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Good Enough Is Not Enough

Guillermo Legaria—AFP/Getty Images Trying to hold on, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos talks to voters at a campaign rally in the capital, Bogotá

Great expectations are at the root of discontent across Latin America

Brazilian football is one of Latin America’s most revered traditions. And yet, as the World Cup gets under way in the country, it is unclear whether the tournament will be a success, with the threat of protests hanging over the games. Meanwhile, in Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos has over the past four years proved himself to be one of the region’s most competent leaders. But ahead of a presidential runoff vote on June 15, his victory is far from assured; Santos is locked in a dead heat with his challenger, Óscar Iván Zuluaga. Though the two might appear to have little in common, the World Cup and Colombian elections have been marked by a rising tide of frustration, born of the inflated expectations of recent years.

Santos came to office in Colombia with promises of security, peace and economic growth. And although the economy has grown faster than many others in the region, the expansion has been slower than needed to create enough jobs, improve infrastructure and raise living standards. He addressed previous governments’ human-rights violations, making many people happy. Many, however, were unhappy when he finalized a free-trade agreement with the U.S., setting off widespread protests last year. But most important, he staked all his political capital on negotiating peace and disarmament with FARC, the violent, retrograde but powerful guerrilla group that has been locked in conflict with the Colombian government for four decades. Peace talks began in Cuba four years ago, initially in secret, and have advanced adequately, though not at the speed Santos expected.

The slow pace gave Álvaro Uribe—Santos’ predecessor and the country’s most popular politician, who backs Zuluaga and opposes any deal with FARC—time to mobilize public opinion against the negotiations. With so many Colombians wary of any deal that might include amnesty for the insurgents’ leaders, and FARC unlikely to lay down arms without such an arrangement, Santos’ opponents transformed the first round of the presidential election into a referendum on the negotiations. The result: he lost by 3.6%.

Over in Brazil, the World Cup and the Olympic Games, planned for 2016, are the greatest symbols of the ruling Workers’ Party’s three presidential terms. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was President for two terms until 2011, and his successor, Dilma Rousseff, believed that holding the world’s two most important sports events would underline Brazil’s new status as a rising world power. But it hasn’t turned out that way.

The economy stalled in 2011 and has stagnated since. Tens of millions joined the middle class over the past decade as the country, with its sizable stocks of iron, oil and other natural resources, rode the global boom in commodities. Brazilians believed their country was on the way to prosperity. But its march was halted as soaring commodity prices came back to earth, and China and others cut back on their commodity imports.

The result: a tiny increase in public-transport fares in São Paulo last June detonated a wave of protests throughout Brazil that went way beyond their original cause. It did not take long for the country’s shoddy public services—in education, health, law and order, and transportation—to become the focus of the demonstrations. All this, protesters fumed, in return for Latin America’s highest tax take. It rankled that the government was spending billions of dollars on football stadiums.

Only a few years ago, a huge majority of Brazilians were in favor of holding the World Cup in their country. That number has now dropped to 50%—an astounding figure for a country so obsessed with football. Opponents of Rousseff, who is due to stand for re-election in October, say they want the Brazilian team to lose, hope that protests disrupt the games and that Brazil’s image withers even more as a result of an organizational debacle.

Like Uribe’s supporters in Colombia, they are wrong. Brazil and Colombia will be far better off with a successful World Cup in the former and another term for Santos in the latter. But the mere fact that both outcomes are in doubt says much about the heightened expectations of people in the two countries—and, indeed, in much of Latin America.

Castañeda, a former Foreign Minister of Mexico, is a global distinguished professor at New York University

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