Three years ago the Confederations Cup became a uniting point for a frustrated society; but now the Olympics are the forgotten backdrop for a country fragmented and in chaos, writes Ewan MacKenna
Better known for his homophobic slurs and Mad Men attitude to women, a month ago Jair Bolsonaro took to the microphone in his role as a congressman in the Brazilian senate. In the middle of an eight-hour session to try and impeach president Dilma Rousseff, where every member of the house had a say as well a vote, the nation knew he’d be going to the yes side but didn’t expect him to take it so much further. A representative for Rio de Janeiro, he dedicated his decision to Carlos Brilhante Ustra, a colonel who lead an infamous torture operation during the dictatorship that included the torture of Rousseff herself for three years after her 1970 capture.
Aides to Rousseff, who was watching proceedings at home at the time, say she tightly grabbed the arms of her chair before leaving in silence.
For some, like Bolsonaro, the successful efforts to remove her have been personal. Indeed his son dedicated his own yes vote to the military leaders behind the ’64 coup, while behind him other jovial, well-rounded congressmen held aloft signs that read, “See ya, sweetie”. But for others this has been about business, or more precisely the business of power, money and huge greed.
Like Raquel Muniz who screamed from the floor that the president must go to rid the nation of corruption and that her home city had shown the way in its honesty, only to return home and find her husband, the mayor, had been arrested for corruption. Like the new, replacement president Michel Temer, a man himself who is involved in a corruption scandal and could face his own impeachment but is still more famous for his beauty pageant wife on whom he has 43 years and started dating when she was 17. Like Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of the senate who in recent days was finally suspended after a request from the attorney general, but who still tried to work a deal with Temer so the investigation into the €3.4m some say he received in kickbacks is dropped and forgotten.
In fact of the 38-man committee that sent the vote to the senate in the first place, after Dilma had committed the much lesser wrong and not uncommon Brazilian practice of propping up budget figures with money from state-owned banks, 37 are under investigation for corruption and bribery. And by the time the upper house voted to send Dilma to trial in the early hours of Thursday morning amongst 20 hours of self-important speeches – meaning her suspension to prepare for a trial in 180 days – there was the bizarre sight of Fernando Collor using the power he still has to vote for her removal, despite himself being the last Brazilian president impeached.
With just under three months to the Olympics, the rest of the world has been peering in for stories about the readiness of venues and looking for question marks. But a sports-mad country has more important issues to deal with than sport and while the ads show beaches and the amazing topography of Rio as the backdrop to the Games, this is the real backdrop.
The opinion polls make for even worse reading in terms of the scale of the mess. As 61 per cent of the country wanted the socialist party’s Dilma impeached, now 58 per cent want Temer impeached. And if that happened, providing he had forged a deal to bury the claimed kickbacks, then Cunha would’ve been next in line to take over until the next presidential vote in 2018. Meanwhile when it comes to that election, the far-right Bolsonaro is the top choice to be president among the wealthiest five per cent. All in all, the fall of the nation has opened up old divisions based largely on race, regionalism and wealth, with the northern half of the country tending to black, poorer and in support of the left.
Back in 2013, the Confederations Cup rolled in here and became a rallying point for so many disenfranchised sectors of a fragmented and beaten-up society. Onto the streets came those in poverty, tired of their lives in the shanty towns known as favelas; the nurses and teachers tired of terrible pay and poor conditions; the working class tired of the hours and attitude; the middle class tired of the violence and corruption. Sport briefly became a uniting point, a rallying cry for many and offered a glimmer of hope for change. But what the country learned a year on from that at the World Cup was the slick-suited politicians of the major sporting bodies are no different in their attitude to their own politicians. Major sports events today fetishise luxury, expecting the tax payer to pick up the tab for a brief party with the promise of a short-term boom and long-term growth.
Of course that’s rubbish – Brazil slipped into a recession it’s never recovered from during that World Cup while being left with half-finished infrastructure and a raft of colossal stadia that are either barely used or barely filled. As an example the Mane Garrincha in the purpose-built capital of Brasilia, the second most expensive soccer ground ever constructed, has held mass weddings and even been used as a car park due to the lack of a decent-sized local club team. But as much as Brazil has changed for the worse since then, much remains the same.
The nation’s government never looked into it and the International Olympic Committee never mentioned it, but research by the Federal Reserve and the University of California shows that the economies of nations that bid for an Olympics and lose actually grow by just as much as the winning bid. Or in the case of Brazil, shrink, with inflation and unemployment now hitting double figures due to a combination of lowered Chinese demand for natural resources, oil prices, and their own level of incompetence and vast corruption (the ongoing scandal is the largest corruption case in world history and is related to Petrobras, the state oil company, which massively overpaid for building projects with the extra money split between construction bosses and politicians).
Odebrecht for instance, heavily involved in that Petrobras scandal and also behind much World Cup building, has its fingerprints all over these Games. They were the ones that constructed the Olympic stadium which came in at 533 per cent of its agreed cost before being closed as the roof couldn’t handle wind. They are also behind the impressive athlete’s village, known as ‘Pure Island’, built in the upper-class area of Tijuca. The organising committee point to the fact they paid for it but the 3,600 apartments will be sold off at prices of over €500,000 when the average income in Rio is €350 per month. Thus it’s not about the cost the organising committee want you to focus on, but the profits being allowed go to the same companies and individuals despite their actions.
As former Brazilian IOC member Alberto Murray puts it: “Everything that is being built in Rio is being used as an excuse for real estate development. Many feel the Olympic Games are being held not for the good of sport and of the citizens but for the interest of real estate speculation.”
It’s not just the the village, for the golf course perhaps best demonstrates how this has worked. Funded by billionaire property developer Pasquale Mauro who a 2008 government investigation found to have 70 workers in slave-like conditions on one of his estates, the ownership of the land is disputed. But the deal he made sees the developer he works in partnership with being given permission to build 23 condominiums at 22 stories each, where before the limit was six. Similar condos he’s built in the area have starting prices of around €2.15m, thus the transfer of public land will see a huge transfer in private wealth too. And all this was done without an environmental assessment because mayor Eduardo Paes gave direct permission although it just so happens Mauro’s developing partners donated 75 per cent of the money for the mayoral campaign.
There are other alarming construction issues too, in the hurry up to be ready. Back in 2014 a viaduct collapsed near the stadium in the city of Belo Horizonte killing two and injuring 22; in April, two were killed when a newly constructed cycle-way along the Rio coast that was supposed to be one of the Games’ legacy projects collapsed into the sea. But that’s the sorry tip of a country in chaos as, while Rio was already dealing with 600 slums that shelter 1.3m people and a murder rate of 30 per 100,000 compared to 3.8 in the States and 1.2 in Ireland, now the financial crisis is hitting the little the masses do have. There’ve been cut backs in hospitals and education, late salaries to public servants and the city’s chief of staff Leonardo Espindola said the situation could make it hard to carry out basic functions such as fueling police cars and maintaining hospitals when the Games come around.
But, of course, for all the wrongly-directed concern and over-the-top sporting negativity, the Olympics will be fine on the surface, finished in the local style of close to deadline but just in time. And they’ll be seen as a celebration of all that’s good about sport and all that’s good about this country. But step back for a moment for the reality is that the IOC are heading down their own road of corruption, Brazil has a new president it doesn’t want that will wave to the crowds across August, while all of this just adds weight to a nation’s already broken back.
Indeed these Games, along with the flirting interest in this part of the world and the fawned and forced worry about Olympic readiness, will come and go, quickly forgetting the locals left behind in a collapsing country.
Sunday Business Post
14 August, 2016