Manuel Rueda/The World
Before Jonathan Pulido Hernandez was elected to Colombia’s Senate this year, he wasn’t really involved in politics. The 30-year-old social media influencer was making a living from his viral YouTube videos, where he railed against corruption and wasteful government spending.
Now, as a senator for the center-left Green Party, Hernandez is proposing a bill that would reduce the salaries of Colombia’s members of Congress by 30%. And he continues to make YouTube videos where he tries to convince his peers to forgo some of the luxuries they get from the government, like bullet-proof cars and brand new iPhones.
“We have to close this gap that divides the Congress from the people,” he said. “And prove that we aren’t here to get rich, but to serve.”
Manuel Rueda/The World
During the pandemic, poverty rates soared in Colombia, and large protests broke out around the country last year after the government tried to increase taxes.
Several members of Congress now say it's time to take pay cuts in order to show some restraint with public funds and connect more with the people they represent.
“I know that lowering the wages of legislators will not fix problems like poverty or violence,” Hernandez said in his Senate office, where he’s set up an editing studio with lights for shooting his YouTube videos.
“But we know that these high wages bother people, and we want to send a message that we are here to do things differently.”
Manuel Rueda/The World
Most workers in Colombia currently live off the nation’s minimum wage, which is worth less than $250 a month. Members of Congress currently get a monthly salary of about $8,700, meaning that in just one day, they earn more than what a regular Colombian makes in an entire month.
It’s one of the largest gaps anywhere in the world between politicians and regular workers. And it has generated anger and resentment toward Colombia’s Congress, an institution whose image has already been tarnished by multiple corruption scandals.
“It’s something that exacerbates the bad popularity of the Congress,” said Yan Basset, a political science professor at Bogotá’s Rosario University. “It’s not the main problem, but it's something that crystallizes public opinion against the members of the Congress.”
But convincing political leaders in Colombia to take pay cuts has been an almost impossible task.
Left-wing Sen. Gustavo Bolivar said that over the past four years, he’s proposed three different bills to reduce the salaries of Colombian legislators. None has succeeded.
“I’ve had colleagues tell me they need the money because they have to pay off debts from their campaigns,” Bolivar told his followers recently in a YouTube video.
He added that many of his peers simply abstained from voting on salary reductions, because they argued it posed a “conflict of interest.”
Now, Bolivar is proposing a less-ambitious plan that would reduce wages in 2026, when a new congressional term begins.
“The only way we can get this done is to cut a deal with the majority,” he said.
But Hernandez insists that it’s possible to change things now. To put pressure on his peers, he’s turned to YouTube and other platforms, where he has almost 2 million followers.
In a video published last month, Hernandez said that Colombians would soon know who is willing to take pay cuts and “listen to the will of the people.”
He then proceeded to publish lists and photos of legislators who endorsed his bill in order to embarrass those who didn’t, and expose them to public ire.
The stunt was widely covered in local media outlets, and it angered some members of Congress who accused Hernandez of being a populist and an “online bully.”
But Hernandez said he has faith in his social media strategy. In his office, he has hung a golden plaque that he got from YouTube when he reached 1 million followers on that site.
“There are congresswomen who told me they were against my bill,” Hernandez said. “But they endorsed it anyway, [be]cause they said I have exposed them to too much public scrutiny.”
If Hernandez succeeds, Colombia would become the third country in South America where legislators have recently taken pay cuts — after Chile and Ecuador.
While his bill is debated, the senator said that he will donate a third of his monthly salary to charity. And he’s already posted a video on YouTube that shows him traveling by boat to an impoverished Colombian village where he donates boxes of food and bottles of drinking water to dozens of people who live in small wooden huts.
“I don’t care if they call me a populist,” Hernandez said.
“I will continue to do what is convenient for the people. And what the people are expecting of us.”
The story you just read is available to read for free because thousands of listeners and readers like you generously support our nonprofit newsroom. Every day, the reporters and producers at The World are hard at work bringing you relevant, fact-based and human-centered news from across the globe. But we can’t do it without you: We need your support to ensure we can continue this work for another year.
Make your gift of $100 or pledge $10 monthly, and we’ll thank you on The World’s podcast in early 2023. And every gift will get us one step closer to our goal.