According to the Financial Times, Colombia’s current presidential election “could change Latin America” if it ends with the victory of Gustavo Petro, a former member of the M‑19, an urban guerrilla group, and confidant of the late Hugo Chávez. Petro, the FT argues, would lead “the most radical government in the country’s modern history.” Until now, Colombia has been a staunch U.S. ally in South America while avoiding Chávez’s brand of “21st century socialism.”
Petro, who is praised by his friends for his “solid Marxist foundation,” plans to ban all exploration of oil, Colombia’s main export, to expropriate the nearly $100 billion that are now saved in individual, private pension accounts, and to print money to pay for public spending, à la next‐door Venezuela.
The polls correctly predicted that Petro, a former mayor of the capital city of Bogota (2012–2015), would win the first round of voting, held last Sunday, by a wide margin. However, they failed to foresee that his opponent in a run‐off would be the unpredictable, unorthodox Rodolfo Hernández, a 77‐year‐old construction magnate whose only recent political foray was his mayorship of Bucaramanga, a medium‐sized city of 600,000 inhabitants in northeastern Colombia.
The austere Hernández, who unexpectedly came in second place with 28 percent of the vote compared to Petro’s 40 percent, addressed his followers via Facebook Live from his kitchen table. He now leads the polls.
Petro, a skilled demagogue, had recognized Hernández’s own demagogic abilities early on, inviting him to enter an alliance in which Petro, of course, would be the leader. Hernández had other ideas. Still, Petro only began to attack him during the last two weeks as a “corrupt millionaire” and a supposed “uribista,” that is, a follower of disgraced former president Álvaro Uribe. The latter’s party did not even field a candidate in the election.
Petro, who is running on an agenda of “change,” regularly denounces Colombia’s “oligarchy,” unleashing fury against the political class. The irony is that he now faces a rival who makes him look like a routine establishment pencil‐pusher. After all, Petro has spent eight years as a senator, eleven as a representative in the lower chamber of Congress, two as city councilman in the town of Zipaquirá, and two more as First Secretary of the Colombian embassy in Brussels. Not to mention his three extravagant presidential campaigns. Comically, his allies now claim that Petro is an experienced “statesman,” just when 60 percent of voters rejected his agenda for being recklessly statist.
If Hernández wins the presidency on June 19th, Colombia will have kept clear of Chávez‐inspired socialism yet again, which is not to say that Hernández, an interventionist, will implement a classical liberal agenda. As Spanish economist Juan Ramón Rallo argues, Hernández’s program contains the heavy doses of social democracy and mercantilism that are common in Colombia’s politics.
For its part, the New York Times is already branding Hernández Colombia’s Donald Trump for “his fuzzy orange hair and his businessman’s approach to politics.” But the comparison fails to consider his fiscal conservatism, which he demonstrated as mayor of Bucaramanga. Hernández also supports individual liberties and is a poignant critic of the drug war, a stance that could trigger a positive change in the country’s relations with the United States. Nor are there signs that Hernández would meddle with the constitution to prolong his stay in power, as Petro has often hinted he would do.
The impact of Hernández’s coarse style reflects citizens’ deep concerns. The country’s class of often foreign‐trained technocrats—among them current president Iván Duque, Uribe’s protégé—is about to hand over an indebted economy with double‐digit unemployment, chronically high levels of informal employment, a sharply devalued currency, and a renewed inflation problem. Frustration with the mandarins and professional politicians of all stripes could send a self‐made builder, unknown until recently, to the presidency. The current demand for change, it seems, was much stronger than Petro anticipated.