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Brazil and the Olympics

A deeply divided country

München, 07/18/2016

Many Brazilians would prefer not to have to host an Olympic Games just now. PD. Dr. Ursula Prutsch from LMU‘s Institute for American Studies explains the sense of crisis and frustration that has overtaken the country in recent years.

Source: (c) dpa

In a few weeks’ time, the Summer Olympic Games 2016 begin in Brazil. Are people looking forward to the event?
PD. Dr. Ursula Prutsch: Actually, the country is in a very bad mood. Conditions have been difficult ever since the first large-scale demonstrations against the Confederation’s Cup in Brazil in 2013. And the situation has become even worse since the opening of impeachment proceedings against Dilma Rousseff. The degree of disillusionment with the political establishment has reached a new peak. Not only does Brazil find itself in the throes of a huge economic crisis, it is also caught in a political and cultural crisis. Many Brazilians now regard the Olympic Games as a distraction they could well do without, because the event itself is beyond the reach of all but the well-to-to.

What are the underlying reasons for this general crisis?
At the core of the crisis is a widespread sense of disappointment at all levels of society with the political and economic situation. In addition, the country is deeply divided. Since 2003, the governments led by Lula and Rousseff have implemented a number of sensible and effective reforms, including measures that have mitigated the marginalization of Afro-Brazilians and increased the minimum wage. These reforms were designed to improve the position of the underclass, but their gains are now threatened by a combination of unemployment and debt. On the other hand, the upper class sees the political empowerment of the poorest sections of society as a threat to its own position. Brazil never had an institutionalized apartheid regime, but de facto something like apartheid developed: For a very long time, many public spaces were, in effect, the preserve of the middle and upper classes. Only they could afford to patronize the shopping centers and buy airline tickets. Now the upper class has come to fear the plebs. And Brazil’s middle class is very vulnerable. The country’s inefficient public education and healthcare systems, which force many of the middle class to turn to expensive private providers for services of better quality, can no longer be financed by this section of the population.

What impact are political and economic crises likely to have on the Games?
The Brazilians will no doubt do their best to live up to their positive image. They are extremely sensitive to criticisms and doubts expressed by representatives of the industrialized states. On the one hand, they would like to see themselves as part of the First World, but at the same time they “know” that something will always go wrong and they will be left looking like fools.

Actually, in the current political crisis, it is not even clear who will open the Games. Acting President Michel Temer is in office. Dilma Rousseff, on the other hand, rightfully regards herself as the legitimate Head of State. Perhaps, in the end, Rousseff and Temer will jointly preside over the Opening Ceremony.

What do the Games mean for the city of Rio de Janeiro and its inhabitants?
Insofar as the event has sparked off new approaches to urban planning in the city and will give a boost to tourism, the Games have undoubtedly been a plus for Rio. The ambitious plans for urban renewal will certainly make a difference to the harbor district Porto Maravilha, where new museums are being built and a new tramline will be opened. At the same time, there has been a lot to criticize. One example concerns Guanabara Bay, where the sailing events will be held. To all intents and purposes, the Bay has been ecologically dead for decades – and yet no measures have been put in place to improve the water quality. I am also skeptical about the value of the extension of the underground network which, it is argued, will be of long-term benefit to Rio de Janeiro as a whole. But most of the Olympic events will take place in the South Zone of the city, which is inhabited primarily by the rich. They live in gated communities and the rest of the city means little to them, while the people who look after their needs can’t afford to use the underground, which is much more expensive than are the city’s buses.

This all shows that a great deal of money has been spent on the Olympic Games. But this money should really have been used to improve the infrastructure in the favelas, many of which have no paved roads, and whose inhabitants have to illegally tap into power lines to obtain electricity. In other words, this money has been wasted. And when the Games are over, Rio will find itself with a pile of debt – and that’s a disaster for the city and the State of Rio de Janeiro, which is practically bankrupt.

What were the political and social repercussions of the World Cup tournament, which was held in Brazil in 2014? Are there parallels to be drawn with the run-up to the Olympic Games?
Overall, it is probably true to say that the World Cup had relatively few repercussions for Brazil – and those it did have were mostly negative. Take the renovation of the old football stadiums. The Maracanã in Rio was not only renovated but privatized. As a result, the poorer sections of the city’s population can no longer afford to attend football matches.

After the Olympic Games, the city will have a far larger financial deficit than it incurred for the World Cup. Acting President Temer has just withdrawn millions of dollars from a sovereign wealth fund to help the Governor of the near bankrupt State of Rio de Janeiro to pay the State’s bills. The two men belong to the same party. When one considers the impacts of the World Cup, the Olympic Games, and the ongoing political, economic and social crises, the outcome is not difficult to predict: A significant fraction of the population will slip back into poverty, while the white upper class will retain its dominant position, and rights that minorities have recently won may well be rescinded. Interview: Constanze Drewlo / Translation: Paul Hardy

prutsch2PD. Dr. Ursula Prutsch is in the staff of the Institute for American Studies at LMU. Her research intersts focus on the relationship between the US and Latin America and on Argentinian and Brazilian history.