MEXICO CITY – The conventional wisdom in Latin America is that the combination of economic growth, representative democracy, and middle-class expansion has led the region into a trap, with citizens’ expectations rising faster than governments’ ability to fulfill them. The frustrated middle classes, together with traditional sectors, stage demonstrations and riots, and vote out unresponsive governments. But few expected this tide of frustration to threaten Latin America’s most competent president, Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, or one of its most revered traditions, Brazilian soccer.
Santos has governed Colombia boldly and effectively for four years. He not only ratified a free-trade agreement with the United States and addressed previous governments’ human-rights violations; he also stuck to his guns on important reforms, despite large-scale protests by students, teachers, peasants, and business owners last year. While the economy has not grown fast enough to meet the country’s needs, it has performed better than many others in the region.
Most important, Santos staked his political capital on negotiating peace and disarmament with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – the powerful guerrilla group (often characterized as a “narco-guerrilla”movement) that has been wreaking havoc on the country for four decades. While some progress had been made since peace talks began in Cuba three years ago, the negotiations were moving along slowly, giving opponents like Álvaro Uribe, Santos’s predecessor, ample time to mobilize public opinion against the talks.
Taking advantage of widespread opposition to amnesty for FARC leaders – a concession that would be an essential component of any deal – Santos’s rivals transformed the first round of the election into a referendum on the negotiations. Santos lost by nearly five percentage points.