Meet the 77-year-old TikTok star vying for the presidency of Colombia: NPR

Colombian presidential candidate Rodolfo Hernández receives a warm welcome at the National Congress of Oil Palm Growers in Bucaramanga, Colombia on June 3.

Fernanda Pineda / The Washington Post via Getty Images


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Colombian presidential candidate Rodolfo Hernández receives a warm welcome at the National Congress of Oil Palm Growers in Bucaramanga, Colombia on June 3.

Fernanda Pineda / The Washington Post via Getty Images

BOGOTÁ, Colombia – In shock at a political system long dominated by traditional parties and machine politics, a 77-year-old populist eccentric who promises drastic budget cuts and jail time for corrupt officials is now leading the presidential race.

Unknown to most Colombians until a few months ago, Rodolfo Hernández, a real estate magnate and former mayor, garnered enough votes in the May 29 first-round elections to earn a spot in Sunday’s ballot against left-wing Gustavo Petro.

The latest polls show Hernández go head-to-head with Petro, a veteran former guerrilla and politician who had been the clear favorite all year.

“Thank you, Colombians,” Hernández said in a video message to his supporters after beating four other candidates and finishing second to Petro in the first round of voting. “I’m counting on you to win the ballot”.

The video, shot from Hernández’s kitchen with appliances and a full stove in the background, was in keeping with his austere image. Although Hernández has made millions in real estate, he says he isn’t spending much on his campaign.

You may find Rodolfo Hernandez on TikTok

Instead of storming the country by giving speeches, he communicates via TikTok videos and softball interviews, usually focusing on engaging the government, which he says is the root of Colombia’s problems. In a recent Colombian TV interview, he claimed that almost all politicians were “traitors, liars, clowns and hypocrites and we will drive them out”.

If he wins, he plans to hold a simple opening ceremony in a poor town, saying that normal swearing-in ceremonies at the presidential palace with hundreds of guests waste taxpayers’ money on caviar, champagne and whiskey. Despite his age, Hernández says he will work from sunrise to sunset to fill five and a half years of work in a four-year presidential term.

“Colombia is a beautiful country that has been run by thieves,” he said in the television interview, “and the results have been fatal.”

Presidential candidate Gustavo Petro, from the Historical Pact coalition, attends a June 8 meeting with people with disabilities in Bogotá. Colombians will go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president.

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Presidential candidate Gustavo Petro, from the Historical Pact coalition, attends a June 8 meeting with people with disabilities in Bogotá. Colombians will go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president.

Fernando Vergara / AP

Gustavo Petro wants to be the first left-wing president

Hernández’s rival Petro is looking to become Colombia’s first left-wing president. So no matter who wins, the incoming leader will lead the country in a new direction. All of this, according to analysts, is the result of decades of corruption and broken promises by mainstream politicians, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic that has plunged millions of Colombians into poverty.

However, Petro, 62, is a former mayor of Bogotá and a longtime opposition senator who is in his third run for president. Compared to Hernández, it’s old news, says Lawrence J. Gumbiner, a former US diplomat who advised Hernández on international affairs.

The feeling among many voters, says Gumbiner, is that “all these guys who have been around all these years, we don’t like any of them. We don’t really know who this guy is. [Hernández] he is but we’re so sick of everyone who’s been around all these years that we’re willing to roll the dice on him. “

To the rise of Hernández is added the persistent fear of Petro. Business leaders are concerned about Petro’s plans to phase out oil production, the country’s main export, to renegotiate trade deals with countries like the United States and reform the pension system. Petro has also pledged to forge closer ties with the authoritarian regime in neighboring Venezuela.

Hernández won support, including from rival candidates

Partly as a result, Hernández received a wave of acclaim from institutional and political parties, including Federico Gutiérrez. He was the conservative and pro-government candidate who came third in the May 29 vote. He claims that Petro could become a left-wing dictator, like the Venezuelan Nicolás Maduro, and in his concession speech he urged Colombians to support Hernández.

“We have to save freedom and democracy because once they are gone, they never come back”, warned Gutiérrez.

But critics say Hernández has an authoritarian streak.

He commended President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador for ordering army troops to occupy that country’s Congress building in 2020 to intimidate lawmakers into supporting his policies. Hernández does not have a majority in the Colombian Congress, but said he would post billboards of alleged corrupt lawmakers and shame them for supporting his agenda.

Furthermore, it refuses to face scrutiny of televised debates or tough reporters, preferring to communicate directly with voters via social media.

“His Achilles heel is his populist tendencies and his appreciation for the strongman’s style of governance,” says Gumbiner.

Hernández’s stubborn approach was showcased in 2018 when he was mayor of the northern city of Bucaramanga, the only major political post he held. It was filmed as he yelled at a city councilor – and then slapped him – in an argument about corruption.

Indeed, despite all his clean government speeches, Hernández himself is accused of bribery on a public works contract from his time as mayor in a case due to be tried in July, just weeks before the new president is sworn in.

In a May 29 speech, Petro told his supporters: “My opponent is accused of corruption. Do we want it? Don’t fight corruption by posting on TikTok.”

Hernández also made some fantastic blunders. In a radio interview last year, for example, he claimed to be a “follower of a great German thinker named Adolf Hitler,” but later made it clear that he was referring to Albert Einstein, saying he dislikes the Nazi ruler. . In a video message to voters in Vichada, a remote department in eastern Colombia bordering Venezuela, she asked her interviewer: “Vichada? What is it?” Yet she still won the most votes in Vichada in the first round of voting.

Ideologically, Hernández is difficult to define. He is pro-business, but he also supports abortion rights, same-sex marriages and drug legalization and supports Colombia’s 2016 peace treaty that disarmed the country’s largest guerrilla group. Yet he failed to materialize his proposals on everything from national security to economics.

However, many Colombians are more drawn to Hernández’s style than its substance. Among them is Marco Moreno, who runs a bicycle shop on the outskirts of Bogotá.

Hernández “is very firm in his decisions,” says Moreno. “He’s radical. And that’s what’s good about him.”