Conrad Black Goes to Uruguay
- December 29, 2012
Rousing myself from the post-Xmas torpor on Boxing Day morning for a brief survey of the news, my eyes were caught by an article in the Huffington Post from Conrad Black about Uruguay’s remarkable president José Mujica.
At first – and second – glance, these are not two names that one would expect to find together in any context. Black, or Lord Black of Crossharbour, as the Queen generously dubbed him in 2001 at Tony Blair’s behest, is a former newspaper tycoon and convicted fraudster.
Before he was sentenced by a US court in 2007 for embezzlement, Black and his wife were famous for their opulent lifestyles, which they once famously celebrated at a Kensington Palace fancy dress party in 2000, where they dressed as Cardinal Richelieu and Marie Antoinette.
José Mujica, by contrast, is the world’s first and only national leader to voluntarily renounce 90 percent of his annual presidential salary, which he donates to various charities dedicated to the Uruguayan poor. A former member of the leftist Tupamaro ‘urban guerrilla’ organization, Mujica spent 14 years in one of the horrendous prisons which Uruguay’s military rulers designed specifically for imprisoned ‘Tupas’ and anyone else who attempted to step outside the fascistic box in which the armed forces enclosed the country for more than a decade.
Mujica appears in Heidi Specogna and Rainer Hoffman’s documentary Tupamaros (1997), which was made more than a decade before his election as president in 2009. Even then, he came across as a man from another era, still committed to the ideals of social justice that had once inspired him to enter into the disastrous confrontation between the Tupas and the Uruguayan state in the early 1960s.
The film showed him setting off on his motorbike from his rundown farm outside Montevideo, where he and his wife made their living selling flowers, to campaign in elections that few people then believed he had much chance of winning. Today, at the age of 77, he still lives in the same farm rather than the luxurious state house normally occupied by Uruguayan presidents.
Mujica’s lifestyle – and his decision to renounce most of his salary – is not just a gesture of solidarity with the Uruguayan poor – it is also intended as a critique of what he calls “hyper-consumption”.
So what is it about all this that has moved the great embezzler Black, to tap out a column on the subject of Mujica and the ‘Tupemaros’ (sic)? Not surprisingly, His Lordship dismisses Mujica’s objections to unlimited economic growth as “rustically asinine.”
Black goes on to argue that Mujica “deserves emulation for his threadbare lifestyle” and describes him as “one of that rare breed of sincere anti-materialists, who thinks that the pursuit of wealth beyond a minimum is sociopathic and the root of most evil in the world.”
These are interesting observations from a convicted felon who once sold his Kensington townhouse for $26 million, whose expenses for his high-maintenance wife in one year once included $2, 463 on handbags, $2,785 in opera tickets, and $140 on her Ladyship’s ‘jogging attire’. What explains Black’s approval? Is it the fact that Mujica is a man of principle, something that Black believes himself to be and has continued to insist upon on since his release from prison last year?
Probably not, and Black’s positive response to Mujica is somewhat qualified by his condescending characterization of the Uruguayan president as “more like the mascot than the president” of Uruguay, whose example ” is not entirely replicable in the Ruritanian, pretended grandiosity of contemporary government leaders, especially in Latin America where chiefs of state normally disport themselves with great panache, even leftists like Fidel Castro.”
Black nevertheless regards Mujica as a “stirring example of down-to-earth government, and puts a determinedly human and amiable face on the Latin American far left that is generally better characterized by machine gun-happy violence addicts like Che Guevara and blood-stained terrorists who are ostentatiously indifferent to the human tragedy they wreak.”
Black’s criticisms of Latin American “violence addicts” are a bit rich from a man who has been a persistent supporter of virtually any act of ‘counterterrorist’ violence by Israel and the West, from Reagan’s bombing of Tripoli in 1986 to what he recently called the “violent but measured reprisals” adopted by Sharon in response to suicide bombings during the second Palestinian Intifada.
In that same article, Black celebrated the suicide bombing of the Syrian defence and deputy defence ministers carried out by Syrian rebels in Damascus, arguing that “the fact that the enemies of our enemies can turn the nastiest and most anti-civilized tactics on those who have been sanctimoniously employing them for years against the West is an objectively good phenomenon.”
Black argued that such methods should be extended not only in Syria, but also to Iran. So much for “blood-stained terrorists” then.
So really, to hear this duplicitous buffoon preaching about humility and violence in Uruguay and Latin America is about as meaningful as Tony Blair talking about peace in the Middle East, or Alistair Campbell lecturing the British media on its lack of principle.
But in a world where celebrity and wealth triumph over everything else, there always be room for men like Lord Black of Crossharbour to express their condescension and disdain for those who, unlike them, actually tried to live their lives with principle and integrity.