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What a difference a decade makes in Brazil

Ten years ago Brazil was beginning to enjoy the financial boom from China’s growing appetite for commodities and raw materials. The two countries were a natural fit. Brazil had what Beijing needed – iron ore, beef, soybeans, etc. and China had what Brasilia desperately wanted – foreign exchange to address budget deficits and cost overruns on major infrastructure projects. It was a marriage made in heaven – for four or five years. Then the financial crisis exploded in 2008-2009, demand in China dropped, and Brazil did not have alternative markets. Indeed, the emphasis on commodity and raw materials exports had a negative impact on industrial activity.

There was an important window in the mid-2000s for the government of President Lula da Silva. The emerging budget surpluses could – should – have been used for long overdue investments in pollution and environmental controls, an extension of the metro, hotels, and well trained personnel to deal with the “God is a Brazilian moment” – Brazil won the bid for the World Cup Finals in 2014 and for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

The Soccer finals were relatively successful save for the fact that the country is now saddled with very expensive, underused stadiums in many remote regions of the country. The cost overruns were of concern as well. But God being a Brazilian, the World Cup was then, this is now. And the very important difference is that the Olympics would be concentrated in Rio de Janeiro, and not across Brazil. But we discovered that the traditional Brazilian “wishful thinking” kicked in. Yes, we need to extend the metro to Barra, the area in which most of the activities will be played, but….  Indeed, the decade’s old hope of cleaning up Guanabara Bay and the lake in the middle of the city, to prepare for the boating and swimming events, remained elusive. There was confusion over jurisdiction – municipal, state, or federal?

With national morale low it now remains to be seen if “muddle through” will again characterize the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Image CC BY 2.0 via Pixabay
Brazil patriot flag by luni39. Public domain via Pixabay.

Brazil became distracted by the massive corruption scandal that laid low the state oil company, Petrobras. Accusations of bribes, kick-backs, and related shenanigans emerged in force. The recently re-elected President, Dilma Rousseff, was in danger of being impeached, and was suspended from office while the process meandered through Congress. Unemployment and inflation were up; investment was down. Trade was lackluster. Most of the major construction companies were involved and that slowed much of the infrastructure work needed to make the Olympics a success.

In 2016 crime and gang violence increased. Security issues were suddenly a priority. State and municipal authorities were bankrupt. There was no money for gasoline for police cars. Salaries were delayed. A jihadist threat emerged. Some of the new infrastructure collapsed – shoddy engineering or bad luck? Ticket sales to the various Olympic venues were mediocre. Public opinion polls indicated that many Brazilians did not favor the Games at all.

There was much discussion of whether or not international games actually benefitted the host country. The hidden costs could be enormous, specialists argued. In the middle of a major financial crisis, did Brazil need to spend as much for what is viewed as a middle-upper middle-class activity – in contrast to the Soccer finals that were wildly enthusiastic with the average Brazilian? Soccer was not called “o jogo bonito” (the beautiful game) for nothing.

A week or so before the opening of the Games, it was announced that the metro to Barra should be functional, more or less. Then it emerged that international teams arriving for the Games would not accept their assigned housing in the Olympic village. The Australians, and others, complained that the toilets did not flush, ventilation was poor, and poor construction offered other hazards. The Mayor of Rio, in an intemperate moment, said that he might place a kangaroo in front the of the Australians hotel. The Olympic authorities rushed to correct the deficiencies but the publicity was negative and widespread. What had gone wrong? Hubris, perhaps. Was President Lula overly confident that the country could make the needed investments to host two world sporting events? Did the spreading corruption scandals sap the planning dynamics needed to meet the challenges?

In hindsight the 2015 Soccer finals were fine even though Brazil did poorly on the field. Incredibly proud of their Soccer prowess over the decades, the lackluster performance of the national team did not lift the spirits of the Brazilian public. It now remains to be seen if “muddle through” will again characterize the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. And, for the foreseeable future, it does not appear that Brazil will be bidding for any other international sporting events.

Featured image credit: Christ the Redeemer by danilarrifotografia0. Public domain via Pixabay

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