay who changed his country and then the world.
I was just having the thought where I was like, when I was a kid, did I, you know, you must, we all must have the fantasy of like, because people have said to you, you could be president. At some point in your life, somebody said that. So I, I don’t think I ever thought I could be president of Bolivia.
ANDRÉS: No, I don’t think so.
I think I probably thought I could be president of the United States. So yeah, okay, this is like the super weird thing for me, because I grew up in Bolivia, but I went to an American school because I wasn’t baptized. So I had the choice to either go to the British school, the German school, and my parents just thought it would be better business if the kids went to the American school.
As I grew up, six out of seven years of my day were spent like learning the capitals, uh, presidents. It’s like, I have a weird relationship with it because it’s off to the side in my brain, like a country I’ve lived in without having lived there really.
ANDRÉS: So when, when, when things start turning in the direction that seems like unlike the place you’ve kind of grown up with.
ANDRÉS: It’s disturbing.
ANDRÉS: You want to look for like, where are the, where did that place end up? Where is that place and how is it going to come out of this? Is it going to come out of this? You know?
ANDRÉS: So that’s why we need to talk about Pepe Mujica.
NEIL: Yes. I know very little of Pepe Mujica. So who, who is he?
ANDRÉS: Before we get to Pepe Mujica, we do have to kind of set up like where we’re coming from for a Pepe Mujica to show up.
Latin America in the sixties, seventies and eighties was like a beehive of, you know, far right and far left elements each trying to take control of the country in its various ways.
NEIL: Sounds familiar.
ANDRÉS: Yeah. Pepe Mujica comes from, uh, the far left at a time of huge upheaval in Latin America, ends up in prison and then ends up as president of Uruguay.
So the question is, what does a guy, how does a guy like that end up there and what does he end up doing when he gets there? And that’s what this story is about.
ANDRÉS: Grab a map of South America. Trace a line down the bulging Atlantic coast of Brazil. And just before you hit Argentina, you’ll see a tiny country sandwiched in between. This is Uruguay. It’s about the same size as the state of Washington.
Zoom in and you’ll spot it’s proud capital Montevideo on the Rio Plata.
A city that mirrors its cousin Buenos Aires’s old world charm. Wide boulevards, European architecture, Latin flare.
Now keep going inland a bit further. Scroll into the vast expanses of grassland, just outside the city. And you’ll come across a small farm.
Here, they call it a chacra. It’s not much to look at. A ramshackle collection of corrugated iron houses surrounded by poor, industrial suburbs and dull, flat fields.
It’s overgrown with flowers and vegetables. There’s a tiny three-legged dog hopping around. A beat up powder blue VW beetle greets you at the entrance.
Even less remarkable is the mole looking old man riding around on his tractor. Dark, sharp eyes peer out over a crooked nose and a wispy mustache at anyone who might disturb his sanctuary.
Just picture it. A tablo of a bygone era with a grumbling old farmer at its core. But if you visited his chacra, Jose Pepe Mujica, the old man at the heart of this story would more likely greet you with a big hug, a deep warm smile, and an invitation to sit down, drink some mate, which is a bit like tea, and have a chat about what can be done to change the fate of his country. To change the course of the world.
Because this unassuming old man, not very long ago, ran Uruguay. And he did it from this tiny farm.
As Uruguay’s president from 2009 to 2015, the world quickly heralded Pepe, it’s always Pepe, never Jose, as a politician who was unlike other politicians.
His straight talking vulgar speeches, his decision to live on a farm instead of the presidential palace, his steadfast left wing values, his almost gratingly humble persona. It’s just not what you’d expect from a president. And even less from a one-time anarchist gorilla who spent 13 years in prison.
But that’s who he is or who he became at least. That’s Pepe Mujica, a man who gave 90% of his presidential salary to single mothers, who legalized abortion and same-sex marriage, who made Uruguay the first country in the world to fully legalize marijuana.
A champion of the downtrodden and a beacon of progressive politics. People call him Latin America’s answer to Nelson Mandela.
ANDRÉS: Like Mandela, how he came to power is a remarkable story. After a tense presidential campaign in 2009, pitting left versus right, liberal versus conservative, a new Uruguay versus the threat of authoritarianism, Pepe took to the stage and Congress victorious and vindicated.
ANDRÉS: He heralded a new dawn for his country.
[Archival: Pepe speaking]
ANDRÉS: There are those that believe that power is up above and they don’t notice that it’s actually in the heart of the masses. Thank you. It costs me an entire life to learn this, perhaps.
The long road to how he won that election, one which took transformation, charisma and most of all, pragmatism, saw Pepe become an Uruguayan folk hero.
His story is an antidote to the cynicism of politics today.
ANDRÉS: Flashback the late 1960s and to a very different Pepe. Forget the vegetables, the flowers, the three legged dog. This Pepe is wielding a machine gun, carrying homemade bombs, left-wing pamphlets and a terrifying revolutionary zeal. The mustache, jet black rather than white is about the only thing you’d recognize.
Flashback to a very different Uruguay too. For most of the 20th century, the country had been held up as the South American Switzerland. The continent’s most peaceful and democratic nation with decent living standards, a strong social welfare system, and a flourishing economy. Until the sixties that is, when money became scarce and far left groups inspired by Che Guevara, the Cuban revolution and the worldwide spirit of 68 began to gain ground against Uruguay’s conservative government.
Back then, Pepe was a member of one of these groups. The Tupamaros, a left wing, revolutionary, urban guerrilla movement, responsible for bombings and kidnappings, expropacion they called it, to bring about a socialist revolution in a country they saw as deeply unequal.
ANDRÉS: It began as a robin hood kind of thing, holding up banks, stealing from foreign companies and robbing the rich to give back to the poor.
But soon, the romance ended. In a violent and chaotic few years in the late sixties and early seventies, the Tupamaros killed some 50 soldiers and civilians, a U.S. security expert… they even kidnapped the ambassador to the UK. Their reputation soured with the people and more importantly, with those in charge
ANDRÉS: In 1973, a US backed coup saw the military takeover of Uruguay. Many Uruguayans blame the Tupamaros for the coup. And they had a right to be furious. Because what came next was 13 years of oppression, disappearances, and an economy in freefall in a country once thought the most stable in South America.
ANDRÉS: Pepe was central in all of this. And there are some wild stories about his guerrilla years. Once the police spotted him in a bar so he whipped out his pistol and was shot six times after injuring two policemen. When he was finally arrested by the government, he was found sleeping with an uzi and a hand grenade under his jacket. A peace and love left-winger Pepe was not.
The years that followed were grim. There were a couple of prison breakouts, but he always ended up back in jail.
Stuck in a selection of prison cells for 13 years, Pepe nearly lost his mind. His fellow inmates said he barely spoke the whole time. The bleakest time came when he was confined in the bottom of a horse watering trough for two whole years.
When he got out after the dictatorship ended in 1985, he was certainly changed. Tempered, yes. Neutered, no. Transformed, definitely.
ANDRÉS: So, how did we get from violent gorilla to humble, peace loving, man of the people president? Well, Pepe’s political zeal wasn’t lost in prison.
By 1994, he had already been elected to the Uruguayan parliament. This is when the myth of Pepe the folk hero was truly born.
In the nineties, Pepe was mainly known as the Vespa riding oddball who would make speeches in parliament as if he was in a bar in downtown Montevideo. He was different and began to gain a bit of a following.
To change a country, you need to have power. He’d already tried guns. Now, it was time to try politics.
ANDRÉS: It’s now 2009 with a presidential election fast approaching on October 25th. There are three main political parties in Uruguay. Two on the right and then the broad front with Pepe as leader. They represented the Progressive’s, those who had stood up to the years of dictatorship.
By now, Pepe had enough widespread support to make a run for president. But when he announced his intentions most people scoffed. It seemed a ridiculous long shot. He was running against the scandal prone, but politically savvy former president, Luis Lacalle.
Lacalle represented an attitude that had long dominated South America. Hard-nosed, strong armed, winking at authoritarianism. But beyond challenging the prevailing political ideologies of an entire continent, there was a problem of Pepe’s actual electability.
As you’ve no doubt guessed, he’s not the most obvious candidate, neither slick nor professional. You’d be more likely to get accrued, es la joda, like what the fuck, during his speeches then pronouncements on trade or economics. But how could this revolutionary, messy, unkept and utterly crude old trot become a head of state?
ANDRÉS: In the early stages of the campaign, many in the country still weren’t convinced. Still the ragged sweaters, still the tendency for high profile gaps, still going to sweary press conferences without his false teeth in, big Montevideo business leaders threatened to leave the country if he was elected. But what detractors didn’t count on was Pepe’s flexibility, his willingness to change. Pepe had the political nose to know he needed a bit of PR makeover.
By October, Pepe was established as a business friendly candidate quashing those fears of an anarchist at the top. His false teeth were firmly in by then too.
What really helped Pepe on his run was what he wanted to do for Uruguay.
Pepe promised reforms in Uruguay that were not a fundamental Marxist restructuring of the economy. These were more sensible. Simultaneously pro business and pro people.
[People in streets]
ANDRÉS: On October 25th, the country went to the polls. But the day ended without a winner. When no one gets 50% in Uruguay, there’s a second round of voting for the top two candidates. So it was down to Pepe versus Lacalle. Liberal ex gorilla versus right-wing veteran. The country held its breath.
At the end of November, after robbing banks, killing and kidnapping foreign officials, 13 years in jail, and a lifetime of struggle in solidarity, Pepe won the runoff and was declared the president of Uruguay.
ANDRÉS: He ended up with 55% of the vote. His election sent shock waves around the world.
ANDRÉS: Now get your map back out, look at the whole world. And now look at Uruguay. It’s a tiny country, South America’s second smallest. And that tiny farm, an insignificant speck on what is too many, a pretty insignificant country. But real change can happen anywhere. In a South American chacra or even the White House.
For the small places and the small people, Pepe’s transformative life is the blueprint. Head to the farm today and you’ll find him sitting in the shade of a tree, drawing water from the well or sipping on a mate with his three legged dog by his feet. Farming, building, tending to his flowers. It’s completely the opposite of the scale of things he achieved in his five years in office. A wave of progressive achievements not seen before or since.
I can’t help, but wonder what the young uzi wielding Pepe would think about his older self, embracing business and establishment politics. A sellout? A capitalist pig? Maybe, or maybe he’d see the things he actually achieved.
By incorporating humane socialist values with sensible economics, Pepe achieved what he set out to. Here he is on his political evolution.
ANDRÉS: And so, many who had socialist beliefs emigrated towards capitalism. They treat capitalism as a toy and there are others like me who try to manage what we can within capitalism. But the solution is not capitalism. We have to find other things, other paths and embrace that search.
This is it. The crux of who he is, Pepe Mujica, a man who knew that to transform his country, he had to transform himself.
NEIL: Wow. Jeez.
ANDRÉS: Pepe Mujica. I love Pepe.
NEIL: That’s so nice.
ANDRÉS: It is. Do you have a picture in your mind of what Pepe Mujica looks like?
NEIL: I’ve seen him. I’ve seen him. He has incredible eyebrows. I’m talking to a man with incredible eyebrows here.
He has like a cross between your eyebrows and Martin Scorsese’s eyebrows.
ANDRÉS: Damn. So he looks a little bit like, um, he looks like the nowhere man from yellow submarine.
ANDRÉS: He does.
NEIL: In a way, that’s the kind of person that you want to hire as the man to run your country. Someone who has had a life like that.
NEIL: But then
ANDRÉS: you have to think about what he did.
NEIL: Yeah. You know, can you get past that? You almost sort of understand. You know, a guy who has, has killed people, but it’s almost, it’s like, it’s the ultimate story of redemption,
ANDRÉS: It’s an extraordinary story because he put aside himself as whatever he imagined himself to be when he was a guerilla to say, what can we actually, we, we got here, what can we actually do?
NEIL: I mean, but spending 13 years in a prison and two at the bottom of a
ANDRÉS: watering trough
NEIL: of a watering trough,
ANDRÉS: and he came out of it. That’s why there’s this like Nelson Mandela kind of feeling about him
NEIL: Sure. The hardship of
ANDRÉS: Well it’s a hardship, but also coming out without the vengeance.
ANDRÉS: What he had was this incredible ability to recognize the time he was living in and the things that could be done and trying to get those things done, which is, you know, simple but incredible.
NEIL: Yeah. And him having gone through that, becoming the most powerful man in the country, you know, giving away 90% of his money and continuing to live on the farm. I mean, I guess if you’ve, if you’ve, if you’ve had that, that option to turn it into, turn hardship into vengeance or turn it into the right way to go is, that’s an incredible fork in the road.
ANDRÉS: Definitely. What we should do, Neil
ANDRÉS: But I think we should urge any listeners that haven’t voted yet to go out and vote.
NEIL: Please. This is election day, so just call a babysitter, leave your kids with the next door neighbor. It takes five minutes.
ANDRÉS: Well, no, it doesn’t, not in the states.
NEIL: It might take you five hours and five minutes.
ANDRÉS: It might take five hours, but there’s enough Passport episodes to get you through it.
NEIL: That’s right.
NEIL: So happy listening. You’re on line, just, you know,
ANDRÉS: Go to Jackson Hole, China, where they don’t have these problems.
NEIL: Okay guys.
NEIL: Be safe.
ANDRÉS: We’ll see you next week.
NEIL: See you next week.
ANDRÉS: Go vote.
NEIL: Go vote.
ANDRÉS: Go vote.
NEIL: Right now
ANDRÉS: You know you want to
That’s all from us guys.
Next week, we’ll be traveling to Northern Portugal for some delicious wine. We’ll be traveling through the hillsides, through the vines to meet the women that are changing the face of wine-making. And I mean, let’s be honest. After the last few months of election news, I think we all deserve a nice glass of wine, don’t you?
NEIL: Oh, so you can follow us on all social media at PassportPodcast.
And don’t forget to go and rate and review the show wherever you listen.
This episode of Passport was written and edited by Harry Stott.
The music was written by the wonderful Nick Turner, with extra tunes from Thirst Follow, The Jingle Punks, Auracle, And Sometimes Y, Listen with Sarah, Krayb David, Cape St. Francis, Foxy Basey, Musicbox, The Ehs and Automatic Panic.
The show is mixed and mastered by Julian Kwasneski
Eliza Engel is our production assistant.
Stacey Book, Dominique Ferrari and Avi Glijansky get our vote for President (and not just because they also executive the show).
Which is hosted by me and a man who is Buckethead below, Binface on top and all round monster raving loony, Andrés Bartos.
We’ll see you in the next place.
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