BUCARAMANGA, Colombia — As mayor, he called himself “the king,” punched a councilor who insulted him and told a city employee who urged him to follow the rules that he would wipe his own ass with the law.
Rodolfo Hernández, a 77-year-old businessman and former mayor, has emerged as Colombia’s most disruptive presidential candidate in decades. a TikTok star, allowing him to bypass the trappings of conventional campaigns.
He is one of two remaining candidates in Sunday’s election for the presidency of the third-largest nation in Latin America, with the winner taking power at a pivotal moment in the country’s history.
“What the Colombian people really want is to save the entire public administration from the clutches of politicians,” he told DailyExpertNews. “I embody that.”
The Trump-esque figure was scornful of his propensity to offend, including calling Venezuelan women a “poor child-making factory” and declaring himself a follower of the “great German thinker” Adolf Hitler.
“I say what I feel,” said Mr Hernández. “I’m not interested in the aftereffects.”
Yet he made it clear that he meant Albert Einstein.
As a candidate, Mr Hernández has promoted himself as an epitome of democracy, a successful businessman who keeps promises and takes care of the poor. But a trip to Bucaramanga, a mountain-lined city where he built his empire and once served as mayor, reveals a different picture.
Hernández is an anti-corruption candidate indicted on corruption charges, a austerity advocate whose slash-and-burn policies sparked a hunger strike by city workers and a construction magnate who once pledged to build 20,000 homes for the poor who never realised.
In May, he took a surprising second place in the first round of voting, beating Federico Gutiérrez, a former mayor of the big city, backed by the conservative elite.
Hernández takes on Gustavo Petro, a former rebel and former senator who hopes to become Colombia’s first left-wing president.
Their victories reflect an anti-establishment fervor that has swept through Latin America, propelled by longstanding poverty and inequality that has increased during the pandemic.
The two are tied in the polls and whoever wins is likely to set the country on a grim new path. mr. Petro has vowed to overhaul the economic system by greatly expanding social programs and taxing the wealthy. Hernández has proposed “total austerity” and says he will declare a state of emergency to tackle corruption, raising fears he could shut down Congress or suspend local officials.
“We will do everything according to reason and the law,” promised Mr. Hernández. “Nothing by force.”
“What awaits this country is a dictatorship.”
Bucaramanga, the city at the center of one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country, is located 400 kilometers north of Bogotá, the capital. It’s a place where residents say direct and “untied” are part of the culture.
It seems that no one in Bucaramanga is ambivalent about Mr. Hernández, and a mention of him typically elicits hyperbolic acclaim or a torrent of unprintable insults.
Hernández’s supporters describe him as a savior who smoothed out the city’s deficit, renegotiated contracts in favor of taxpayers and broke a cycle of political favors that had made Bucaramanga a capital of corruption.
His critics call him a danger to democracy, an evangelist of a brutal capitalism that will ruin the nation and a man with few firm policy ideas who will do anything to get his way.
“What awaits this country is a dictatorship,” said César Fontecha, a former legal adviser to the city’s waste company, who said Mr Hernández once called him in a fit of rage and asked him for a contract. full of legal problems.
Today, in that case, Mr. Hernández is charged with corruption, accused of pushing subordinates to ensure that a specific company won a deal with the city. According to the inspector general’s office, that contract could have made his son a lot of money.
The trial of Mr. Hernández begins on July 21. He has said he is innocent.
“I didn’t steal anything,” he said. “Therefore I am calm, with a clear conscience.”
‘Obsessed with achieving goals’
Growing up in Piedecuesta, a colonial-era town outside Bucaramanga, Mr. Hernández was the eldest of four boys, and his parents owned a cigar factory, a tailor’s shop, and a sugar cane farm, making them one of the most successful families in the community. . †
Mario Carvajal, an old friend of the candidate, remembers Mr. Hernández’s mother as “extremely demanding” and “impulsive”. When a young Rodolfo didn’t do his job, he said, “she hit him with everything she could find.”
Mr. Hernández studied engineering, later started a construction company building low-cost housing and then moved into finance, acting as a seller and lender, offering interest rates well below local banks.
“If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have the house,” said Flor Bayona, 57.
Eventually, his family caught the attention of rebel groups who kidnapped people for ransom. First they took his father and forced the family to pay for his return. Then, according to Mr. Hernández, they took his only daughter, Juliana, with them.
This time, Mr. Hernández refused to pay, saying it would only encourage more kidnappings. Juliana never returned.
When asked by a local radio station whether he regretted his decision, he said: “On the one hand, yes, and with great pain. And on the other hand, no, because if we had paid, they would have come for Socorro, my wife.”
Félix Jaimes, a longtime friend and advisor, called Mr. Hernández extremely concerned for the less fortunate and “obsessed with achieving goals”.
Hernández ran for mayor of Bucaramanga in 2015, taking office on an anti-corruption and austerity platform that led him to even remove the chairs from the City Hall cafeteria.
He slashed labor contracts and cut salaries, including that of José del Carmen, 59, a union leader.
In response, workers built a protest camp that lasted for months, then began a six-day hunger strike.
“He was the executioner of the workers,” said Mr. del Carmen.
Mr Hernández is now charged with violating union rights during his time as mayor. The next phase of this process will begin on July 26. He has denied the allegations.
Who supports Rodolfo Hernandez?
In a Bucaramanga office with white tables and minimalist art depicting black-and-white scenes of poverty, the Hernández campaign is led by an army of volunteers: self-proclaimed ‘Rodolfistas’.
Hernández’s campaign slogan – “don’t rob, don’t lie, don’t cheat” – is painted on a wall and at the entrance is a cutout of the candidate.
During the campaign, Hernández avoided most debates and held few public events, preferring interviews with friendly media and live streams from his allies. Still, he has boosted broad swaths of the electorate, with his advisers saying he got the moment.
For a generation, the country has been led by a far-right movement founded by former president Álvaro Uribe. Its political allies, known as Uribistas, were once the lions, but they have lost popularity due to accusations of human rights abuses, corruption scandals and rising poverty.
For Colombians tired of Uribismo but rejected by Petro’s leftist proposals, Hernández is the perfect candidate: self-financing and seemingly independent, a forward-looking man with the same ambitions for Colombia as for his personal empire.
“He will come through for us,” said Héctor Bonilla, 58. “I can see it in his face, his sincerity when he speaks.”
Alfonso Morales, 64, a watchman who lives in a small hut at the top of a steep hill in Bucaramanga, has a different view.
As a candidate for mayor, Mr. Hernández wrote letters to the city’s poorest residents announcing a program called “20,000 Happy Homes,” which he promised would become a reality if elected.
The houses were never built. “He lied to us,” Mr. Morales said. “I beg the Colombian people not to vote for this man.”
Mr Hernández has continued to make such commitments. In Piedecuesta’s main park, he’s built a sleek model home labeled “fortune house,” intended to serve as a campaign ad, and he’s hired a real estate agent to market it.
One day at the house, the agent told visitors that a house like this would be available to them at low cost and low interest rates—as long as Mr. Hernández won.
Carlos Buitrago contributed to reporting from Bucaramanga and Piedecuesta, and Genevieve Glatsky from Bogotá.