Populist millionaire takes on ex-rebel for Colombia’s presidency


BOGOTA, Colombia (AFP) – Leftist Senator Gustavo Petro celebrated his first round lead in Colombia’s presidential election the way most politicians did: in a conference room filled with hundreds of supporters as he was showered with scraps of paper.

The man he would meet in the run-off on June 19 had a different approach.

Rodolfo Hernandez sat at the kitchen table at home and spoke to his followers for five minutes on Facebook Live.

He declared that “today the country that does not want to continue with the same politicians, and which does not want the same people who brought us to our present situation, has won.”

The 77-year-old populist rode a wave of disgust with the state of the country into what until just weeks ago had been a shock run-off spot, rising late in the campaign outpacing the more traditional candidates.

He has run a crackdown – not affiliated with any major party – that has been waged mostly on social media with a message centered on curbing corruption and cutting wasteful government spending.

He is now in a position to launch a serious challenge to Petro – a former rebel who has long been seen as a political rebel and would be Colombia’s first leftist leader if elected. Petro now, to some eyes at least he appears the more traditional candidate – even if he still frightens much of the country’s conservative establishment..

Hernandez took 28% of the vote in the six-candidate field on Sunday while Petro, as polls predicted, got 40%.

Hernandez is a self-made millionaire who is rich in real estate after growing up on a small farm. He says he paid for his campaign with his own savings rather than relying on donations.

Some in Colombia compare him to former US President Donald Trump and describe him as a right-wing populist. But others say this analogy is deceptive.

“This is not a hard-right candidate,” said Will Freeman, a scholar at Princeton University who specializes in Latin American politics who met Hernandez in February for a lengthy interview. One of the big things he talked about was poverty, inequality and hunger. When I spoke to him, he said several times that he was appalled by the idea that people are born into poverty in Colombia and have no chances to get off this path.”

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Hernandez has also said he supports peace negotiations with the National Liberation Army – the last remaining large rebel group – which kidnapped and killed his daughter in 2004.

Freeman said that during the interview, Hernandez also expressed admiration for two other Latin American leaders: Mexican Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and Nayib Bukele of El Salvador — both of whom are often seen as tough populists but neither of whom hails from a right-wing background.

Hernandez made his political debut in 2016, by running for mayor in his hometown of Bucaramanga. He said he was tired of complaining about corrupt local officials and was persuaded by his brother, a philosopher, to try to change the way the city was run on his own.

Hernandez won the leadership of a movement called “Logic, Ethics, and Aesthetics” – whose mantra was the Bey symbol – and eventually left office in 2019, with approval ratings above 80%.

But his tenure as mayor was marred by an investigation into allegations that he took kickbacks from a waste disposal contractor. Hernandez denies the accusations and is fighting them in court.

As mayor, Hernandez was notorious for publicly reprimanding police officers who sought bribes, and for slapping a city councilman who accused his son of corruption. Hernandez has been suspended for several months due to the accident. He also caused an uproar by saying that immigrant women from neighboring Venezuela had become “factories for raising poor children”.

He astonished the Colombians in 2016 when he announced in a radio interview that he admired Adolf Hitler. He later apologized and said he meant Albert Einstein – a strange confusion that actually made sense because the physicist was the source for the statement that Hernandez had mistakenly attributed to the dictator during the interview.

But the scandals did not appear to have dented Hernandez’s standing with voters hungry for change in a country struggling to recover economically from the pandemic and coping with ongoing violence.

Inflation in Colombia is the highest in two decades, the poverty rate has risen by 8% in 2020, and armed groups continue to fight in some rural areas on land abandoned by the Colombian Revolutionary Army after that group signed a peace agreement with the government. in 2016.

Many Colombians blame these problems on the conservative parties that have ruled the country for decades. In Sunday’s election, Federico Gutierrez, the candidate backed by the country’s traditional parties, received only 22% of the vote.

“The success of Hernandez and Pietro is a harsh rebuke to the ruling class,” said Sergio Guzman, director of Columbia Risk Analytics Consulting. “It also means that Colombians want a radical version of change.”

Just three weeks before the run-off, Guzman said, Hernandez is in a good position to win over voters who backed Gutierrez, but feared the Petro economic proposals, which include higher taxes, pension reforms and more government spending. Gutierrez said on Sunday that he would support Hernandez because he did not “want to jeopardize Colombia’s future.”

As a presidential candidate, Hernandez said he would stop the government’s excesses, beginning with a plan to turn the country’s presidential palace into a museum. Hernandez also said that he wants to sell buildings owned by Colombian diplomatic missions abroad to fund loans for Colombian students.

The candidate criticized the country’s ruling class and promised rewards to citizens who denounce corrupt government officials. He also said that judges should provide him with reports on how anti-corruption cases are progressing. Like Petro, he said he wants to renegotiate Colombia’s trade agreements with other countries, in order to benefit local farmers.

Laura Gill, a professor of political science at Gaviriana University in Bogota, said many of Hernandez’s proposals are futile and prove that he is a populist who has “little knowledge” of how government works.

“He’s a Colombian Trump,” Gill said, adding that if Hernandez won he would take Colombian democratic institutions “to the extreme.”