Election cheat sheets: Rodolfo Hernández

By Oli Pritchard May 21, 2022

Confused about the upcoming election? We’re here to help you with a set of cheat sheets on each candidate so you can follow the local news. First up is Rodolfo Hernández of the Liga Anticorrupción

Rodolfo Hernández is surprising the pollsters in Colombia’s presidential elections.
Photo: Luis Enrique Ochoa, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Who is this ‘Rodolfo’ then?

Rodolfo Hernández Suárez is a 77-year-old engineer from Piedecuesta in Santander. An ex-mayor of Bucaramanga, he was raised in that city and still lives there. He spent a long career in construction, mostly building affordable homes in Bucaramanga and the surrounding area. His father was kidnapped by FARC and his daughter was kidnapped and killed by ELN.

Is he polling well?

Remarkably so. From being a relative outsider even in March, he’s rising steadily to challenge for a place in the second round. This week’s polls have him at 16%, not too far off Fico in second place (23%). Some polls predict he may already be on level pegging with Fico.

What’s his campaign like?

He’s focusing on his record as Bucaramanga mayor (2016-19) and on his qualification as a civil engineer. In fact, his twitter handle and his campaign website both introduce him as Ing. Rodolfo. He’s gone on the attack against Fico for being the candidate of Duque and has largely left Petro alone. In what is threatening to become a simple Fico-Petro race, he is currently the best hope for those who want neither. He’s strongly anti-corruption, with “don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t betray” as his motto. Ingrid Betancourt has pulled out and her votes will go directly to Rodolfo, which is a useful bonus.

And what’s in his manifesto?

Read it online. First off, anti-corruption. He’s a little reticent on exactly what that could mean, although zero tolerance is the key. No impunity for those found guilty of corruption and an end to house arrest. On security, he’s talking about modernisation and better protection of the borders. Better links with Africa, Asia and Oceania are proposed abroad; more autonomy for the regions at home. VAT (sales tax) to be cut to 10% and made easier to pay. Basic income for all senior citizens, regardless of former contributions.

Education is another strong priority, and Rodolfo has ICETEX (the Student Loan Company in Colombia) in his sights. He’s proposing progressively writing off debt for students, with priority for those in estrato 1 and 2; active students; those with the best grades. That would be expensive, but on the other hand those debts are unlikely to ever be repaid anyway. He also wants more universities, especially in the regions, and better conditions for teachers.

On health, he wants 100% coverage and better controls on prices, especially drug prices. That could mean eliminating the EPS system. Drug addiction will be treated as a disease rather than a crime. He’s considering a basic income payment for the poorest families. There’s more social payments to be found for successful sportspeople, up to COP$100,000 per day. Olympians and world record holders will receive state pensions.  

On gender issues, he’s proposing 50% quotas for women in public service and in his cabinet. On the environment, he plans to give welfare payments to those that maintain forested areas rather than cutting them down. Clean energy is a recurring theme, although there are also plans for 14,000 km of new roads.

Who is he running with?

Marelen Castillo, about whom little is known. She’s a Cali-born teacher with no previous experience of politics and very religious. This campaign is very, very much about Rodolfo rather than the team and she was chosen as someone explicitly outside of politics. At 54, she is much younger than him.

I heard he’s going to donate his salary if he’s elected…

He says he will, but politicians say lots of things before elections. In his favour, though, he says he’s financing his own campaign, and so far that appears to be true. Most notably, he’s not able to tour the country and flood squares like Fico and Petro are, nor is he inundating social media with paid sponsorship in the same way as the above two.

Isn’t he a bit on the old side?

He was already well past retirement age when he became mayor of Bucaramanga and at 77, he’s now the oldest candidate in the race. If he were to arrive in the casa de Nariño, he’d celebrate his 80th birthday as president of the republic. There have been older presidents – Sanclemente was 84 when elected – but the recent trend has been towards younger leaders such as Duque and Santos. 

Any skeletons in his closet?

Yes. He was suspended as mayor and then resigned after the suspension, with a little over three months left of his term. The suspension was partly for political participation, although he maintains he was simply telling the truth about corrupt politicians. The other part of the suspension was for aggression towards a council member. It’s also worth noting that there have been a number of accusations against the anti-corruption candidate and his family, though that happens to most Colombian politicians. Finally, he caused indignation in the Venezuelan expat community after describing Venezuelan women as “baby factories” who would need to be supported by the state.

So, can he succeed?

It’s not impossible, but he has a hard task ahead. The first hurdle is getting to a second round, as overtaking Petro in the first is impossible now. That means squeaking past Fico, who is stuttering but still a good distance ahead in the polls. In a second round situation, he also has problems – he won’t have the advantage of youth, nor is he seen as a big change. On the other hand, he could attract leftwingers that can’t bring themselves to vote for Petro, as his guerilla history is very different. And of course, anti-corruption is always a popular stance to have. On the other hand, if he reaches the final two it’s likely there’ll be more examination of his manifesto and whether or not the sums add up. There’s a lot basic income being paid out and not much gain in the tax base to cover the increased spending.