Rodolfo Hernández: Colombia as a construction project

The former mayor of Bucaramanga, a 77-year-old, multi-millionaire “outsider” with a sharp tongue and short temper, and who was broadly unknown before the presidential election campaign, has sold himself as a product ahead of Sunday’s run-off

SR. GARCÍA

Rodolfo Hernández is seeking the presidency of Colombia in the same way as he did when he was elected to the mayorship of Bucaramanga: as if he was selling a real estate project. Journalist Ruby Morales Sierra, who once worked with Hernández but later lodged a complaint against him for workplace harassment, describes him as a man with cement on the brain. She says it implacably, in the serious tone common among people born in Santander, in the northeast of Colombia. It is something that his friends repeat, in various different ways. Hernández, 77, is a pragmatist, a man who “gets things done,” and who thinks in terms of bricks and mortar.

Rodrigo Fernández met Hernández toward the end of the 1970s, when they coincided at the Santander Society of Engineers. When he looks back on that time, he is not surprised to find his erstwhile colleague among the candidates to rise to the presidency. If he was so good at his job and is a construction magnate, how was he not going to succeed in his goal of making himself electable? Hernández, says Fernández, approaches everything as though it is a construction job that he wants to sell. He sets an objective, plans, convinces people, sells it, executes it and delivers results. In his goal to become the next president of Colombia, he is at the halfway point but still lacks the most important element: convincing people. Whether he has done enough will only become apparent on June 19, when the elections are held, but Fernández thinks he is on the right track. “In the public sector he does the same thing as in construction: he plans projects and sells them to the market. He knows how to do it on time and within budget. And that, applied to public administration, works.”

The evidence in the streets of Piedecuesta, where he was born on March 26, 1945, and in the more than 18,000 houses bearing his brand in Santander. “That was the first thing he built, it was the prototype, and from there he has been constantly modifying,” says Antonio Ortiz as he points with pride to a cluster of low-build houses in a street that has been renamed Pasaje Gómez, and lists neighborhoods named for Argentinean cities: Palermo, Buenos Aires, Bariloche, Junín, La Rioja… all are scattered about the city that Hernández has been adding to in his own particular style.

Well beyond retirement age, and after amassing a fortune through construction, Hernández decided to launch a bid for the presidency. Not even his own mother can explain why. “My mother says I’m crazy,” he himself said of Cecilia Hernández Suárez during an interview. People attribute the candidate’s impulsive and choleric character to his mother. Hernández backs the fight against corruption, once admitted to being a “follower” of Adolf Hitler (which he swiftly claimed was a slip of the tongue, stating he meant Albert Einstein), says that women should remain at home and that when he assumes office, he has said he will decree what is known in Colombia as a state of internal commotion, which is essentially a state of emergency or exception.

Cecilia Hernández Suárez, Rodolfo Hernández’s mother, in her home.
Cecilia Hernández Suárez, Rodolfo Hernández’s mother, in her home. Carlos Buitrago

There isn’t a soul in Piedecuesta who does not know the story of when “Mrs. Cecilia,” as everyone calls her, ran her husband out with a revolver in her hand – she still keeps one in a drawer – or who doesn’t have an anecdote involving HG, Hernández’s construction firm. But few people talk about him before he became the multimillionaire businessman he is today. His fortune is estimated at $100 million. Two of his businesses are located in La Florida, in Colombia’s southeast, where he tends to spend most of his time. Until recently he owned five properties there.

Hernández’s mother owned a sugar mill and is father was the village tailor. He studied civil engineering in Bogotá and started out as a builder in the 1970s, working on the main park in Piedecuesta, and he now thinks of Colombia as one huge construction project that has yet to be built, replacing one that he believes must be swept away because it was built on “the thievery of the corrupt,” as he often says.

A white prefabricated house measuring 60 square meters, which resembles a freight container, represents Hernández’s proposal for the country’s poorest residents (“work with the poor and you will become rich” is a phrase attributed to him). It is a modest construction. It is a modest construction that people visit as though they were potential buyers. Inside, a man hands over three pieces of paper and explains: “My fortune is this house that Rodolfo has put forward so that people stay in the countryside. There will be a health and cultural center in Ópera, and the Justice City (a farm of 5,000 square meters), where he plans to transfer the prisoners.”

Fifteen minutes away, in an opulent area surrounded by trees, is Hernández’s country retreat. A huge sculpture of a dog and a mural bearing a woman’s face adorn the façade of the property, which is guarded by police. Ever since Hernández said his life was in danger and that he would be “stabbed,” without providing any evidence of a threat, a group of agents was assigned to look after the property. Inside is the kitchen where he gave a speech when he secured his place in the second round of the presidential election. Hernández embraced the virtual world before it became the prevailing trend during the pandemic. Former employees say that in order to avoid expenditure, which he sees as unnecessary, such as travel and per diems, he asked his workers to do everything remotely.

Police guard the country retreat of presidential candidate Rodolfo Hernández in Piedecuesta.
Police guard the country retreat of presidential candidate Rodolfo Hernández in Piedecuesta. NATHALIA ANGARITA

Together with his brothers, he founded the League of Anti-Corruption Rulers, whose symbology and principles do not match the style that Hernández has shown to Colombia in his run for the presidency. The number π (Pi) and the slogan “Logic, Ethics and Esthetics” adorns all of the candidate’s electoral publicity. The brain behind Hernández’s political rise was that of his brother, the philosopher Gabriel Hernández. With this ideology, Hernández was elected mayor of Bucaramanga in 2015. However, a few months later Gabriel distanced himself from his brother, and it remains a mystery exactly as to why. “As of six years ago I took the decision to remain in absolute and total anonymity to be able to keep the hybris under control and thus make headway in my philosophical analyses,” he replied via email to a request from EL PAÍS for an interview.

Ruby Morales participated in that campaign. She says she drew up Hernández’s governmental plan and now regrets having done so. “Rodolfo is like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He is one person campaigning and another when in administration. He is a voluble and erratic man,” she says. Morales’ voice is well-known in Colombia after an audio tape in which the former mayor is heard shouting at her and threatening to fire her was leaked. “I wipe my ass with the law,” Hernández is heard saying.

The engineer, as he likes to be called, has come under scrutiny for handing out checks among the city’s poorest inhabitants and for promising to build 20,000 houses if he was elected mayor. His commitment was to provide low-income families with a housing option and to build them with good designs because, as he likes to say, “the poor deserve the best,” but it didn’t quite work out like that. The same thing happened years earlier, with another project for the “poor,” which didn’t exactly deliver what Hernández had promised. The beneficiaries were given the option to but the houses because Hernández’s company, HG, facilitated loans to do so, but the buildings were only half-finished, completed on the outside but with exposed bricks and unfinished floors inside.

 Journalist Ruby Morales in Bucaramanga.
Journalist Ruby Morales in Bucaramanga. NATHALIA ANGARITA

The fight against corruption

With this vision of enterprise and austerity, a majority of Hernández’s former civil servants say he did a good job as mayor of Bucaramanga. “He cleaned up the books and left a surplus in the bank,” says Ciro Gamboa. That is his main selling point as he goes up against Gustavo Petro in Sunday’s vote and he often repeats the mantra: “No stealing, no lying and no betrayal.” However, even as he flies the flag for anti-corruption, Hernández stands accused of illegally awarding a waste management contract in El Carrasco. But that is only a drop in the ocean of a wider scandal known as Vitalogic, which involves his son and the payment of a seven-figure commission.

A local journalist, who preferred to remain anonymous, says that under Hernández “Bucaramanga had its most disastrous mayorship to date.” Hernández’s relationship with the press is tense. Although he likes to appear in the news, he prefers only to talk to those who applaud him. “His management was non-existent and approved only by journalists who crafted his image as an old-school front man,” says the journalists, who sums up Hernández’s administration of the capital of Santander as a string of high-profile scandals, viral goings-on, rudeness and populism. The audio tapes that have come to light in the final stretch of the presidential race support the journalist’s view. Hernández has been in the newspapers more for his fits of rage than for anything he achieved while he was running Bucaramanga. In one audio leaked to the press, Hernández tells a subordinate to file a document for a project, even though the regulations require a different one. “The regulations can say what they like. The law doesn’t matter!” Hernández yells.

With a touch of humor, local journalists say that when they manage to secure an interview with Hernández, they prefer not to sit too close to the candidate as he is liable to have an outburst and throw pens at their heads. Without a trace of humor, Jhon Claro, the councilor who was on the other end of an infamous slap from the mayor, recounts the episode. The two had met to discuss a local matter, but when Claro had the temerity to mention his son’s legal issues, which will go o a trial on July 21, Hernández flew into a rage and hit him. Hernández’s own cameras recorded the whole incident.

Another journalist lays out three reasons for Hernández’s political success, which has taken him to the gates of the presidential palace. He says what people want to hear; he makes promises he can’t keep, but which win people over, and he has an excellent hand for social media. Hernández, who is known as the “king of TikTok,” has promised to end corruption and told Colombians who have never been able to afford to see the country’s beaches that they will do so under his presidency.

Supporters of Hernández doing voluntary campaign work in Bucaramanga.
Supporters of Hernández doing voluntary campaign work in Bucaramanga.NATHALIA ANGARITA

Selling a product

Hernández is convinced he will become president on July 19 and that he will do so with 15 million votes. He has named his campaign headquarters Casa Nariño, the same as the presidential palace in Bogotá. From this colonial house in Bucaramanga, he sells himself as a product. His followers come by to pick up hats, shirts and other items of campaign publicity. But they don’t get them for free. Voters have to dig into their pockets to align themselves with the Rodolfo Hernández brand. “Rodolfo Hernández is a very good product and we sell it,” says his press secretary Luisa Fernanda Olejua Pico.

“He has proven adept at winning the affection of his compatriots,” says Isabel Ortiz, who didn’t know much about Hernández until he hired her as an advisor on gender issues when he was in office in Bucaramanga, where part of her job was smoothing over the mayor’s various gaffes. “If there is a negative point to Rodolfo it is his use of language; he is quick to praise himself and he doesn’t think before he speaks. At times I had to tell him: ‘Mr, Mayor, you can’ talk about women like that, you can’t talk about sex workers like that.’ Years have gone by but he keeps coming out with these kinds of comments,” Ortiz says, adding that she never had an argument with Hernández or was insulted by him.

Of Hernández’s private life, people only know what he has chosen to reveal. He has married to Socorro Oliveros for decades and he has four children. Two were adopted early on in the marriage as the couple were unsure if they could conceive. The most mysterious chapter of Hernández’s personal biography involves Juliana, the only girl, who according to her father was kidnapped by National Liberation Army guerrillas in 2004, although Hernández initially blamed the FARC. He has said recently that she was killed, although her body has never been found. It is a subject he responds to with tears, and occasionally laughter, as during an interview with journalist Jaime Bayly in Miami this week.

Rodolfo Hernández has positioned himself as a product, as a candidate who has arrived to fill a gap in the political market and to bring together the weariness of Colombians toward the ruling class through his own voice. Hernández presents himself as an outsider, but his trajectory paints him more as a builder who wants to turn Colombia into a business project.

Campaign publicity at Hernández’s headquarters, which the candidate gave the same name as the presidential palace in Bogotá.
Campaign publicity at Hernández’s headquarters, which the candidate gave the same name as the presidential palace in Bogotá. NATHALIA ANGARITA

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