Sergio Fajardo before his last attempt

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Sergio Fajardo is committed to the streets of Colombia. One more time, one last try. That has been the political school of teacher, as he likes to be called. Without giving up, the center’s candidate in the presidential elections on May 29 is running a marathon campaign, as he has been accustomed since he changed the academy for public service, more than 20 years ago. City by city, neighborhood by neighborhood, the former governor of Antioquia is dedicated to flyeras leafleting is known –frills- and spontaneous exchange with voters. He seeks to publicize his speech, which emphasizes education, trust and decency. He claims to embody the true option for change, “without fear or anger”, and is running to end the “trap” of polarization represented by rivals who, on the left and right, outperform him in the polls. Using metaphors borrowed from cycling, the sport that has forged his character, he assures that he is going to “come back” in a campaign that has been uphill for him, off the hook from the leaders. “You have to pedal with all your strength, without looking to the sides.”

One Friday at the end of April, in one of those flyers In the streets that surround the central square of Palmira, a hot city near Cali, in western Colombia, he is indistinctly approached to ask questions by street vendors or uniformed nursing students. In jeans and a blue shirt, without a belt, Fajardo is always preceded by a very discreet security scheme. A pensioner questions him about his proposal, which includes support of 500,000 pesos, about 125 dollars, for older adults who do not have a pension. A band animates the old chant of “a professor/a professor/a professor president”, in the midst of the jumble of colors that represents the forces grouped in the Hope Center Coalition, undermined by their numerous disagreements. After overcoming their differences, they now pedal in a synchronized way for their candidate, from the Green Alliance to the red of the New Liberalism. But time is running out.

Fajardo (Medellín, 65 years old) briefly enters shops, smiles, takes photos with supporters – many of them older women – and answers everyone, without stopping walking and handing out brochures. The light rain does not stop him from passing. Although he confesses to being shy and modest, in the streets he transforms himself until he becomes self-assured and extroverted. A paradox in the unusual political career of this doctor of mathematics from the University of Wisconsin. “He is a genius for flyer”, says one of his collaborators. “He loves stoplights,” murmurs another. Even the occasional insult from a passer-by fits him with grace. It is the first of the two days in which this newspaper accompanied Fajardo in different campaign activities in the department of Valle del Cauca. From a breakfast with micro-entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs to a massive national meeting of women, going through a lunch in a gallery, as market places are known in Cali. There he ate pork chops and toasted the eventual comeback.

In the middle, the flyering house brand. From the survey of the streets, the teacher it comes off well. “I was born privileged, but in politics I have been a proletarian,” he says shortly afterwards in one of several conversations with EL PAÍS, between one activity and another. Fajardo is the son of a renowned architect who built some of Medellín’s most emblematic landmarks, such as the Coltejer building, and of a strict and religious mother. He has learned to read faces, likes to listen carefully, and at events he often takes notes, although he doesn’t use his notes when giving a speech, he always prepares. As a teacher, he points to it, he has never come with a sheet or read in a class. He does not do it now in the electoral debates either. He still retains gestures from his academic life.

Sergio Fajardo hands out flyers in Medellin.FAJARDO PRESS

“Colombia is going to change,” he repeats like a mantra. “We are the change that knows how to build,” he usually adds immediately after to distinguish himself from the leftist Gustavo Petro, the leader in the polls. Both proposals contrast with that of Federico phyco Gutiérrez, the least critical candidate against the unpopular Government of Iván Duque. While Petro has been dedicated to massive events in the public square since last year, Fajardo favors direct conversations, without intermediaries, because he believes in one-on-one. I feel like this builds trust. “I learned to listen, which is not usually a virtue of the intellectual world. One of the most exciting parts of politics is listening to people,” he maintains. With that method he reached the mayor’s office of Medellin and the government of Antioquia, but the flyering runs into limits when it comes to a national campaign. Therefore, he has stepped out of his comfort zone. The teacher is also recognized as an enthusiastic learner.

Fajardo began the year as Petro’s persecutor in the polls, but fell after the consultations that catapulted the right to phyco Gutiérrez, another former mayor of Medellín. After the center alliance emerged weakened from that kind of primaries, by far the least voted of the three large blocks, it has risen several times to launch harangues on a platform since March 30, when it appeared for the first time in the middle of a shower of confetti in a theater in Bogotá to start “the comeback”. Something unprecedented for him. “I am finding pleasure in it, it has been a good way of connecting with people”, he values. Although his new strategy is not yet reflected in opinion polls – in some he even falls to fourth place, behind Rodolfo Hernández – Fajardo does not give his arm to twist.

“I have been coming back all my life, and we have always come back when we have proposed it. We are more, we are articulated, we have experience and we are spreading throughout the territory”, argues Fajardo, with the conviction that it is possible to resume the momentum. “We are making a new, ingenious campaign, using the digital world, with other types of political expressions, and we are calling, calling, calling. That is the recipe, there is no other”. Forged in the school of citizen movements that earned him improbable electoral victories, he recognizes the social unrest that has catapulted Petro. He knows that the country is angry, afraid and dissatisfied. “When the glass is full, societies change”, he points out. “We are capable of making a transformation to build, the only ones who can say today in Colombia that we fight against corruption,” he defends. “We can make education, science and knowledge the engine of transformation.”

In Cali he is accompanied by former Minister of the Environment Luis Gilberto Murillo, his vice-presidential formula, who comes from Chocó, also in the Pacific region, as well as several of the most recognized faces of the coalition, such as Senator Jorge Enrique Robledo, journalist Mabel Lara or the members of the green in the department. Carlos Fernando Galán, the youngest of the sons of the murdered political leader Luis Carlos Galán, part of the reborn New Liberalism, assures that the only one who can beat Petro is Fajardo. According to his reading, while the country wants a change, Federico Gutiérrez represents the continuation of the reasons that caused the social explosion last year. “If Fico goes to the second round, Petro grinds him down,” he reasons as he hands out flyers shoulder to shoulder with Fajardo on fifth street. “Someone who has a viable proposal is required to process this social nonconformity, not a person who adds fuel to the fire, nor one who denies the situation, and the only one who represents that is Fajardo.”

The teacher He has accumulated both triumphs and falls since he became mayor in 2004, in his second attempt, with the highest vote at the time and against the polls. “The transformation of Medellín is due to his charisma, his unfailing honesty and his incredible capacity for mental order and tireless work,” writes Héctor Abad Faciolince in the prologue to The power of decency his political autobiography. “This city went from being the world capital of cocaine and the most violent city in the world, the most fearful, to being a symbol of change, renewal and hope,” says the writer from Antioquia.

Candidate Sergio Fajardo during an event with women in Cali.
Candidate Sergio Fajardo during an event with women in Cali.FAJARDO PRESS

Cali, with plenty of parallels, was one of the first places that Fajardo’s administration looked to as a source of inspiration. Congresswoman Catalina Ortiz, from the Alianza Verde, who has been by her side for 18 years, says that when he began to visit the capital of Valle del Cauca, she connected as much with the middle class as in any popular neighborhood. “The interesting thing is that outside of Bogotá, and of course Antioquia, where that political sowing has borne fruit is here,” she values ​​during the flyering on fifth street. The comeback of the center depends on a robust exhibition in Bogotá, Medellín and Cali, the most populated cities in Colombia. Fajardo’s potential in other key regions, such as the Caribbean coast, is uncertain. “People are very angry, indignant, imputed. I have the aspiration that he will recognize that the change we propose is real change, it is not a shout, but something possible and full of achievements”, says Ortiz.

The chant of the “professor president” goes back to the times of his first presidential aspiration, which ended in the call green wave, that political and citizen movement that in 2010 took him to the second presidential round as number two for Antanas Mockus, in which they lost to Juan Manuel Santos. In Mockus, twice mayor of Bogotá, he had found an example to launch himself into public service at the turn of the century. In addition, they share a similar life trajectory: both were trained in mathematics and were teachers until they were 40 years old. “Mathematics has served me in life to solve problems,” explains the candidate.

In the middle of that campaign, Fajardo fell off his bike and his left hip splintered. He remembers convalescence as one of the hardest stages of his life, which he went through with the help of his children Alejandro and Mariana, both from his first marriage, who usually accompany him on his electoral adventures. In both cycling and politics, victory helps heal wounds. After the hangover green wave, Fajardo won the elections for governor of Antioquia with the two flags that he has always raised: education as the engine of social transformation and the change in the way of doing politics to end corruption. As one arrives, one governs, is one of his maxims.

His biggest argument for invoking a comeback now is the precedent of four years ago, when he obtained more than 4.5 million votes in the first round and was only 250,000 behind Petro, who disputed the second round with President Duque. The polls then did not capture Fajardo’s rise in the final stretch. After that defeat, he considered retiring from electoral politics, while Petro has been campaigning for almost four years. After a talk with the late economist Guillermo Perry, a friend and adviser of his, he was convinced to stay in the race. He is now advised by another renowned economist, José Antonio Ocampo. He also whispers in his ear his partner, María Ángela Holguín, chancellor during the entire Government of Santos (2010-2018). “She grows in the face of adversity,” the diplomat describes.

Allergic to any kind of ostentation, Fajardo does not fly in a private plane. For the journey that brings him back from Cali to Bogotá, one more among the copious displacements of an intense campaign, he stands in line or waits for his luggage like any other traveler, despite the rush of the campaign. He wears shirt again and jeans, no belt, always no belt or tie, as usual. As you pass the security filter, the metal detector turns on the red light and you must stop to be checked. It’s the plaque he’s had on his hip since the cycling accident that took him out of the 2010 campaign and forced him to walk with a cane for a year and a half. “The time I gain by not having a leash, I lose by the prosthesis,” he jokes about that routine, serene and unflappable.

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