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The TikTok Star and Political Chameleon Vying for Colombia’s Presidency

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BUCARAMANGA, Colombia — As mayor, he referred to as himself “the king,” punched a councilman who offended him and advised a metropolis worker pushing him to comply with the foundations that he’d wipe his personal buttocks with the legislation.

Rodolfo Hernández, a 77-year-old businessman and former mayor, has emerged as Colombia’s most disruptive presidential candidate in a long time, electrifying voters with a single-issue “drain the swamp” message amplified by a staff of social media wizards who’ve made him a TikTok star, permitting him to avoid the trimmings of standard campaigns.

He’s one in every of two remaining candidates in Sunday’s election for president of the third largest nation in Latin America, with the winner taking management at a pivotal second within the nation’s historical past.

“What the Colombian folks actually need is to rescue all the public administration from the clutches of politicians,” he advised The New York Instances. “I embody that.”

The Trump-like determine was dismissive of his tendency to offend, together with calling Venezuelan ladies a “manufacturing unit for making poor kids” and declaring himself a follower of the “nice German thinker” Adolf Hitler.

“I say what I really feel,” Mr. Hernández mentioned. “I’m not within the aftereffect.”

Nonetheless, he has clarified that he meant to say Albert Einstein.

As a candidate, Mr. Hernández has promoted himself as a paragon of democracy, a profitable businessman who makes good on guarantees and cares for the poor. However a visit to Bucaramanga, a mountain-fringed metropolis the place he constructed his empire and as soon as served as mayor, reveals a special image.

Mr. Hernández is an anti-corruption candidate who has been indicted on corruption costs, an austerity proponent whose slash-and-burn insurance policies led to a starvation strike by metropolis staff and a building magnate who as soon as pledged to construct 20,000 properties for the poor that by no means materialized.

In Might, he achieved a stunning second place end within the first spherical of voting, beating out Federico Gutiérrez, a former large metropolis mayor backed by the conservative elite.

Mr. Hernández faces Gustavo Petro, a former insurgent and longtime senator who’s hoping to turn out to be Colombia’s first leftist president.

Their victories replicate an anti-establishment fervor that has swept by way of Latin America, propelled by longstanding poverty and inequality which have intensified throughout the pandemic.

The 2 are tied within the polls, and whoever wins is prone to set the nation on a starkly new path. Mr. Petro has vowed to overtake the financial system by drastically increasing social applications and taxing the wealthy. Mr. Hernández has proposed “total austerity” and says he’ll declare a state of emergency to sort out corruption, prompting fears that he may shut down Congress or droop native officers.

“We are going to do every little thing by cause and legislation,” Mr. Hernández promised. “Nothing by drive.”

Bucaramanga, town on the middle of one of many nation’s largest metropolitan areas, sits 250 miles north of Bogotá, the capital. It’s a place the place residents say that being direct and “unbuttoned” kinds a part of the tradition.

Nobody in Bucaramanga, it appears, is ambivalent about Mr. Hernández, and a point out of him usually elicits hyperbolic acclaim or a stream of unprintable insults.

Mr. Hernández’s supporters describe him as a savior who erased town’s deficit, renegotiated contracts to learn taxpayers and broke a cycle of political favors that had turned Bucaramanga right into a capital of corruption.

His critics name him a hazard to democracy, an evangelist of a brutal capitalism that can break the nation and a person with few agency coverage concepts who will do no matter it takes to get his method.

“What awaits this nation is a dictatorship,” mentioned César Fontecha, a former authorized adviser to town’s trash firm who mentioned that Mr. Hernández as soon as referred to as him in a match of rage, demanding he assist approve a contract riddled with authorized issues.

Right this moment, Mr. Hernández faces corruption costs in that case, accused of pushing subordinates to make sure a selected firm gained a take care of town. In line with the inspector basic’s workplace, that contract may have earned his son vital cash.

Mr. Hernández’s trial begins July 21. He has mentioned he’s harmless.

“I didn’t steal something,” he mentioned. “That’s why I’m calm, with a transparent conscience.’’

Rising up in Piedecuesta, a colonial-era city exterior Bucaramanga, Mr. Hernández was the oldest of 4 boys, and his mother and father owned a cigar manufacturing unit, a tailor store and a sugar cane farm, making them among the many most profitable households locally.

Mario Carvajal, a longtime pal of the candidate, recalled Mr. Hernández’s mom as “extraordinarily demanding” and “impulsive.” If a younger Rodolfo didn’t do his work, he mentioned, “she beat him with no matter she may discover.”

Mr. Hernández studied engineering, later began a building firm that constructed low-cost housing after which moved into finance, appearing as vendor and lender and providing rates of interest far under native banks.

“If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have the home,” mentioned Flor Bayona, 57.

Ultimately, his household drew consideration from insurgent teams that kidnapped folks for ransom. First, they took his father, forcing the household to pay for his return. Then, in accordance with Mr. Hernández, they took his solely daughter, Juliana.

This time, Mr. Hernández refused to pay, saying it will solely encourage extra kidnapping. Juliana by no means returned.

Asked by a local radio station if he regretted his choice, he mentioned: “On the one hand, sure, and with plenty of ache. And alternatively, no, as a result of if we’d paid they might have come for Socorro, my spouse.”

Félix Jaimes, a longtime pal and adviser, referred to as Mr. Hernández extraordinarily involved for the much less lucky and “obsessive about undertaking objectives.”

Mr. Hernández ran for mayor of Bucaramanga in 2015, sweeping into workplace on an anti-corruption and austerity platform that led him to even remove the chairs from town corridor cafeteria.

He minimize job contracts and slashed salaries, together with that of José del Carmen, 59, a union chief.

In response, employees constructed a protest camp that lasted for months, after which began a starvation strike that lasted six days.

“He was the employees’ executioner,” mentioned Mr. del Carmen.

Mr. Hernández now faces costs of violating union rights throughout his time as mayor. The following part of this trial begins July 26. He has denied the fees.

In a Bucaramanga workplace of white tables and minimalist artwork that includes black-and-white scenes of poverty, the Hernández marketing campaign is run by a military of volunteers: self-described “Rodolfistas.”

Mr. Hernández’s marketing campaign slogan — “don’t rob, don’t lie, don’t cheat” — is painted on one wall, and a cutout of the candidate stands on the entrance.

Through the marketing campaign, Mr. Hernández has prevented most debates and has held few public occasions, favoring interviews with pleasant media and stay streams run by his allies. But he has energized broad swaths of the citizens, along with his advisers saying that he has understood the second.

For a technology, the nation has been run by a hard-right motion based by former President Álvaro Uribe. His political allies, referred to as Uribistas, had been as soon as lionized, however they’ve misplaced reputation amid allegations of human rights abuses, corruption scandals and rising poverty.

For Colombians fed up with Uribismo however turned off by Mr. Petro’s leftist proposals, Mr. Hernández is the right candidate: self-financed and seemingly unbiased, a forward-looking man with the identical ambitions for Colombia as he has for his private empire.

“He’s going to come back by way of for us,” mentioned Héctor Bonilla, 58. “I see it in his face, his sincerity when he speaks.”

Alfonso Morales, 64, a watchman who lives in a small shack close to the highest of a steep hill in Bucaramanga, has a special take.

As a candidate for mayor, Mr. Hernández distributed letters to town’s poorest residents asserting a program referred to as “20,000 Pleased Houses” that he promised can be a actuality if elected.

The properties had been by no means constructed. “He lied to us,” mentioned Mr. Morales. “I encourage the Colombian folks to not vote for this man.”

Mr. Hernández has continued to make such pledges. Inside Piedecuesta’s important park, he’s constructed a smooth mannequin house labeled the “fortune home,” meant to function a marketing campaign commercial, and he has employed an actual property agent to promote it.

Inside the home sooner or later, the agent advised guests {that a} house like this might be obtainable to them at a low value and low rates of interest — so long as Mr. Hernández gained.

Carlos Buitrago contributed reporting from Bucaramanga and Piedecuesta, and Genevieve Glatsky from Bogotá.

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