Who is Rodolfo Hernández, Colombia’s “TikTok King”, and Can He Win the Presidency?
Who is Rodolfo Hernández, Colombia’s “TikTok King”, and Can He Win the Presidency?
Podcast / Latin America & Caribbean 20+ minutes

Who is Rodolfo Hernández, Colombia’s “TikTok King”, and Can He Win the Presidency?

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood talks to experts Beth Dickinson and Renata Segura about Colombia’s presidential election, as the country heads into a run-off between two anti-establishment candidates: leftist Gustavo Petro and a millionaire often likened to Donald Trump, Rodolfo Hernández.

Colombians decisively rejected mainstream political parties in the first round of their presidential election last week, with two anti-establishment candidates advancing to the run-off on 19 June. Gustavo Petro, a leftist former guerrilla, promises to overhaul the country’s socio-economic system. He’s drawn fierce opposition from Colombia’s financial elites. His opponent, Rodolfo Hernández, known as the “King of TikTok”, has connected with voters through an astute social media campaign and is often compared to former U.S. president Donald Trump for his populist and sometimes outlandish rhetoric. The candidate that came in third in the first round of voting, establishment-backed Federico Gutiérrez, has thrown his weight behind Hernández, arguably making him the favourite. It remains unclear how Hernández will tackle Colombia’s most acute challenges, notably the inequality and corruption that drove country-wide protests last year and rampant insecurity in the countryside. In May this year, an armed strike organised by a former paramilitary, now criminal, group, the Gulf Clan, paralysed several regions in northern Colombia for days.

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood is joined by Crisis Group experts Elizabeth Dickinson, Senior Colombia Analyst, and Renata Segura, Deputy Program Director for Latin America and the Caribbean. They talk about the candidates’ campaigns and Colombians’ disenchantment with their political elite. They discuss the hurdles Petro will have to surmount to win the run-off. They chart Hernández’s meteoric rise and dissect some of his proposals. They assess Colombia’s worsening insecurity, as armed groups, from guerrillas to former rebels and criminal gangs, exploit the state’s absence in rural areas. They also discuss what the election of Hernández or Petro would mean for Colombia’s foreign relations and Latin American politics more broadly.

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the situation in Colombia, check out Crisis Group’s extensive analysis on our Colombia country page, including our recent Q&A “Colombia’s Election Clash Rattles a Fragile Peace”.

Podcast Transcript

N.B. This transcript was generated using speech recognition software and human transcription. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting or if in doubt.

Clip  00:00
¿Estoy muy viejo para tener TikTok? (Am I too old for TikTok?)

Richard  00:11
Hi. This is Hold Your Fire!, a podcast by the International Crisis Group. I’m Richard Atwood. Last Sunday, Colombians voted in the first round of presidential elections. Left-leaning opposition politician Gustavo Petro won the most votes – about 40 per cent. He’d been expected to do well thanks to an outpouring of anti-establishment sentiment. More of a surprise was second-placed candidate Rodolfo Hernández. Hernández is another outsider. He’s sort of a right-wing populist, though one that’s quite hard to define. He mostly eschewed formal campaigning. He didn’t participate in the presidential debates. Instead, he has appealed to voters via social media, earning himself the name the “TikTok King”. We heard one of his videos up top, in which he jokes he’s too old for the social media platform.

Clip  00:53
The leftist presidential candidate Gustavo Petro will face off against right-wing businessman Rodolfo Hernández in a run-off election in June. On Sunday, Petro won the first round with just over 40 per cent of the vote, falling short of the 50 per cent needed to avoid a run-off. 

Richard  01:11
Hernández will compete against Petro in the run-off in a couple of weeks, on 19 June. The man Hernández beat for second place, Federico Gutiérrez, or “Fico”, has thrown his weight and the weight of Colombia’s political establishment behind Hernández. That probably makes the TikTok King favourite to win Colombia’s presidency. So who is Rodolfo Hernández? Are comparisons to former U.S. President Donald Trump fair? Can he win? And if he does, what will he do about the inequality and corruption that drove country-wide protests last year? What about the violence that racks much of Colombia’s countryside or prospects for negotiations with the ELN, Colombia’s largest remaining guerrilla group? To talk about all this, I'm very happy to welcome back Beth Dickinson, Crisis Group’s Colombia expert, and Renata Segura, who's our Deputy Latin America Program Director. Beth, Renata, welcome back on.

Beth  01:59
Great to be here. Thanks, Richard.

Renata  02:01
Thank you, Richard.

Richard  02:04
Let’s talk first about Rodolfo Hernández. Just what, just a few weeks ago, Rodolfo Hernández didn't seem to be a serious contender. And now, he might even be favourite to win the presidency?

Beth  02:17
So I think this election really has been a surprise from the beginning. It's the first time in a long time that Colombians have gone to the polls not knowing who was going to come out on top. And this first round result was no exception. I think what we expected was for this to be a contest between Gustavo Petro, the left-leaning former mayor of Bogota who has pitched himself as sort of the outsider who's wanting to come in and shake things up, and very much an establishment candidate who is backed by all the traditional parties. I'm speaking of Federico Gutiérrez. Instead, what we have is a result that elevates two candidates who are anti-establishment. Two candidates whose entire persona is really built on speaking out against this elite that has long-governed Colombia. So now instead of a contest between an insider and an outsider, we have two outsiders, speaking from slightly different perspectives but both with a very populist tone that really captures the exasperation and economic frustration of the moment.

Richard  03:09
So maybe then let’s talk first about Rodolfo Hernández because in some ways that was the surprise, right? So, who is he? Where did he come from? And how did he manage to build what seems to have been a lot of momentum in the last few weeks of the campaign?

Beth  03:26
Well, Rodolfo is an interesting character because he was really someone that outside of his town and his department of Santander was very little known before this election happened. He is a businessman who was self-made in the sense that he came from a very humble upbringing in a place called Piedecuesta, Santander and he has risen to become a multimillionaire property developer who works on land and housing. That's how he's earned his fortune. And the way that he's connected with voters, it's been very interesting. He has gone to almost no campaign events. He has not joined any of the debates. Instead, he has reached people on social media. So through TikTok, through messaging, he has this ability to speak very broadly and capture some of the frustration that Colombians have with the current system. His talking point above all others is corruption. So his pledge for Colombia is to come in, root out corruption, tighten up the budgets and get things to work not by increasing taxes or raising new revenue, but rather by stopping this sort of leeching corruption from the system. He hasn't said much about how he's going to do that. But this message alone resonates so well, I think with voters, that he was able to pull off this win.

Renata  04:41
If I may just add one, one small thing. I think that something that is very important to understand why we're facing the second round with these two unusual candidates is the demise of Uribismo, of the right-wing, traditional political sector of the country that was more focused on law and order, that had really been campaigning against the peace process.  

Richard  05:06
And Uribismo, just so that people know, that’s the politics led by Álvaro Uribe, who was president three presidents ago, between 2002 and 2010, but has remained extremely influential behind the scenes since then.

Renata  05:19
Exactly. And perhaps this is the biggest change that this election is bringing into the political scene – is that Uribismo has lost a lot of its convening power. We’re not saying that Uribismo has disappeared. Really, what's happening is that it's transforming. But really, when we look at the results of Fico and their campaign, they really did not win in many of the areas of the country where they had traditionally been a stronghold. So, it really is an upending of the way in which politics has worked in Colombia for many years. And more importantly, as Beth was saying, the machinery and the clientelistic workouts that normally bring the voters out were absent this time around, at least in the proportion that they normally are present.

Richard  06:10
And Uribe himself, as you say, he's sort of been this enormously powerful figure behind Iván Duque, the current president. But he threw his weight behind Gutiérrez, behind Fico, ahead of the first round?

Renata  06:26
Yes, I mean, Fico was definitely the official candidate, but because Uribe’s standing in popular opinion has been not as good in recent months, all of the candidates have been distancing themselves a little bit from him, in particular because the Duque administration is going out with really appalling rates of approval. So Fico wanted to make sure that people didn't see him as a continuation of that government. But everybody understood that Fico was the candidate that Uribe was supporting. Although, the rumour mill says that in recent months, when they were seeing that Fico was not gaining the traction that they wanted, and that Hernández was racing in the polls, they started behind closed doors doing some negotiating with Hernández in case he was the one who came to the second round.

Richard  07:16
And although it's unexpected that he's going into the second round, Rodolfo Hernández, he has been in politics for a while, right? I mean, he was mayor of the town – you talked about Beth – Bucaramanga. What do we know about his sort of past track record in politics that could say what sort of a president he might be?

Beth  07:34
So those who've worked with him in the past sort of describe him as a manager-in-chief. An executive personality, very much used to being in charge and very much used to operating in a business environment. For example, when he was discussing recently in an interview possible negotiations with armed groups, for example the ELN, he suggested something that here is called an otrosí al acuerdo (addendum to an agreement), which is essentially an addendum to a business agreement. So that instead of negotiating a new peace agreement, they could just add another part to the existing agreement with the FARC. I think that gives us a sense into how the way that he thinks about these issues is very much linked to his own experience as a businessman, which, frankly, has been quite isolated and linked to Santander. Another great example is that when he was asked about how to improve rural security, he suggested putting up security cameras along the roads and in neighbourhoods. So he's thinking, you know, again, very much in the context of his world. When he was the mayor of Bucaramanga – which it's important to understand is one of the higher per capita cities, so it has resources to work with – his primary concern was the budget there and he managed to sort of pull the budget back into working condition. And he's used this as a talking point against his opponent now, Petro, who was the mayor of Bogotá, to say that, you know, he did a better job managing the accounts of the city. I think when we look at the track record, really what we can see is a man who has a very specific fiscal agenda, and but not necessarily the tools to understand how the different parts of the state are articulating together. And from what we've seen so far, at least in his campaign, a very thin layer of advisors at least so far, who might be able to direct him how to link into the state institutions.

Richard  09:19
Wasn't he thrown out as mayor?

Renata  09:22
That's what I was just going to say. I mean, it is interesting that he did not finish his term as mayor of Bucaramanga. It wasn't strictly a corruption case, but he was removed because he was actively involved in politics, which in Colombia is prohibited for people who are in a public post. And he's actually currently facing either having to pay a really big fee or going to jail for five days, because he's being accused of corruption for having given friends public contracts while he was mayor. So there is a case that is opened against him. The possibility that this case is resolved in the courts before he gets elected, if he does, is very small. So the chances are that the case would just be suspended because sitting presidents and ex-presidents in Colombia are not judged by the attorney's office, but by a special commission in the courts. But it could be that he will have an open case of corruption even though his campaign is actually based on an anti-corruption platform. He has also been a person that has been fairly openly contentious with people he doesn't like. He publicly slapped an opposition member of the Council when he was mayor of Bucamanga.

Richard  10:38
Like, slapped as in physically slapped?

Renata  10:41
Literally slapped him in the face. He was accusing the council person of requesting money in exchange for a political favour. The council man has said that that's not the true version of the story. But he's really a person that speaks off-the-cuff and often that gets him in trouble. He once said in a radio interview that he admired Hitler. He also said recently that he felt that women's place was in the kitchen. So, he's somebody who, you know, doesn't fit within what you're expecting of a politician. And I think that's both his appeal, but also what people are afraid about him. That it’s really a complete question mark, as to what he will be in office.

Richard  11:31
And so the obvious parallel, and it's one that the newspapers in the U.S. have drawn, is to former President Trump. So, that this is Colombia's Trump: this big, sort of social media presence. And that he's run this upstart campaign without a lot of funding and without much establishment support, and now has captured a lot of the right-of-centre vote. But, I mean, is that Trump parallel a fair one?

Renata  11:56
I think it is fair in certain ways, certainly in the way in which he campaigns and certainly, and especially, I think in the way in which he's going to have a relationship with the political parties on the right, because it's very much akin to how the Republicans were sort of uncomfortable with Trump, but had no choice but to support him. And that is essentially what's happening to the right right now. I think a lot of them don't like his persona. They think that he's rude, that he sort of has no manners. His persona mortifies them, but their interests really align. I think the difference really is that Hernández does seem to have some left-of-centre points in his agenda. How much he is a believer of them, or how much this is a part of his strategy to take votes out of Petro, we don't know. But he has spoken about legalisation of medical and recreational marijuana. He has spoken in support of gay rights. He has spoken in support of abortion rights, which were just declared legal by the court not long ago. He has said that he's going to invest in the countryside. He said, as Beth was mentioning, that he would start negotiations with the ELN, even though the ELN kidnapped and murdered his daughter, and his father was kidnapped by the FARC. So in certain ways, it's not a very fair comparison, because he seems to be to the left of Trump. But then he has also used very xenophobic language towards the Venezuelan immigrants. He once said that the Venezuelan women were just factories that produce poor children or hungry children. So he has a mix of that sort of very crass populism of Trump, but with some deviations more towards the classic leftist, populist of Latin American history.

Richard  13:50
And some of those left leaning policies that you talked about, I mean, do they predate the first round, so he was running on those before the first round, or is that something that he's emphasised since last Sunday, when he's now competing, you know, with Petro? He knows he's got the right-wing voters, and now he needs the centre ground as well.

Renata  14:09
Some of those were there before, but there really has been a very concerted and clear effort to move left since Sunday. And essentially on Monday, he did a long thread in which he was like: make no mistake, I am not like Uribe, and I'm going to tell you why. And he listed the twelve points in which he differs from him. So, some of those points he had mentioned. He has changed tack on certain issues, for example, fracking, where he used to support it, and now he says he doesn't. And that is clearly trying to appeal to the more environmentally-concerned people among the Petro voters. So even so, with some of those things, I feel like some of those left-leaning impulses come from a libertarian spirit that he has. He really is concerned about too big a state. And so I think in that sense, we can see them as progressive, but they can also come from just a libertarian streak that he clearly has. His main concern is to reduce the cost and the presence of the state.

Richard  15:14
And so Fico’s voters, so the people that cast ballots for Federico Gutiérrez, who came third, as you say, backed in principle by Uribe. They're now likely to vote for Hernández. Gutiérrez himself has said he's going to support Hernández. Uribe’s party has kind of fallen into line behind him. Is that right? And is that really just out of fear of Petro, of the other candidate?

Beth  15:43
I think it is. And I think that this is a really important point to understand the whole context of this election, which is that Petro, again the left-leaning former mayor of Bogotá, is a person who generates extremely polarised opinions in Colombia. And to the extent that I think there's a phenomenon here, that was really what the entire first half of the election campaign was about, which was Petro-phobia. For the sort of traditional elite, and specifically the economic elite, I think there's a lot of concern that Petro, with his reformist economic agenda, would somehow, they would argue, take the country towards a socialist model that we've seen in Venezuela and that has been such a disaster. And we have to remember too that there are several million Venezuelan migrants in Colombia, whose example of fleeing this is sort of failed state next door weighs very heavily on the minds, not just the sort of the upper class, but also I think many Colombians in general who feel that if there is this type of government here in Bogotá, that's the fate that Colombia will suffer. Petro himself is also a polarising personality. He doesn't shy away from attacks. His past antagonism towards, you know, existing politicians, and his sort of very outspoken nature, generates this sort of polarisation. But I think the other components of understanding this concern about Petro really relates a lot to the moment that we're in five years after the signing of the 2016 peace accord. You have to remember that in Colombia, there was a half century of armed conflict with leftist guerrilla insurgency that, for many reasons, left a very strong stigma against the political left. They were accused of being somehow sympathetic, or somehow too close, or somehow even allied in some cases, often very incorrectly, with these guerrilla movements. And that limited the political space that they had to operate. I think Petro still suffers from the residual stigma that was attached to that. However, the difference today is the following. The difference today is that today, we can talk about all the issues that were suppressed for many years politically, because there was always this existential priority of internal conflict. No, sorry, we can't deal with inequality because we're facing an existential conflict from the FARC. No, sorry, we can't talk about the lack of education, because the government in Bogotá might be tumbled in three days. This shadow of conflict that really limited political discourse for so long is gone. So this space to discuss these grievances and social concerns is open. The space for the left to really compete in politics has opened. But what Petro suffers from is the residual effects of so many years of frustration and stigma with the left and the fact that Colombia has not had an experience of a left-leaning president for many, many decades.

Richard  18:33
Isn't Petro really the first sort of left-leaning politician that has stood a chance of winning the presidency? And we will come in a moment to how good his chances are, but at least he has a chance of winning the presidency. I mean, the first one in, as you say, decades of  right-of-centre presidents and government?

Renata  18:52
Yes, I mean, I think with the exception of perhaps the reelection of Juan Manuel Santos,  that mobilised the leftist sector that was supportive of the peace agreement, you're right that Colombia has been to the right in the political spectrum, traditionally, since really the 1940s. But I think the interesting thing about what's happening right now is that the right has no choice but to support Hernández. And really, this gives Hernández an incredible amount of power. So he feels that he has no need to do any concessions to the right. In fact, he came out on Twitter saying, “Álvaro Uribe huele a picho”, “He smells rotten”, “He died three days ago and he is already smelling rotten”. And he will say that publicly and they will still vote for him because they have no choice.

Richard  19:48
And again to recap, this is about a man, Álvaro Uribe, who has for years sort of been the kingmaker in Colombian politics. A hugely powerful politician.

Renata  19:58
Exactly. So, this is a complete upheaval. But he knows that the right is so afraid of Petro that they are going to vote for him. Petro, on the other hand, is being put in this very strange place for him in which he has gone from being the leftist sort of Chávez-like figure that everybody was afraid of, to being like the political establishment guy who gives his acceptance speech from the traditional hotel room with the parties and support. Meanwhile, Hernández is speaking from his kitchen. The contrast has been very wisely used by Hernández’s campaign, which has in a couple of days just switched who the outsider is. At the same time, Petro is using the opposite logic: he is saying, I am the safe bet of change, I will change things but I am not stepping to the abyss. It was completely unthinkable that this is what Petro would be saying a week ago. It's really extraordinary.

Richard  21:10
That's what he's saying. But presumably for, as you say, the establishment in Colombia, Petro is still seen as the more dangerous bet. And actually Hernández is seen as someone who's, you know, generally safer, probably less likely to rock the boat. And you know, he may be able to present himself as a man of the people on the street. But actually, Colombia's establishment prefer him to Petro.

Renata  21:34
I mean he's a capitalist, right? So he's going to not change that which is the power of the economic elites, which is really what has been the traditional conservative core of the country. And really, the reason why so many parts of the peace process were not implemented, was because they were going to really threaten the economic status of some of those people. And I think the traditional elite sees that clearly, it is going to be a big shock to the political system though. And so in that sense, I think some of the politicians who are rightly worried about what he's going to do, if he's going to, as he has said, eliminate a bunch of ministries, merge institutions, reduce state budgets. It's going to significantly have an impact on the way that the state has operated. But clearly, in this gamble between the political revolution and the economic revolution, the establishment is thinking that it's safer to go with a political revolution, as long as the economics remain more or less the same.

Richard  22:38
And Petro himself, hasn't he kind of moderated as well? Some of his advisers were close to President Juan Manuel Santos, certainly for his second term. He got, what, some 40 per cent in the first round. So what is his path to the presidency, to winning the run-off? 

Beth  22:58
Well, this is where I think it gets quite complicated for Petro because of the way that he has raised his base of voters – he got more votes this time around than he did in the previous presidential election, when he also went to a second round. He got more votes this time than he did in the previous second round. And the way that he's risen his vote share essentially has been by selling this argument of frustration, I think, with the system. The problem for Petro, and the reason it's going to be very difficult for him to raise that ceiling of votes that he seems to have hit, is that Rodolfo is fishing in the same river of these sorts of particularly lower and middle-class and sort of working-class voters who just are fed up with everything. And if this was an election of Petro versus the establishment, those people would be much more likely to fall into Petro’s umbrella. A great example of this is actually the city here in Bogotá, where Petro did not perform as strongly as he expected, despite this being really the stronghold of his popularity. The place where he was the mayor. The place where during that same period in office, he managed to improve social programmes and really implemented a number of policies, for example lowering the fares on the public bus system, that were quite popular. Despite that, some portion of the vote has been peeled off by Hernández. What sorts of people are we talking about? We're talking about sort of the working-class voter who's equally frustrated, but maybe has also absorbed some of the anti-Petro sentiment, who lives next door to Venezuelans and has seen that experience and hears, you know, on the radio that Petro is going to maybe take the country in the same direction. Well, put those things together and, you know, Hernández is sort of the dream candidate for those people, because he has all of the populist rhetoric, and he doesn't carry this seemingly frightening stigma that Petro unfortunately still suffers from.

Richard  24:52
So basically Hernández is pretty much the worst possible candidate for Petro, right? I guess it’s quite similar to politicians in some Western countries that have been able to unite a conservative establishment with a populist base. It can be quite a powerful winning combination.

Renata  25:10
I think Petro has two avenues to maybe regain some of the lead that he had before the elections a couple weeks ago. One is to bring out the vote of people who didn't participate last Sunday. The abstention in Colombia is always pretty high. This time, it was a little bit lower, but not extremely lower. It was 45 per cent abstention. So there is work that could be done there. And the one thing that Petro does have is the popular networks, he has done a lot of alliances that can also help him mobilise the vote. There's definitely an appeal to the voters that didn't come out on the first round. I mean, obviously, they're trying to appeal to the centre. And then there is a very strong campaign to show that Hernández is really an unqualified candidate to run the country, that his proposals are not well-developed, that his instincts are wrong, that he's pretending to be something that he's not. And I think that's where we're going to go for the next three weeks, trying to show Hernández as an unqualified person that would send the country in a really difficult place. So they're going to try to appeal to people saying, look at the danger that we're facing, you guys have to go with us because this is really an unruly man that we don't know what would end up doing. I mean, both of them have said in the past, although Hernández more recently, that the first thing that they will do when they get into office would be to declare the state of exception, so they can rule by decree rather than have to pass laws to Congress. The state of exception in Latin America is usually a little bit different from a state of emergency. State of emergency is used for natural disasters. An extended state of exception is used for questions of public order and security. So the constitution allows you for three months to suspend a lot of the ways in which you have to process laws. You can go into people's houses without having proper or judicial orders, the police can interrogate people without necessarily having the paperwork and so on. So, they both said that they will use that, although Petro has sort of backtracked from there. But there is that danger that they both have a little bit of authoritarian tendencies that could lead the country into unknown territory. Because if something has been traditionally strong in Colombia is the institutions that impose the rule of law and democratic order, despite the war. The judicial system has always worked, the courts’ decisions are being respected. So if we veered from there, that would really be a break with the past that would be very alarming.

Richard  27:59
And this comes after parliamentary elections, legislative elections, a couple of months ago, in which Petro’s party won a plurality, won the largest bloc in parliament, but definitely not a governing majority. And Hernández doesn't really have a party. So, he has no bloc in parliament at all. But presumably, if he received the backing of some of the traditional  parties, he would be able to form a bloc like that. Is that right?

Renata  28:25
Yeah, I think we assume that the people from Centro Democrático, so Uribe’s party, and other more right-wing leaning parties would support him. Congress is fairly divided. The left can, if they want, join and do a coalition that will be able to support Petro’s agenda. But discipline is really poor in Colombia within the parties. There is no punishment for Congressmen to vote out of line with their own party. So it really is going to become a negotiation with each individual Congressperson. And it's going to be very difficult for either of them to really have majorities that are solid. They're going to have to be negotiating every single thing with Congress.

Richard  29:15
And so last year, there were these massive protests. Beth, you were there for some of them. Across towns and cities, you know, really countrywide, many people on the streets for weeks. Driven, really, by enormous inequality that was exposed by the pandemic, and then  police brutality that met some of those protests. So, the sentiment that took people out onto the streets, some of that is fueling support for Petro. But some of that same sentiment presumably is fueling support for Hernández. But does he have a platform or, I mean, does he have a plan to address, let's say, the inequality or some of the other things that people are on the streets for?

Beth  29:58
I think just firstly to say as context about this sort of explosive scenario that we had last year in which some of these grievances about a lack of social mobility came to the surface, is that those tensions are completely unresolved. Essentially, when youth and everyday Colombians came to the street and said, my life is horrible, I don't have any opportunities, there's no possibility for me to move forward in life – they were thrown crumbs, you know. To students who have no access to university, here's one free semester that actually probably won't materialise. You know, in terms of the tax level, well, we'll lift it for maybe two, three months, and then it comes back. So, this is all to say that I think that the environment in which this election is taking place is one in which the dynamics that fueled urban protests have not been addressed. They are still very much in place. And that explains, I think, this tense environment, but also, frankly, why we are where we are with the candidates. Now Rodolfo himself has said on these issues a number of things. I think, first, he has been outspoken about his frustration with the embarrassment or the level of poverty in Colombia. And he talks about lifting the VAT tax on food products, which would be extremely popular because the price of food as elsewhere in the world, particularly with the crisis in Ukraine, has risen dramatically. He's talked about renegotiating trade deals for agricultural products with countries like the U.S., which he argues are very unfavourable to the countryside here in Colombia. He started to talk even more since advancing to the second round about developing the countryside, about providing more job opportunities. So, he certainly has a rhetoric that appeals to that on a very concrete level.

Renata  31:40
Yeah, they have both spoken about universal health, they've both spoken about access to education. And they both have spoken about renta básica minima (minimum universal income), which is giving a minimum salary to every single Colombian, including seniors, even if people haven't done contributions throughout their working life. So, as Beth was saying, I think it is very clear why we have these two men running in the second round. They were the two that were paying attention to what was happening on the streets. And in a moment after the state and the political establishment in general thought that by just throwing a couple of crumbs to the protest and continuing life as it had been, that had led Colombia to be the second most unequal country on the continent, they thought that everything will be okay and nothing will be challenged. And clearly, they were sorely mistaken. The way in which the country reacted to the protests of last year was so misguided that only Hernández in his very unique way of doing campaigning through TikTok and speaking very bluntly and directly and shortly – I mean, Petro looks really boring in comparison to the way in which Hernández speaks. He really speaks to the people, he speaks to those who don't understand policy, he writes the indignation wave in a very effective way. And they read the room, and nobody else read the room. And so, at least, even if this is a very tense environment and there are a lot of unknowns, at least there is an acceptance that these are questions that need to be addressed in a significant way. And so hopefully, that is a good sign that there will be some progress in substantial ways in which the poorest Colombians can have some help from the state in making their lives better.

Richard  33:33
And yet, I mean, if it is Hernández, maybe he'll be different but traditionally populists don't have a great track record at addressing the grievances that they ride to power on. Particularly if he's then sort of reliant on a right-wing establishment in Colombian Congress to sort of get stuff done?

Renata  33:53
Yes, I think it's particularly worrisome that his strategy seems to be to stop corruption and then be able to use those funds that are not being stolen to fund all of these programmes, which in principle, yes, that sounds like an amazing idea. Let's not create more taxes, like let's just stop people from robbing. But when you go into the details of how exactly it's going to happen, there is absolutely no depth to those proposals. And it is interesting because he has said on many occasions that he is a big admirer of Mexico's president, Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). And the thing is that–

Richard  34:29
AMLO is left-wing, right? I mean, he's Mexico's left-wing president in principle.

Renata  34:36
In principle. But AMLO also came to power with this very strong anti-corruption agenda. But his whole approach to it was like, I'm not going to be corrupt, and I will make sure that everybody else is not corrupt, which obviously in practice is a completely silly proposal, because that's not how it works. In practice, we have seen how collusion and corruption in Mexico has not been reduced. So I'm afraid that Hernández has that same approach. When people ask him for details, he'll say, I'll just call these guys and I will be like, you have to respond for this stolen money, but there's no follow up of how exactly he will implement that at a national level. I mean, he is right, like, during the pandemic, there was a scandal for the Ministry of Communications having lost an incredible amount of money that was earmarked to provide internet access to poor children, so they could attend school remotely. So, you know, there are so many examples of ways in which the state has completely blundered its most basic responsibilities because of corruption that it is very difficult not to be sympathetic with Hernández’s cause. But obviously, as we know, eliminating corruption takes much more than just that goodwill and a president who wants to be like a father figure to the country and teach them to do right instead of robbing.

Richard  36:10
So there's corruption and inequality, obviously huge challenges for the next president. But another big challenge is the insecurity across rural areas. You know, this terrible violence – what, last year 2021 was the most violent year since the accord with the FARC, since 2016. The war with the FARC has ended but different groups now vie for influence, often at huge cost for people living in the countryside. And so there was this big armed strike, what, just before the elections by a former paramilitary group, the Gulf Clan, a criminal group that brought big chunks of the country to a standstill. What have Petro and Hernández said about their policies for rural development or addressing some of the violence in rural areas?

Beth  37:00
So, I think to start maybe just a word about once again sort of how we got to where we are today. So, we're not five years since the signing of the peace agreement with the FARC. And what that agreement did – and it was quite successful – was to remove the single largest actor of the conflict and immediately reduce violence in a number of rural areas. The indicators just fell from the ceiling. We're talking about homicides, displacement, all the things that we would traditionally look to, to understand the dynamics of a conflict. Unfortunately, what has happened since is unlike the idea of the agreement, which was for the state to – with its services, with its police and security presence – to sort of fill in those areas territorially where the FARC used to occupy. We're talking about a solid 22 per cent of the country. And what has happened instead is that other armed groups, both new and old, have proven themselves more agile, more interested, and, frankly, more effective at controlling those areas in occupying those communities, retaking trafficking routes, reactivating the economy for coca, the base used to make cocaine. In arms trafficking and human trafficking. And so what we've seen really in a number of rural areas is not so much the end of a conflict but a complete reconfiguration of violence. Today, the conflict is not a guerrilla insurgency. It's a fragmented, atomised conflict that pits dozens and dozens of different groups that operate on the local level, really, with a logic of controlling individual parts of the illicit economy. And a state that really hasn't figured out how to respond. As a result of that, the levels of violence have slowly ticked upwards. And what we've seen particularly since the beginning of 2022, is armed groups trying to take advantage of this situation of insecurity and uncertainty around the political transition that they clearly sense and have been able to capitalise upon. Now, this armed strike that you mentioned, I think, was a really visible demonstration of this. This group, the Gulf Clan, has its roots in former paramilitary organisations, but today operates and even describes itself as a private army in the service of drug trafficking. That is how they describe themselves. And what is it exactly? It is exactly that, it is a private army that has occupied, in this case, almost a third of the entire Colombian north, stretching all the way from the Pacific coast to the border with Venezuela. They operate in these communities, they instil rules in these communities, there are curfews, there are restrictions on movement, they decide who's in charge. And this is a reality that has been invisible and what this arms strike did was make it visible. And really, it reminded all of Colombia of the extent to which security has deteriorated. And it's really a reminder of the dramatic challenge that the next president is going to face. Because it's not just the Gulf Clan. There are also two different branches of so-called FARC dissident groups. There's the ELN, there are dozens and dozens of individual delinquent and criminal organisations that operate in cities. This is a situation that requires a serious response. And unfortunately, what we've seen from, frankly, both candidates – certainly more Hernández but still to an extent with Petro – we don't know what their response is, to deal with these groups. We have not heard a plan to deal with the security situation. And going into the second round of the election and then the transition period to a new administration, this brings a lot of risks. Because, again, armed groups have proven themselves very adept at seeing an opportunity and grasping it.

Richard  40:29
Tell us a little bit of what happened during the armed strike. How did the Gulf Clan bring cities to a standstill? Was it all the cities along the northern coast or just sort of smaller towns?

Beth  40:43
So we're talking about twelve departments primarily along the Atlantic coast. These are areas where the Gulf Clan has a present presence, either permanent or sort of moving in and out. And so what they did was they announced a strike on 5 May through a number of pamphlets, but also going door-to-door we heard in rural areas, where they advised residents that for the following four days, they were not to leave their homes, they were not to transit roads, shops were not to open, schools were to remain closed and anyone who broke those orders would face the consequences. And that's exactly what we saw. It was remarkable. Two mid-sized cities, these are not small places, Sincelejo and Montería along the Atlantic coast were entirely shut down. There was no transport within several departments of Colombia for four days. And because this group wields such a high level of control that even the military didn't dare to patrol in many of these areas. The result of that, obviously, in those four days, you know, small towns ran out of food, they ran out of supplies, schools were closed. Obviously, there's this traumatic factor of the fear that it instilled. But the reality is that these communities already live under those conditions on a daily basis.  That's an embarrassment in a country like Colombia, a middle income country, that the state cannot stop an armed group from shutting down a third of the country. And I think that it hasn't really risen to that level politically, but it's going to have to in the next administration, because the extent of the threat is that grave.

Richard  42:15
Was the strike linked to the vote? To the election?

Beth  42:18
So the strike was called specifically in response to the extradition of a captured leader of the group, known as Otoniel, to the United States. However, there were implications for the elections in the sense that this group specifically harassed voters and activists of the Petro campaign, and generally sought to suppress the vote.

Renata  42:39
I think it's also important to know, Richard, that first while the strike was happening, there was quite an upheaval. People were protesting a lot because the army was clearly not responding in even a similar way to the way in which they responded to the strikes in the cities in 2019, which immediately were faced with a very strong military response while the Clan del Golfo (Gulf Clan) essentially paralyse a third of the country for several days, and the country sent literally 23 men, that was the first group of soldiers that they sent. So people were quite furious about the lack of response from Duque, which only got worse when he went to a conference in Europe and he was giving a press interview, and he said that actually, the Clan del Golfo did not exist anymore, that the Clan del Golfo had been completely dismantled. It also explains why the candidate that was seen as a continuation of that, which was Fico, was openly rejected in areas that had been a stronghold for Uribismo until now. These sectors that had always been a little bit right-wing for many decades were like, “Are you kidding me?” Like, A – you deny that this is happening, and B – you clearly have no interest in mobilising the army to help us when the situation is at its worst.

Richard  44:08
And so, part of the response to the insecurity in rural areas is about the role of the army, the role of the security forces in providing security in a better way. But part of it is also some of the reforms that were laid out in the peace deal with the FARC. And Duque’s government has sort of sat on that and not moved forward with it for the most part. What has Hernández said about rural reform and rolling out some of what the government agreed to in the deal with the FARC?

Renata  44:40
He has said specifically that he would invest in the countryside. That was one of the points that he made clear in his twitter thread of Sunday. Part of the peace process was the creation of these local development plans in those areas that had been most seriously affected by conflict, but he has not made any specific allusion to those or how those will be implemented. And again, there is a little bit of a contradiction between his desire to both develop economically the areas but also to politically support participation of the opposition, with his very clear interest in not spending too much money because these are very costly plans, which partially, not exclusively, but the very high cost that they have had meant that they have not been implemented. I think the part of the agreement that he will move forward with is the coca eradication and sort of going from forced eradication into a voluntary substitution plan. He does seem to signal that he wants to legalise recreational and medicinal use of marijuana.

Richard  45:43
Marijuana though not–

Renata  45:44
Yes marijuana. I don't want to call it a drug policy because it's not really anywhere as neat as a real drug policy, but he does seem to be inclined to move away from the very sort of hardline restrictive use of drugs and punishment for coca cultivation that previous government has had. He has said that he wants to treat drug use as a public health problem and not an internal security problem, which is a positive sign. And I think he will probably want to move into ending fumigation and ending forced eradication, and trying to put his money into voluntary substitution. That said, he will need to have the United States on his side for that. And that is not going to be necessarily straightforward, particularly if he gets into a confrontation with Washington over things, for example, like the recognition of President Maduro in Venezuela over Juan Guaidó. But it does seem that he is at least a little bit interested.

Beth  46:48
Just a few points to add. I mean, I think firstly it's important to note that the peace deal was not a campaign issue. It has not been a campaign issue, which is important, because it sort of signals that there is sort of a broad understanding that this is now part of state policy, not any individual government policy. Well, not in every way. And certainly there are exceptions to that. And there's certain parts of the agreement that are always going to be more politically convenient to implement than others, but the peace accord as the idea of transitional justice and demobilisation – that is no longer controversial, which is a positive thing about this election. Having said that, when we look at the track record of both candidates historically, vis-a-vis the Accord, Petro voted yes on the referendum that was held throughout the country to approve or disapprove of the agreement. Rodolfo voted no. He has since said that he will continue to implement the agreement. But he has also unfortunately shown indications that he may not fully understand what the agreement includes. There are just basics of the agreement that I think it's clear the candidate does not understand. What that basically tells us is that this is a black box. We don't know what he will do with regard to the agreement. So it's easy to say he will implement it. But I think going through sort of a list of all the different programmes and laws and ideas that are included in the agreement that, again, at Crisis Group we feel are so fundamental to rewriting why conflict has always been so sticky in Colombia. We just don't know where Hernández sits on those things.

Richard  48:19
And so if we talk about foreign powers, we can start with the U.S. – obviously hugely influential in Colombia. I think Colombia is one of the U.S.’s closest allies in the hemisphere, the U.S. has very close ties to the Colombian army, and obviously is important because of the U.S. drug policy. So I mean, these are not great options [for the U.S.], I guess is how Washington, I assume, is viewing things.

Beth  48:47
It was said to me recently that both the Colombian military and the United States are not political, but they are anti-Petro. And I think that summarises the sentiment. That is, within the Colombian military here there is a deep fear of what Petro would mean for their ranks. And I think the same thing can be said about the U.S., particularly because of these potential changes on drug policy. Now, if they're looking at Hernández’s programme, they should have the same fears with regard to him. But I think for many of the reasons we discussed with Petrophobia within Colombia, that same phenomenon affects the U.S. political establishment. Now, having said that, the U.S. has made some what I would say are really positive statements and movements recently. They have tweeted and made public statements in really emphasising the idea that this is a free election and, of course, independent and the voters will be respected. They have called for calm and tranquillity in a moment of tension for the country. So they've said all the right things publicly. I imagine that they're scrambling just like the rest of us to understand what Hernández would mean to them. But their inclination, in my sense, is more towards his campaign than that of Petro where they know that they are likely to clash on certain issues.

Richard 50:00
And what about on the Venezuela crisis, is there much difference between Petro and Hernández? Petro has said he’ll recognise the Maduro government, rather than recognising as president opposition politician Juan Guiadó, who the Colombian government now, Duque’s government, recognises as president, along with the U.S. and several other governments. What has Hernández said about relations with Venezuela, with Maduro?

Renata  50:25
Well, what Hernández has said is that he is going to start consular relations with Venezuela. So he hasn't said anything specifically about Maduro or Guaidó yet. And this is the same thing that Fico had said, and this is guided by an economic logic over a political logic. Essentially, business between the two countries has obviously been disrupted. And the humanitarian crisis on the border has been impacted terribly by the lack of relationships. There is no communication between the two countries, with some informal exceptions between the border states and the local governments. But in general, it has really been bad for the economy, but also for the situation of those migrants moving from Venezuela to Colombia. And the other way around when it happens. So occasionally, he has said that he's going to restart the relationship. The Consular Relations–

Richard  51:20
But isn't this sort of the way the wind is blowing in general, though, I mean, since the crisis in Ukraine, kind of wanting to get Venezuelan oil going again, U.S. diplomats have met more senior levels of the Maduro government than you know, then they have for some time. Many foreign powers are sort of moving away and see the support of Guaidó as having failed. I mean, isn't this just sort of a new reality that both Petro and Hernández are working in now?

Renata  51:48
Well we think, but the Americans have really backtracked from that initial approach to the Maduro government, in part because the reaction from Republicans and a few Democratic leaders has made them think that really doing any clear signalling that they're going to recognise Maduro would cost them politically in Florida. So the giving of the licences to Chevron or other oil companies has been really much lower than what we anticipated, after the visit to Caracas. And the pushback from Republicans and Democrats has really been strong. So for now, the clear talking points coming out of Washington is that Guaidó is the president and that's who the country is recognising. And the whole sort of chaos around the Americas Summit next week in LA, and who's coming and who's not coming clearly shows that there is a lot of ambivalence. Neither one has been invited officially, neither Giuadó nor Maduro. What is interesting, though, is that one would assume that Maduro will be happier with Petro in the presidency because he would restart proper diplomatic relationships. And it's somebody who is ideologically at least more akin to Maduro’s project, but it's clearly not necessarily the case for two reasons. One, Petro has been fairly critical of Maduro in public and Maduro has not been happy with that. People close to him have told us that he really does not like when criticisms come from the left: he can dismiss the criticisms from the U.S. or Duque in a way that you know, those are the enemies, but like when it comes from our allies, it hits him closer. But also because it has been very useful for Maduro politically to have an enemy besides the U.S., and Duque has very much been that. And Colombia has been politically very useful for Maduro to rally the forces against what is seen as unnecessary aggression from Colombia. So Petro changes the cards in that way. He will lose some of the tools that he has been using politically internally. I do think that having a country next door that is not trying to officially kick you out of government probably will be in the long-term beneficial and Maduro will find a way to work with Petro. But it has been interesting that the signals coming out of Caracas are not openly enthusiastic for Petro.

Richard  54:24
And what about more broadly in the region, what, you have AMLO that we talked about in Mexico – in principle, a left-wing populist, though as you implied Renata, he doesn’t always look so progressive even if he’s still very popular. You have a new left-wing government unexpectedly in Chile. In Brazil, potentially quite fraught elections in November but a real chance that a right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro is ousted by former president, Inácio da Silva, or “Lula”. What do the two Colombian candidates – Petro, Hernández – what do they potentially mean for this sort of polarisation that has defined Latin American geopolitics over recent years? 

Renata  55:11
Yes, I mean, I think everybody was sort of counting on a Petro win to shift the regional balance both on the Venezuela question, but in general if Lula wins in Brazil, like we're expecting in November, and Petro was to win in Colombia, then there will be a coalition of countries that are not sort of the more hardcore left problematic countries like Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba. So the hope was that these new alliances could bring both fresh air into the negotiations around the Venezuelan crisis. With Hernández, it's very unclear how that would stand. I mean, I think in some ways, he is a pragmatic man, and he would like to see stronger economic and diplomatic relations in the region. But I think he's also somebody that is looking inward more than outward. And clearly, he has said that he's going to close around 27 embassies and use the money to pay student debt. So he doesn't think diplomacy or foreign relations are very important. So I don't think that he is going to become, if he gets elected, like a regional leader, that people will be looking to. I think, in that sense, he is more like Trump, a kind of “America First”, “Colombia First” person that really will prioritise internal policies over foreign relations.

Richard  56:33
Can I end, Beth, Renata, by pushing a bit on what this vote means? On the one hand, let’s say it’s Hernández, clearly he’s an outsider, an element of unpredictability, the unknown. And yet, if he’s relying to some degree on the establishment, maybe he won’t want to rock the boat so much? Then if it’s Petro, are there also some restraints you described on how he might govern? I guess the question is – is the change going to be as seismic as it seems, what, two weeks before the run-off? 

Renata  57:15
I think it's going to be seismic, regardless of who wins. Both of the options are really a break with a way in which politics have worked in Colombia since the war, since 1957, even since the foundation of the country, which really has been around traditional political parties, very established political figures that have led the way forward. And really, these are two men that are coming to the second round not based on those traditional clientelistic networks, not really based on big political parties that are the ones doing the work, but really on opinion vote. So this is going to change the way in which politics have worked in the country, for sure. It might be seismic if Petro comes, probably more, because of the economic changes that he's hoping to do. And because of the resistance of the economic and political elites, to his agenda. I mean, there is no question that if Petro wins, there's going to be a capital flight the next day. There are multiple clauses in multinational contracts that allow the money to leave and the contracts to be void if Petro wins. There is a very clear fear from the wealthier sectors in Colombia, that are going to react to a Petro win by immediately closing lines against him. And that confrontation is going to be very difficult. In that way, an Hernández presidency might be perhaps less chaotic in its confrontation with the traditional forces, as Beth was saying, with the military forces. But I think he is a man that is really working outside of all of the patterns that we're used to and he will surprise people in multiple ways, he's not going to try to appease the traditional political parties, or the leaders of the people that have joined behind him. So he can be seismic in that, really, it might be all based on what he wants to do on a given day. And that is something that really will throw off the political system.

Beth  59:38
I think the other way that, I mean, this result in this vote could really be decisive, let's say, in terms of the direction of the country and how these candidates confront the risks that they're absolutely going to be faced with. And I'll just flag one right now, what happens right after the second round vote. You know, we have raised concerns and we were very glad to be wrong on the first round of the election, about the public believing in, having the confidence in the reliability of the electoral system, that they're not challenging the results. We’re very concerned still that either candidate could take the opportunity to claim fraud. This is in part because of errors that were made in the congressional elections that were later corrected. But that really did give the appearance that the regulatory body that manages the election did not have its act together. Now they've made changes that I think, from what we’ve seen so far, seem to have worked. The candidates in the first round all accepted that result. But this remains a risk for the second round. That's just sort of step one. When the new president takes office, they're going to be immediately faced by very high expectations on all levels. The mandate that either candidate will have in office is to tear this house down. The level of indignation with, again, this close political class is so high that there will be a very strong expectation to, you know, show results economically, to provide sort of solutions to these social frustrations, to show concrete results in targeting corruption. That's going to be a very strong expectation of the population that I think could easily reignite into another cycle of protests if it isn't listened to. Then simultaneously to that, we have all the threats to security that we discussed in the countryside that will inevitably suck some of the energy and attention out of all the rest of governance. And that's a reality that I think the candidates are going to have to face and how they do so will absolutely define the way that we go for the next four years and I think far beyond that.

Richard  1:01:34
Beth, Renata, thanks so much for coming on.

Renata  1:01:37
Thank you for having us.

Beth  1:01:38
Great to be here. Thanks!

Richard 1:01:42
Hold Your Fire! is a production of the International Crisis Group. I'm Richard Atwood. You can find all of our work on Colombia and Latin America on our website crisisgroup.org. You can also follow us on Twitter, @crisisgroup. Thanks to our producers Sam Mednick, Kevin Murphy and Finn Johnson. And thanks, of course, to all of you, to all our listeners. Please do get in touch, you can write to me directly, [email protected] or use our general address [email protected]. If you have any questions or comments, if you like the show, please do leave us a positive rating or review. And I very much hope you'll join us again next week. And we leave you with another one from the TikTok King.

Clip  1:02:24
¿Estamos melos? Sisas, sisas! (Are we good? Yeah, yeah!)


Executive Vice President
Senior Analyst, Colombia
Program Director, Latin America and Caribbean

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.