Haiti’s sprawling capital, Port-au-Prince. Image source: Short Term Memory: Tandem in the Foreign Service

Haiti is a country in the Caribbean, one of the parts of the world most beloved by tourists and outsiders in general. It has glorious palm-fringed beaches, coral reefs, lush tropical forests, lots of rum, a colorful history, cultures that blend influences from Europe and Africa, great music and dancing, and a lifestyle that ranges from easygoing to partying hard — lubricated by all that rum. Haiti has all of these and more, but it also has a dire reputation as the most problem-plagued part of the Americas. Foreigners are far more likely to visit as aid workers than to relax.

This reputation is mostly deserved, and Haiti does face enormous obstacles before it can reach the levels of its Caribbean neighbors. This blog post will shed some light on arguably the Americas’ most maligned nation and provide some perspective on how it came to this.

Originally, Hispaniola (the island Haiti is on) was inhabited by the Arawaks, who lived in villages of varying size governed by chiefs and subsisting on horticulture of root vegetables, fishing, and barbecue (which they invented). Then Cristobal Colón came by in 1493, and everything changed. It is obvious how much Spanish colonization changed the Americas — probably nowhere else in the world has gone through such a drastic change — but Hispaniola got the first, most intense dose of it. Eager to exploit its gold, the Spanish enslaved the natives and worked them to death in mines. Revolts were put down ferociously. To top it off, the Spanish introduced diseases the Arawaks had no resistance to. By the 1540s, the Arawaks were pretty much extinct, making this episode probably history’s most successful genocide. Today only faint traces of Arawak culture, like canoes and cigars, survive, although the Spanish predilection for rape at least ensured the survival of some Arawak genes.

But for the most part, Haitian history has been shaped by a different group of outsiders: Africans. To replace the native population they had wiped out, Spain imported African slaves instead, turning the Caribbean into an interesting outpost of African culture in the long run. The western part of Hispaniola was less-developed than the east, making it easy prey for the French when they got around to sailing in the Caribbean; they seized it in 1697 and named it Saint-Domingue (the Spanish colony being called Santo Domingo).

Thanks to intensive sugar cultivation on plantations, St-Domingue became France’s most profitable colony, and the island developed a class of rich, conservative French planters. It also had free blacks and mulattoes, or mixed-race people. But over 80% of St-Domingue’s people were slaves, and they worked under horrible conditions and were subjected to constant brutality. A steady flow of slaves from Africa ensured that slaves’ lives were cheap. Revolts were common — machetes are awfully sharp — but they never caused the French too much trouble.

… Until the French Revolution, that is. Stirred by that movement’s calls for liberty and equality, a mulatto named Vincent Ogé called for the same ideals to be introduced in St-Domingue. When he was ignored and thrown out of the National Assembly, he resorted to a revolt in 1791. Although it was short-lived, it helped inspire a much longer, more violent one. Stoked by the cruelty with which they were treated and coordinated through secret societies imported from Africa, the revolt could not be put down. The story of the ensuing Haitian Revolution is an involved and interesting one; it includes a three-way war between St-Domingue’s different racial classes, the whites’ political confusion as the home country tore itself apart, rank betrayal, the unification of Hispaniola under black rule, British and Polish (!) intervention, outbreaks of yellow fever, a prominent starring role by Napoleon, accomplished generalship by Haiti’s national hero (Toussaint L’Ouverture), and a LOT of grisly violence, torture and destruction. When it was all over in 1804, St-Domingue was independent at last, as Haiti (an old Arawak term). It was only the 2nd country in the world (after America) to throw off colonial rule, and the only successful slave revolt in history, 2 facts that give Haitians enormous pride to this day. On the other hand, its white population mostly fled during the war, except for a band of Polish soldiers who stayed behind to farm.

Haiti struggled from the beginning. The revolution left it split in 2, with Henri Christophe ruling the north as a king and reintroducing slavery and Alexandre Pétion ruling the south as a president and encouraging small-scale subsistence farming. Unsurprisingly, slavery was unpopular, and the kingdom crumbled in 1820, leaving the republican system ascendant. But the shift from sugar plantations to small cassava farms hobbled the Haitian economy. America despised Haiti for setting a “bad” example for its own slaves and refused to recognize it. France demanded 60 million francs in compensation for all its colonists had lost (and to assuage its own wounded ego); Haiti spent over a hundred years paying it off, bankrupting the economy. Like other ex-colonies later in history, Haiti was deprived of crucial knowhow and leadership by the violence of its revolution. Its politics were highly unstable, and its presidents kept getting overthrown and assassinated. Santo Domingo successfully revolted in 1844.

The early international isolation of Haiti had subsided by the 1900s, and a small German community gained disproportionate influence over its economy. That unnerved America, which was determined to control the Caribbean and safeguard the Panama Canal nearby. It occupied Haiti in 1915 after its dictator was lynched and essentially recolonized it. According to Hans Schmidt in his study of the occupation, it “embodied all the progressive attributes of contemporary Italian fascism” — better roads, bridges, and buildings than Haiti had before, plus a more productive economy, but with all power in the hands of the American army, censorship and arbitrary arrests, forced labor, sugar production oriented for America’s own benefit, and systemic racism along the lines of America’s “Jim Crow” system of segregation. The occupation ended in 1934 — either because America wanted to promote better relations with its neighbors or because growing resistance in Haiti had made it unpopular at home, depending on your level of cynicism. Still, the Haitian treasury remained under American supervision for another decade.

After this, Haiti was ruled by a series of weak, incompetent dictators who tended to get forced out by street protests. They were succeeded in 1957 by a strong one: François Duvalier, usually called “Papa Doc” since he was a folk doctor. He promoted blacks in the government (mulattoes had been dominant ever since the revolution) and by encouraging their culture, even styling himself after the Vodou spirit Baron Samedi. He also pillaged the government for his family’s gain and terrorized the country with his private militia, the Tonton Macoute (named after and dressed as another spirit who kidnaps kids). America sponsored him because he was anti-Communist. The Duvalier regime continued after Papa Doc’s death in 1971 through his son, Baby Doc, until he was ousted by a coup after popular revolts against his accepting payments from the Dominican Republic to send migrant workers over. (He ran off with the money.)

Tonton Macoute

Image source: Pinterest

The main political drama since the Duvalier era was the rise and fall of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A populist priest who won a following among the poor with his impassioned sermons, he won the election in 1990 but was overthrown in a coup only a year later. He moved to America and lobbied it for an intervention to restore him to power. A flood of Haitian refugees fleeing the dictatorship added to the pressure. American president Bill Clinton relented in 1994, and once again US troops marched on Port-au-Prince. Yet Aristide failed to turn around the economy, and he and his successor agreed to IMF-imposed terms that gutted Haiti’s subsistence farmers. The political situation and crime had grown so bad by 2004 that the UN intervened, the only UN occupation force in the world outside of a war zone.

As if all this wasn’t dire enough, Haiti was battered by God in 2010, when an earthquake struck Port-au-Prince. At magnitude 7, it would be difficult for any country to deal with, but with Haiti’s shoddy infrastructure, most of the capital was in rubble, including the presidential palace. To make matters worse, much of the foreign aid Haiti needed to clean up afterward never arrived or was slow in arriving. To make matters even worse, UN troops from Nepal introduced cholera through lackluster sanitation, killing another 10,000 Haitians. And to make matters even worse, it has become increasingly obvious that foreign aid workers indulged in sex slavery rings.

Given this dismal history, it is easy to conclude that Haiti has been “cursed by one thing after the other,” as the American preacher Pat Robertson once claimed. And it continues to face huge challenges. Only half the population can read or access basic health services. Most Haitians rely on informal jobs or farming small plots to get by. The contrast with Haiti’s neighbor, the Dominican Republic, is glaring, leading many Haitians to head east for work, despite the racism (both petty and official) they face by its lighter-skinned population.

Yet this is only one aspect of Haiti. It offers picturesque scenery like all the other Caribbean islands. Its heritage is evident in sites like the massive Laferrière Citadel built on a prominent peak and the colonial architecture in its towns. The ethnic cleansing in Haiti’s past means that African culture has been better preserved here than anywhere else in the Caribbean, although it has blended with European and Arawak influences. That means its language, Creole, is basically French but with different grammar and a smattering of vocabulary from Spanish, Taino (an Arawak language) and West African languages. Haiti also has its own religion, Vodou, which is descended from a similar faith in Benin; it is a blend of Catholicism with the worship of unique spirits called lwa, which can possess adherents in lengthy ceremonies. Vodou’s tight-knit secret societies makes the religion a potent political crucible, but it’s also led to a lot of bogus portrayals overseas since its priests are said to perform magic.

Haiti art

An example of metalworking art in the artists’ neighborhood of Croix des Bouquets. Image source: Students Rebuild

Vodou is a major source of inspiration for Haitian culture, and Vodou images, paraphernalia, flags and clothing are important preoccupations of Haiti’s vibrant arts scene. Haitian painting is colorful and creative, but the most interesting thing about Haitian art might be how its artists use whatever stuff they can find to make something strange, ghoulish or beautiful. Street and even bus art is everywhere. Music is also a Haitian highlight: rara uses crude instruments like drums, bamboo trumpets and maracas to bang out simple but infectious beats, while Cuban son, Dominican merengue and American rap are also popular and filtered through Haiti’s more African sensibilities. All of these art forms come together in wild Carnival parties, which rival any other of the Caribbean’s many wild parties.

Haitian culture also places a big emphasis on solidarity and community spirit. Urban neighborhoods and rural villages are tight-knit and mutually supportive. Haitians are resourceful and used to making do with what little they have. They are hardworking and, out of necessity, patient in the face of adversity. This has made Haitian workers crucial for the Dominican Republic and the American state of Florida, as well as other Caribbean countries. Haiti also may hold promise as a low-wage manufacturing center and already has a textile industry.

That being said, Haiti resembles Africa in other ways too. It is the poorest part of the Americas, and by quite a margin too (its average per capita income is $719 a year). Damage from the earthquake is still evident 8 years later, and some still live in tents in “temporary” camps. Living conditions in general are shabby: power and water are scarce, roads are potholed, and public transit is unreliable and crowded. Port-au-Prince’s vast slum, the Cité Soleil, was once considered one of the world’s most dangerous places and was basically ruled by warring gangs until the UN took control in 2007. Crime and violence are still very high. About 150,000 Haitians have AIDS. Sanitation is in a dire state: trash and poop are dumped in ditches and canals, which means they get in houses when there are heavy rains. Most Haitians have to skip meals or eat basic foods like yams, plantains and rice. 200 years after the revolution, a racial divide between mulattoes and blacks persists.


Yet another problem is pell-mell deforestation, caused by a lack of regulation of Haiti’s many poor hill-dwellers. From the air you can see quite clearly where the Haitian-Dominican border is.

At the root of all of these problems is the government, which struggles to provide even basic services. It is caught in a classic African trap: it has very little tax revenue to spare, but its people have very little money to tax. This means it is very dependent on foreign aid, even if that means accepting crippling conditions from the World Bank and IMF. For example, the government is currently buckling under protests against a slash in fuel subsidies that makes the kerosene many Haitians depend on unaffordable. This is not new in Haiti: as the historical background should make clear, Haiti doesn’t exactly have a stable political tradition, and civil disorder can make the country ungovernable sometimes. The usual corruption and mismanagement of developing countries hollows out government resources even more.

Haitians are optimistic and stoic in even the worst of circumstances, and there are far worse neighborhoods than the Caribbean. But it will be a long time before Haiti becomes a place most people want to go to instead of a place they’d rather leave.



Brazilians are stereotyped as an artistic and creative people, but the diverse cultural mix that makes up the country allows for a lot of interesting experimentation and fusion in its artistic expression that has made Brazil a formidable brand in the art world. Music is probably the foremost example of this. Brazilians are primarily a mix of Portuguese and other Southern Europeans with Africans — all of which appreciate a good beat. And indeed, it’s common for Brazilians to break out drums and/or a guitar at the end of a party and do some group singing. Everyone loves to dance and some do it extremely well. Banging out an impromptu beat on doors or even your own thighs is a classic way of alleviating boredom on the train. The nightlife scene in Rio and São Paulo is legendary. So let’s take a break from nuclear confrontation, repressive dictatorships and other such heavy topics and reflect on the richness of music in Brazil.

Music has formed an important part of Brazilian life from the very beginning. The native people, the Tupis, had a musical culture all of their own, but unfortunately it (like them) has been essentially wiped out. Although music in the Amazon is influenced by native peoples, who still remain there, for most of Brazilian history music was composed and played along European lines. And for the most part that meant church music; although the influence of the Catholic Church has waned in modern Brazil, it dominated life until the 1900s, and musicians in the remote, conservative towns of Brazil’s rugged interior composed some beautiful choral music.

Brazil has also produced some prominent figures in the secular classical music tradition. The most famous of these is definitely Heitor Villa-Lobos, who studied music at a conservatory and hobnobbed with the many, many other intellectuals who haunted Paris in the 1920s, but also infused his music with a distinctive Brazilian flavor culled from folk and even native rhythms he studied on travels around his homeland. This is exemplified in his Bachianas Brasileiras, which, as the name indicates, sound like something Bach would’ve written on a Brazilian holiday.

But let’s not kid ourselves: You probably aren’t reading this article to listen to church choirs and orchestras. What really sets Brazilian music apart is its African influence, courtesy of the huge slave population brought into the country until 1889. At first African music, like African culture in general, was despised and snubbed by Brazil’s high society, but in the favelas (shantytowns) where Brazil’s urban black population is concentrated, a lively genre of music called the samba was born. It used distinctive instruments like the pandeiro (a kind of tambourine) and berimbau (a bowed instrument with a gourd attached that makes a very reedy sound) that are descended from African instruments but are distinctively Brazilian. By the early 1900s, the wild parties had spilled out of the favelas and became popular among many Brazilians, especially in Rio, which has always been Brazil’s musical capital (and used to be its political capital too). Over time Rio’s Carnival celebration (a crazy party thrown by Catholics before Lent, which is supposed to be a sober, pious season) especially became famous for its joyful samba.

These days, Carnival has gotten REALLY over-the-top…

The frenzied beat played during Carnival is what most foreigners associate with samba, but in reality most sambas are more sedate and suited for impromptu street jam sessions than giant crazy block parties. It can even be quite sad sometimes. A subgenre of samba, choro, was popular early in the 1900s and involves sad melodies played with flutes, guitars, horns and a guitar-like instrument called the cavaquinho — although as the sample below from the early samba titan Pixinguinha demonstrates, it can be peppy too.

By the 1930s, samba was finding an audience outside of Brazil. This was mostly thanks to Carmen Miranda, a Portuguese-born carioca who made it big in Hollywood by combining good lucks with singing and acting ability — the winning combo for female stars in America back then. She had less of a following in Brazil, mostly because she presented a stereotyped, watered-down image of the country to foreigners, but she did increase international interest in the country and popularize some of its most famous songs, as well as the samba in general.

Brazilian music’s biggest international success, though, came in the ’50s and ’60s. This is when bossa nova came along. Bossa nova is basically an even slower subgenre of samba with very sparse instrumentation and a simple presentation in general. It was born on Rio’s sunny South Zone (the part with the beaches) and has been dominated by a sort of holy trinity all along: João Gilberto, Antônio “Tom” Jobim, and Vinicius de Moraes. They sang about Rio’s stunning geography, love, homesickness, and other emotions — the concerns of Rio’s privileged class. Its exponents drew upon jazz and recent classical music and came up with a distinctively Brazilian jazz-samba hybrid that helped epitomize the country and its extremely laid-back lifestyle. Bossa nova is so representative of Rio in particular that the city even named its airport after Tom Jobim. It may not be for everyone, but it has to be some of the most relaxing music ever recorded. The most famous bossa nova song — maybe the most famous Brazilian song ever — was “Garota da Ipanema” (“The Girl from Ipanema”), about a hot girl Tom & Vinicius saw walking down the street in Rio’s upscale Ipanema district; instead, here’s a song from Black Orpheus, a 1959 movie that set the Greek legend of Orpheus in a Rio favela.

Another prominent bossa nova musician was Sérgio Mendes, who specialized in jazzier versions of the subgenre with his band Brasil ’66. They played a hauntingly evocative cover version of “Mas Que Nada” (“Oh, Come On”) which is another one of Brazil’s most iconic tunes (and my personal favorite Brazilian song).

The other titan of bossa nova was Elis Regina, who was mostly known for her voice. She died at the age of 36 from a drug overdose but is still fondly remembered today, and her daughter, Maria Rita, is also a famous singer. (Music in Brazil tends to be dynastic; as another example, both Astrud, João Gilberto’s wife, and Bebel, his daughter, became popular singers in their own right.) Elis’s duet with Tom, “Águas de Março” (“Waters of March”), is probably her most famous song — a soothing, playful stream-of-consciousness back-and-forth about things as varied as the end of the road, a bottle of booze and a bird in the sky.


Although bossa nova is still alive and well, it isn’t exactly “nova” (new) anymore. By the late ’60s, it was being transplanted by a new type of music influenced by the experimentation going on in the West. This genre, now broadly referred to as “MPB” (for Brazilian Popular Music), has probably been the most popular in Brazil ever since, although it gets less exposure internationally because not speaking Portuguese hinders your enjoyment somewhat. Its opening salvo was probably an album by the band Os Mutantes (The Mutants) that brought a bunch of prominent musicians together on one record. Called Tropicalia ou Panis et Circencis (“Tropicalia, or Bread and Circuses”), it was definitely of its time — 1968, an era when psychedelic rock and hippie culture were taking young people by storm.

A more representative band might be Novos Baianos, who combined samba rhythms and instrumentation with a rock sensibility. Their breakout hit was called Acabou Chorare (“No More Crying”), which expresses their upbeat mood pretty well.

The 3 biggest names in MPB, however, are Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Chico Buarque. They led a movement in the late ’60s and early ’70s called “Tropicalia” (after a Caetano song) that expressed the resentments, frustrations and anxieties of Brazil’s youth in terms clearly influenced by British rock, American folk and (eventually) Jamaican reggae. Since Brazil was a military dictatorship at the time, the government did not approve, and strict censorship forced them to be very creative and subtle with their lyrics to mock the regime without getting caught. Before long, though, they were exiled to Europe until the censorship was relaxed (although Chico only left for 1 year).

In this long and bleak song, Chico sings about 3 construction workers dying. It is usually interpreted as an anti-capitalist poem.

All 3 of these singers, by the way, are still going strong and selling out stadiums today, and continue to mix up their music by incorporating different influences over the years. Gilberto Gil even had a stint as minister of culture in the leftist government of Lula da Silva in the ’00s!

The other 2 giants in this genre are Milton Nascimento and Jorge Ben Jor. Milton, unlike almost everyone else I’ve mentioned so far, came from practically the middle of nowhere but climbed his way to national fame through the sweetness of his voice and his musical versatility and inventiveness. Jorge is a carioca (very much so, as the song below demonstrates) and started out singing more traditional pop but veered into more funky stuff later in the ’70s. He is also the original writer of “Mas Que Nada.”

These are pretty much the biggest names in Brazilian music and the stars Brazilians everywhere can recognize. But Brazilian music doesn’t really end there. There are regional music scenes and genres with passionate followings but lower profiles nationally (and especially internationally). For instance, Rio’s biggest rival as musical capital is Salvador, the biggest city in the northeast and the hometown of João Gilberto, Caetano and Gilberto Gil. The northeast is much more heavily inspired by African culture, and Salvador’s Carnival is even rowdier than Rio’s. The local genre, axé, is inspired by the local Candomblé religion and accordingly has a strong Afro-Caribbean feel. Daniela Mercury and Ivete Sangalo’s poppy versions have made axé popular all over Brazil, especially for energetic parties.

Although its homeland is also the northeast, forró is a very different genre. It is sort of like Brazil’s country music, although it sounds much more akin to Mexican music. It is played and listened to by sertanejos, the often very poor farmers of the dry interior of the northeast and central parts of Brazil, and incorporates influences from southern Europe and (allegedly) American airmen stationed there during World War II. Its Grand Old Man is Luiz Gonzaga, famous all over Brazil for his floppy hat and this sad ballad about a drought-stricken village. (It was played not only in the closing ceremonies of the Rio 2016 Olympics, but in the crowd warm-up session before them!)

Meanwhile, the southern parts of the country tend to be more urban, white and well-off. Its music accordingly more closely resembles the stuff you’d hear in the West, only sung in Portuguese (but sometimes not even that). The rock band Legião Urbana (Urban Legion), from Brasilia, Brazil’s futuristic capital, was popular in the ’80s and imitated the New Wave rock of that era. While Legião Urbana have since disbanded, São Paulo’s Titãs (Titans) are still going strong, having kept on top of the various trends in rock since the ’80s.

Other genres popular in the West also have flourishing fanbases in Brazil. Many Brazilians just listen to the same American music the whole world does; but there are all kinds of options for those seeking something homegrown, from metal…

… to rap…

… to Christian rock (hey, Christianity is still a major force in Brazil; just not necessarily of the Catholic variety)…

… to folk-infused pop.

Brazil’s musical richness may be one of its defining contributions to the world. The heady days of the ’60s may be long gone, but musicians from the Black-Eyed Peas to Michael Jackson still take frequent pilgrimages to Brazil to soak up some sounds and get some inspiration there. Grumpy Brazilians say they steal their ideas, but if this musical survey has shown anything, it’s that Brazil is part of an international dialectic of musical ideas. Those who can overlook the language barrier and do a little digging beyond the famous, obvious names will find much to reward them.

Finally, no overview of Brazilian music would be complete without “Aquarela do Brasil” (“Watercolor of Brazil”), a loving tribute to the country written in 1939 and alluded to in numerous jazz pieces since then. Although there have been many great versions, I like the Disney version the best — partly because I love animation, and partly because of the rich nostalgia of Aloísio de Oliveira’s voice.

If you liked any of the songs I included on this post, please consider supporting the artists that bring this music to you.


Olympics 2


When Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s showpiece city, was awarded the honor of hosting the Summer Olympics in 2009, the country erupted in euphoria. It had had a roaring decade, with a broadly popular president (Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva) overseeing sustained economic growth, poverty reduction, and a growth in international clout. Brazil had newfound aspirations to be a global power — not just in soccer, music and art, but politically and commercially. Brazil has always seen itself as a member of the First World yet felt a kinship towards countries in the Third World thanks to its geographical location, historic poverty and chronic economic problems like inflation and debt. Winning the Olympic Games was an international vote of confidence in the country and a perfect opportunity to prove that the less developed world could host the Olympics instead of the usual succession of North American, European and Northeast Asian countries.

Since then, Brazil’s international image has taken a heavy beating, as I outlined in my previous post. Its economy stagnated, then sank into depression in 2015, with GDP shrinking by almost 4% that year. A big corruption scandal involving kickbacks to construction companies by the state-owned oil firm, Petrobras, mutated into something involving 16 companies, with over 10 billion reais ($3.8 billion) laundered, and toppling President Dilma Rousseff this year (not to mention permanently tarnishing Lula’s image). Preparations for the games themselves were overshadowed by a storm of controversies and things to stress about: the Zika virus, which causes birth defects; a rise in crime and violence; the foul state of Rio’s waters; building projects running past deadlines.

Olympic Park

So how did the Games go? Based on my perspective, they were a success. Rio de Janeiro is a beautiful city with lots to see and a world-famous beach and nightlife culture that’s perfect for an international congregation of attractive young people. The Olympic Park was impressive and vast. Brazilian fans were raucous and noisy and respectful of other countries. Despite what an American Olympic swimmer claimed, no athletes were robbed. The opening and closing ceremonies were impressive spectacles, showcasing Brazilian diversity, history and culture without blowing too much money on extravaganzas. It’s fun to be surrounded by people from all corners of the world, and there were moments of joy and inspiration you’d only find at the Olympics — a North Korean pistol shooter congratulating the South Korean winner and hoping for a unified Korea; runners from America and New Zealand helping each other after a collision in the 5,000-meter race; the favela (shantytown) dweller who triumphed in juudou; the refugee team, including a Syrian-German swimmer who’d pushed a boatful of fellow refugees for 3 hours in the Aegean Sea; little countries like Azerbaijan and Jamaica trouncing bigger, better-funded competitors.

Of course, there were problems. Rio failed to clean up its bay before the Olympics, a victim of widespread flouting of its water regulations and a lack of enforcement of them. Some of the athletes’ facilities were uninhabitable. I was disappointed that the promised subway line to the Olympic Park only went part of the way there, forcing spectators to transfer to a (very efficient) bus line… and then walk another 10 minutes to the actual park. The food at the Olympics was unimpressive, to say the least, and I usually had to settle for mediocre meat-and-bread combos or tiny cheese pizzas with a single olive in the middle. Often food stands would run out, forcing spectators to eat biscoito pouvilho (puffy cassava biscuits) for lunch instead. Language barriers were a constant issue, but the volunteer army that did the heavy lifting was generally patient, polite, and helpful considering the obvious stress they were dealing with, and realistically there isn’t much you can do about language issues when so many different nationalities are gathering in 1 place.

Most of these problems are the same issues we’ve heard at every Olympics in recent decades, and every time they become insignificant once the Games actually begin and the athletic awesomeness commences. (Well, O.K., disease and crime anxieties are new.) I was fairly confident, despite the misfortune Brazil has recently experienced, that it would be the same story this time. And I think I was right. The Modern Olympics are still one of the world’s best ideas, an excellent opportunity for people from all over the world to come together in 1 place and celebrate sport, determination, and good times. Host cities put on their best face and welcome their visitors with improved infrastructure, facilities, and tourist attractions. You can watch quirky sports rarely seen in most countries (like handball or fencing) and meet people you’d seldom encounter in most countries.

That being said, I’ve noticed in recent years that anti-Olympic sentiment is growing. The scale and spectacle of the Games has grown and grown and grown to the point where it’s scarcely sustainable for much longer. The expense of the 2004 Olympics were 1 of the factors behind Greece’s economic collapse. Hosting a $12 billion sports tournament in the midst of a depression, when Rio is struggling just to pay its government employees, is frankly a bad idea. The International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s top brass make millions in paychecks, while the Games themselves are mostly staffed by hard-working volunteers paid by thanks and a song at the closing ceremonies. Hosting the Games in a developing country like Brazil exerts a terrible cost by diverting money from urgently needed education and health care investments. Walking through the Olympic Park and staring at the giant arenas and vast praças (plazas), I couldn’t help but wonder: What will Rio do with these after the Olympics? (O.K., use them for the Paralympics, the Olympics’ neglected sister, but what then?)

I firmly believe that the Olympics are a net benefit for humanity and an awe-inspiring spectacle of peace, goodwill and friendly competition. They are worth keeping for sure. But the IOC needs to take the complaints against it much more seriously. Olympic bids are getting less and less enthusiasm, with authoritarian countries hungry for glory like China and Kazakhstan doing better. The IOC needs to shoulder more of the burden of its own Games and make fewer demands of its hosts. Although designating 1 city as the permanent location of the Games might seem like a good solution, I think it would give the home team a long-term advantage, lead to a nasty fight for the honor, and ruin a lot of the Games’ appeal. But many, many more of the Olympic facilities need to be temporary structures that can be dismantled and reassembled in different cities to cut back on the waste and redundancy. Trimming the Games’ budget would also reduce the scope for corruption, which is always a problem in developing countries (and Brazil, as mentioned, is no exception).

Olympic Mascots

The Olympic mascots, Vinicius and Tom. Vinicius got a LOT more attention.

And what about Brazil? I saw mixed reactions to the Olympics. Brazilians were welcoming and good-natured about it, and cheered for their home team with gusto. But there was also widespread apathy about the Games and resentment over the waste of money. Like the World Cup in 2014, they saw it as a government strategy of offering them “bread and circuses” like the ancient Roman emperors. It was a cruel twist of fate that the 7 years since the Games were awarded have brought Brazil so low; the events in that time have made Brazilians jaded and much less excited about the Olympics or showing off to gringos.

Politically, the scene is as dire as ever. Brazil’s acting president, Michel Temer, is broadly unpopular; his (very brief) appearance at the opening ceremony was greeted with deafening boos by the smaller crowd gathered to watch in downtown Rio’s Praça Maua, and I kept seeing “FORA TEMER” (Away with Temer) signs around, including at Olympic events. Dilma has denied any wrongdoing in the Petrobras scandal and calls her suspension in May a “coup” since she was technically punished for misreporting budget numbers, a common practice. But Dilma was also broadly unpopular, and got huge protests before her suspension. Brazil is politically very polarized, with little sensible political discussion on the street level and a lot of jaded, cynical youth. There is even mounting nostalgia for the military dictatorship that kept order in Brazil from 1964 to 1985. Although Brazil has been a democracy for a while and I personally doubt a coup is imminent, it seems much less mature than its age would suggest.

The country itself, on the other hand, is great. It has a lot of potential: big, dynamic cities; a cultural affinity with the West; a thriving immigrant population; a record of overcoming daunting problems for developing countries, from agricultural productivity in the dry interior to policing in drug gang-infested favelas. The national attitude seems optimistic overall. Brazilians definitely know how to party, as epitomized by the massive celebrations in Rio during Carnaval (a mini-version of which was thrown in the closing ceremony), but they also know how to get down to work, as the thriving business district of São Paulo shows. Public transit was impressive, from the modern and efficient subways of São Paulo to the comfortable, air-conditioned buses that connect cities. And of course, the scenery is spectacular: the view from Corcovado over Rio is the best in the world, but the green coastline stretching west from Rio and the austere mountains north of it are breathtaking too.

It’s true that Brazil has a lot of problems. The favelas have been a nagging sore spot in its cities for a century, a constant reminder of the country’s inequality and the failures of its government. The crime they breed definitely keep a lot of foreigners away. Corruption is a way of life, decried in Brazilian politicians but resorted to by everyday Brazilians as well. The current depression casts a shadow over everything, and young, educated Brazilians are pondering their chances overseas. There is not much long-term planning or sense of urgency about anything, probably a result of the country’s relative isolation and freedom from problems that weigh upon other countries, like civil war, territorial disputes or crazy neighbors. The saying goes that “Brazil is the country of the future,” because of its enormous potential, global aspirations, and ultramodern designs by the likes of Oscar Niemeyer and Roberto Marx… but the saying continues “and always will be,” because people have been saying that Brazil will be a big deal for a long time now.

Rio Closing Ceremony

I’m an optimist about Brazil. Its depression will eventually go and its political crisis will be resolved. Its strengths are enduring and fundamental. Although it has plenty of poverty, it also has a lot of opportunity, and compared to the Third World it has done a better job of providing for its underclass. There’s racism, but centuries of racial intermixing has blurred the boundaries between races much more than in other countries. Its agricultural and industrial sector is internationally competitive and its diplomatic corps is formidable enough to be a force to be reckoned with if Brazil decides it wants to be a serious player in international affairs. The Olympics were a reminder of the country’s energy, creativity, and alegria (sense of joy and exuberance). Traveling to the country, I wished that more foreigners could go and experience it for themselves. Way too many still cling onto the old stereotypes that center around Rio. Who knows about Brazil’s accordion-based folk music, forró, or about São Paulo’s big Japanese community, or about the ornate and frozen-in-time mining cities in the interior?

Brazil may still have a lot of problems, and the Rio Olympics weren’t the best ones ever. But I think the IOC made the right choice in trusting Rio with the Olympics, mainly because it’s about time that the Olympics were held in South America and that another region of the world was “unlocked.” If nothing else, the Olympics focused the attention of the world on Brazil, something which isn’t always easy. Here’s hoping that Brazil and Rio will continue the momentum and finally become the “serious country” it deserves to be.