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What does “Rodolfo”, the Colombian outsider, represent?

One lesson of this first round is that the majority of Colombians prefer anything, literally anything, to continuism. Federico Gutiérrez, the candidate of the Government, the clans, and the heaviest “machinery”, was therefore mercilessly punished. As Sergio Fajardo never knew how to embody the spirit of change, his failure was thunderous and, of course, deserved. That left, then, Gustavo Petro and Rodolfo Hernández. Both, in their own way, are the change. After the elections, and in view of the difficult scenario for Petro’s second round, many now want to see in “Rodolfo” the plan C of Uribism and a simple scenario, again, of left against right. I think they are wrong. Let me explain.

Hernández may now receive the support of Uribism (related to Uribe’s right-wing political project). In fact, he has already received the blessing of Paloma Valencia and María Fernanda Cabal. Undoubtedly, Uribismo will support “Rodolfo”. This does not mean, however, that Hernández is, from the beginning, a hidden Uribist token. He lacks much more organic links with those networks and their resources.

The pro-Uribe government mobilized, with complete brazenness, in favor of Federico, and never in favor of Hernández. In his language of a great statesman, the latter referred to Iván Duque, also, among other thoughtful pronouncements, as “that son of a b…who has ruined us”.  His votes are, in good part, against the corruption of a pro-Uribe government. The continuity chip was the mediocre Federico, and he has already left the board. The message of “Rodolfo”, sincere or not, has a lot of “anti-establishment” and, due to its regional origin, “anti-centralism” and “anti-elitism”. That is why he got to where he did.

The fact that now, in the second round scenario, Hernandez must become a friend of his adversary’s enemies is not enough to label him as having already been what he will probably become in the immediate future. The good news of this May 29, abstracting new chapters of this story, is that Uribism, and the whole establishment, suffered a fulminating electoral defeat.

The 14.5 million votes for Petro and Rodolfo are votes against a hegemonic project and a way of making politics extremely worn out. The majority are fed up with the Uribist right-wing and the political “machineries”. To put it simply: one thing is how “Rodolfo” will have to tacitly align himself with what he claimed to hate in order to win, and another thing is why it is he, and not alias Federico, who became Petro’s contender. Hernández, for voters, does represent a change from the Uribe’s right-wing project.

Now, given that “change” is a neutral term with multiple possible directions, the question is what it might mean for Hernández’s followers and how to describe this colorful character in the ideological spectrum. Some conceptual distinctions are relevant here.

In his well-worn book about the right and the left, Norberto Bobbio introduces a useful distinction between two types of center: the center as an “Included Third” and an “Inclusive Third”. The former is represented by Fajardism (related to Sergio Fajardo) with its “neither one nor other”. Here the center is defined as “third” because of its equidistance from the extremes or its “lukewarmness”. The second is the center as a “synthesis” of them with “both one and the other”.

Hernández, from my perspective, embodies the latter type. “Rodolfo” represents, on the one hand, the patriarchal and authoritarian country, and, on the other hand, the anti-corruption, pro-peace and anti-inequality country that helped by a clever businessman intends to catch up on its social debt. It is not a question here of exploiting neutrality, but of integrating the extremes. The task is the responsibility of an old “fox”, cantankerous, vulgar, rabble-rousing, and – by Colombian standards – “bonachón” (good-natured).

As an illustration, if you review, the history and the ideologists of the conservative revolution in pre-Hitler Germany, you find that these were not simply right-wing movements. The “red-baiting” positions and the idea of “national-Bolshevism”, represented by authors such as Moeller van den Bruck, Ernst Niekisch, or Karl Otto Paetel, were undoubtedly aimed at crushing communism from an authoritarian and nationalist perspective, but, at the same time, they welcomed popular mobilization and, above all, their demands for social justice.

The official name of Nazism, “National Socialism,” reveals this hybridization of right and left within the anti-elitist cult of “the people.” “Das deutsche Volk…”, Hitler repeatedly bellowed. It was again about the center as “superior third” or “inclusive”. I am not arguing with this absurd reasoning that Rodolfo Hernández is a Nazi, but I am arguing that his position, unlike the dichotomous world of a certain Petrism (related to Gustavo Petro), is not simply right-wing.

Perhaps when Hernández said he was a “follower” of the “great German thinker Adolf Hitler” (he later apologized with the strange excuse that he was thinking of Einstein), he was unconsciously revealing his vague intention to amalgamate, in a Colombian key, the virtues of the left and the right.

Back to the point: the change, in “Rodolfo’s” terms, is the integration of the authoritarian-patriarchal mentality with elements of a progressive and (discursively) anti-elitist agenda via “managerial skill”. It sounds odd, but it is not implausible. It sounds improbable, but the improbable is also real. Ideological coherence is not an important criterion for effective collective desires. What is important, in this framework, is to condense desires.

Petro, however, only represents to the electorate the progressive agenda: rights of ethnic and sexual minorities, listening to the peasant struggles, fighting the extractivist economic model, sympathy with the student movement and the young slum dwellers murdered in the first semester of 2021, etc. 

Many Colombians, however, want a new paterfamilias, one just as rabid, but purified, without serious faults, and, at the same time, a leader with social sensitivity and capable of striking, also with rage, at the “establishment”. That is “Rodolfo”. Here the change has a part of novelty and a part of “restoration”, with its updated repetition of the original.

Defeating Hernández means, for Petro, taking away credibility from the left side of his integrating centrism and exploiting to the maximum the incoherence between an anti-corruption discourse and the de facto support of corrupt political blocs. But Petro loses, in any case, in a cultural terrain that is difficult to modify and spread: that of our still predominant representations of “authority”. 

Politics, however, is a matter of tactics and strategy. Nothing is a foregone conclusion. Petro has three weeks left to better market his option for change and make timely alliances. Time is short.

Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva


Professor and researcher at the Iberoamericana University (Mexico City). PhD. in Political Science from FLACSO-Mexico. Specialized in republican institutional history in Cuba, political transition and democratization.


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