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.




Image source: My Pegaso

This blog will take a little hiatus as I do something I haven’t done in a while: take a trip!

I’ll be going to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympics. While I’m there, I’ll take the opportunity to explore a little of that corner of Brazil, the country’s heartland and economic powerhouse: Paraty, a colonial port on the coast near Rio; São Paulo, the booming, ungainly metropolis west of Rio and inland; and Ouro Preto, another colonial town, this time inland from Rio in the hills, where it mined for gold. Despite my occasional blog posts about Latin America, this will be my first visit to the region. While I can’t pretend that a 3-week trip to 1 region of Brazil will significantly improve my analysis of Latin America, hopefully it’ll give me additional insight or perspective.

Brazil is widely acknowledged as an up-and-coming power on the world stage, the colossus of the South and a leader of the developing world. But it’s also been derided as not a “serious country,” with few diplomatic disputes or serious issues in its foreign policy and a relaxed, even lazy attitude. Its swagger took a nose-dive when its economy sank into depression last year, battered by low commodity prices and political mismanagement. Politically, it’s been torn apart by a massive corruption scandal involving kickbacks to construction companies by the state-owned oil company, Petrobras. Its president, Dilma Rousseff, has been impeached, but no legitimate replacement exists, since the entire political class is tainted by scandal. To make matters worse, the Zika virus has broken out, crime is back up, governments are broke and the waters around Rio are as polluted as ever.

Brazil is no longer as confident as it was in 2009, when the games were awarded to it, but no other country knows how to throw a party like it. I’ll take the opportunity of the Olympics to get a feel for the national mood, the problems Brazil faces, and the local culture. I’ll also try to gauge how the Olympics affect their host cities and whether the games are the international celebration of sportsmanship and brotherhood their fans think they are or a corrupt, commercialized, bloated waste of money and resources. As Brazil bridges the gulf between the rich and poor worlds, it will be a good test of how effective less developed countries are at hosting the Olympics.

And I will dance. A LOT.



Lula Tanzania

Lula visits Tanzania in 2010. Image source: AFP/Getty Images

The bond between the countries of North America (Canada and the USA) and Europe is one of the world’s strongest and most consequential. Historically, culturally, and linguistically, North Americans are intimately bound with their European kin. Since the beginning of European settlement there, North Americans have flocked to Europe on travel, study or work, and there is a continual fascination with the other side of the ocean. Through the institutional architecture of NATO, North America and Europe (which is most of what is called “the West”) generally move in lockstep on diplomatic issues.

This post, though, is not about that relationship. Instead, it’s about another key transatlantic bond, but one that’s been continually ignored: the one between Brazil and Africa.

Brazil and Africa have very strong ties. Start with geography: South America and Africa used to be one landmass, as evidenced by how far east Brazil bulges and the huge indent along Africa’s coast (the Gulf of Guinea). The sea between Natal (in Brazil) and Liberia (in West Africa) is still the narrowest part of the Atlantic except for the northernmost part where Greenland fills in the gap. There is a murky tradition in West Africa of the medieval Empire of Mali voyaging across the sea to trade with the opposite coast and maybe colonize it.


Gondwana, the super-continent also including modern India, Australia and Antarctica, broke apart in the age of the dinosaurs. Image source: U.S. Geological Survey

But as usual, it was Europe who bound the 2 regions together for good. Portugal sailed around Africa’s coast in the 1400s on its way to the riches of Asia, seeding it with trading posts along the way. Eventually an explorer found the part of Brazil that bulges out. Like its Spanish cohorts, Portugal vanquished the native Brazilians and seized the coastline for itself. Brazil turned out to be a rich and bountiful prize, loaded with lumber, gold and diamonds. Portugal needed lots of labor to work its colony, and the native peoples were dying out from imported diseases. And the Portuguese themselves didn’t want to do it.

… So they turned to Africa, where thousands and thousands of people were being captured and brought in chains across the ocean to work the sugarcane plantations of Brazil. The Caribbean may have been the main destination, but Brazil was the biggest single colony: over the 300+ years of the transatlantic slave trade, around 5 million Africans were brought to Brazil, or around 38.5% of the total. They stripped Atlantic Brazil of its jungles, mined its minerals, hacked its sugar, and later plucked its coffee. Any kind of manual labor, from unloading ships to housekeeping, became the province of black slaves. And because slaveowners were rarely hesitant about raping their property, Brazil grew into a mixed-race society united by the Portuguese language. (Not all of this traffic was one-way, by the way; Brazilian slaves could buy their freedom, and some of them returned to Africa afterwards, where they brought valuable technical skills and commercial expertise to an area mostly cut off from international trends.)

Slavery in Brazil was abolished in 1888, but it left a permanent mark on the country. Most obviously, it gave it a permanent black underclass and a social hierarchy that closely paralleled skin color. But the African influence on Brazil was profound. For example, feijoada, Brazil’s national dish, is a black bean stew strongly influenced by Portuguese tastes (it uses linguiça sausage) but incorporating weird cuts of meat like pork tails and feet, which were the scraps given to slaves. Brazil’s national music, the samba, is directly descended from African styles and was pioneered in the early 1900s by black musicians. African beliefs inspired a uniquely Brazilian religion, Candomblé, which worships personal deities and has its own rituals. The northeastern part of Brazil — the part that bulges out towards Africa — is predominantly black and has the strongest African cultural influences.

Despite this, Brazil’s elite snubbed Africa and links with it after abolition. In thrall to the racist ideology pervasive among whites in the early 1900s, they instead tried to whiten Brazil’s demographics by encouraging immigration from Europe and further race-mixing in the belief that future generations would be lighter-skinned than the current mix(the branqueamento policy). The first part of this policy succeeded, and Brazil now has large populations from Italy, Germany and Eastern Europe. Black people, however, never really went away.

By the 1960s, overt racist ideology was dying away, and African colonies were gaining independence. Brazil’s presidents began paying more attention to Africa and forging alliances with the new countries. But concerted outreach to Africa remained lacking for many decades; Brazilian dictators prioritized the relationships with Portugal and South Africa, that is, an intransigent colonial power and a racist regime. The dictators also embraced a generally conservative world outlook, which didn’t appeal to Africans, who prefer more revolutionary, left-wing stances.

These days, Brazil is experiencing a renaissance in its connections with Africa. It began under President “Lula” da Silva, who took a genuine interest in the continent. During his 8 years in office, he visited Africa 28 times, taking in 21 different countries there, and doubled Brazil’s embassies there from 18 to 37. His successor, Dilma Rousseff, carried on the momentum, albeit to a lesser extent.

As usual, the core of Brazil’s diplomacy with Africa is investment and technical cooperation. African countries are rich in minerals and oil, and Brazil has the mining companies to exploit them. Brazil also has a bevy of construction firms ready to build up African infrastructure — Odebrecht, Andrade Gutierrez, OAS, Camargo Corrêa — and well-educated engineers and scientists with the expertise to research new drugs, crop varieties, and other things of benefit to Africans. On the other hand, trade plays a growing role in the relationship; it’s shot up from $3 billion in 2000 to $26 billion in 2012, and Brazilian companies now use Africa as a market for their (cheaper) consumer goods. Brazilian telenovelas (soap operas), with their rags-to-riches stories and melodrama, are popular in Africa.

Brazilian TV is most popular in Angola and Mozambique, which are Brazil’s main partners in Africa. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: they were also Portugal’s main colonies in Africa (the other ones being Guinea-Bissau and the islands of Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe). Many Afro-Brazilians originally came from these lands, especially Angola. They are also struggling to rebuild from devastating civil wars and need sustained infrastructure investments. But Brazil is moving on to other countries that don’t speak Portuguese and importing Nigerian oil (which is better suited to Brazil’s refining processes), building roads in Kenya, and selling cluster bombs to Zimbabwe.

Brazil is far from alone in supporting African development, and it lags behind the West and China in the scope of its involvement, but it has several key advantages. For one, there’s its shared history and a certain sense of familiarity with African culture, but more importantly, it’s a tropical country. Its agricultural specialists figured out how to grow crops like cassava, soybeans, and cotton in the cerrado (Brazil’s parched savannah), so its techniques are relevant for other tropical countries searching for ways to grow new crops, create more farmland and increase their yields.

Brazil also represents sort of a development success story. It has long festered in poverty and underdevelopment, and its chronic hyperinflation made it depend on IMF bailouts to keep afloat. It is now a member of the BRICs, the most powerful and important emerging economies, and until recently had money to throw around overseas. It still has a huge, struggling underclass, but its welfare program, the Bolsa Família, has been a roaring success, lifting 40 million Brazilians out of poverty since its inauguration in 2003 at a cost of only .05% of GDP. Proud of its achievement, Brazil has held seminars on the program and other welfare initiatives for Africans grappling with much worse poverty and invites delegations over to see conditions for themselves.

Politically, Brazil isn’t the stern conservative oligarchy it once was. The ruling party, the Worker’s Party, is leftist and preaches Third World solidarity. For all of its close links with the West, Brazil still feels a lot of bitterness toward it as a result of being ignored, dismissed, and indebted for much of its history. It sees the “global South” as having a common bond: resistance to Northern oppression and a struggle to survive in a Northern-run economic system. And as by far the largest and most important country in the Southern Hemisphere, Brazil is in a natural position to lead — and increasingly knows it.

This is most likely the main reason for Brazil’s increased attention to its eastern neighbors. Consumer markets and natural resources are great, but other markets are much more lucrative and Brazil has plenty of resources of its own. Sentimental and cultural ties are also important and give Brazil an edge over some of its rivals, but it’s hard to tell how much this is the result of Lula’s personal feelings and whether it will endure after the Worker’s Party is swept out of office. But politically, Brazil needs Africa. It has ambitions to be a Great Power someday, and Latin America won’t be enough of a sphere of influence. Africa remains the most struggling part of the world and the area in most dire need of sustained investment and development, and it lacks a hegemonic power that could feasibly be a rival for Brazil, so it will remain the continent Brazil must win over if it wants to demonstrate Third World solidarity and maybe even a seat on the UN’s Security Council (the important part) someday.

So far, Brazil is doing well. The West remains tainted or at least a little suspect in African eyes; even if well-intentioned, Westerners rarely face the same crippling institutional problems and hurdles to development that Africans do. China and India are rising powers with development cred, but they are also seen as distant foreigners motivated primarily by self-interest and sometimes rapacious in their greed. Brazil actually hires Africans, builds urban housing for the poor, consults with locals, and trains them to manage their own enterprises. Most of the resources it extracts still flow out of Africa, and Brazilian companies are still corrupt and destructive like other Third World firms, but all in all Africans trust Brazilians more.

Back in Brazil, African heritage is becoming more and more widely accepted and celebrated. Capoeira, the dance form invented by slaves that doubled as martial training, is now considered Brazil’s most unique contribution to martial arts. Salvador’s heavily African-influenced Carnival celebrations rival Rio de Janeiro’s bigger, more famous ones. Black Brazilian artists and musicians incorporate more and more African influences into their work. Yet Brazil’s elite continues to value European culture over African, and the vast majority of blacks remain poor manual laborers. Whether Brazilian business will get more interested in Africa if more blacks go into the business class remains an open question.

Brazil continues to face enormous and daunting problems. The legacy of its slaveholding past has not gone away, and racism remains a fact of life there. It is also grappling with an economic slowdown that is forcing businesses and the government to cut back on all fronts; it may even have to seek funds from the IMF once again. (Africa is suffering from a similar slowdown, mostly caused by falling demand for commodities.) Many of Brazil’s biggest companies have been tarnished by a corruption scandal focusing on its state-owned oil company, Petrobras. But depressions don’t last forever, and Brazil remains a development success story and a natural leader for the Southern Hemisphere. Continued Brazilian engagement in sub-Saharan Africa should bring benefits to both sides.

One more for the road.