João Augusto de Castro Neves is the Latin American director at Eurasia Group.
The media’s tone in covering preparations for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro has been in sharp contrast to the city’s beautiful scenery. With fear of terrorist attacks, cost overruns and delays with venues and infrastructure, the state of Rio’s financial collapse, the threat of police forces going on strike, the Zika virus, water pollution, rising street violence, and Dilma Rousseff’s upcoming impeachment vote, there’s a long list of prospective culprits in case the event becomes a flop. Aside from the usual minor logistical mishaps and expected anti-government protests, and barring a major disruption (knock on wood), however, the games are likely to transpire with relative ease.
Unfortunately, for most Brazilians, the Rio Olympics isn’t about medals. It’s about money. In particular, the monumental amount of resources that was diverted from much-needed public services toward construction of sporting venues, the launch of marketing campaigns, and investment in infrastructure is of questionable long-term value. Then there’s the corruption. And this is only two years after another major international sporting event, the World Cup, generated another major spending spree.
It’s not a coincidence that, in recent years, Brazil’s relatively calm political landscape was rocked by a wave of protests of millions of people voicing their discontent toward an unresponsive—and occasionally irresponsible—political class. Though these events brought the promise of economic prosperity and improved infrastructure, what Brazilians got instead was nothing short of a “lost decade” in two years of recession and a herd of shiny white elephants, with little to no economic infrastructure around them.
The Olympic Games—or the World Cup, for that matter—were never a solution to Brazil’s problems. Unfortunately, there seems to be no silver bullet for that. But one could say that at the core of Brazil’s current crisis is a political system that is prone to consume a great amount of resources. In fact, the constant need for a president to build multiparty coalitions to win elections and then to govern is one of the main reasons behind the long list of corruption scandals that have come about in the past decades. To be sure, corruption scandals are nothing new in Brazil, but over the last few years, they’ve grown in scope and become increasingly intertwined with national political struggles.
So aside from the much-talked about need for economic reforms—many of which are underway under the new Michel Temer government—the challenge for Brazil’s leaders will be to make the country’s political system more efficient and responsive to the changing demands of society. A political reform that reduces the numbers of parties and makes campaigns less expensive, for example, would be a promising step to reduce many of the incentives for corruption that have plagued every government in the last three decades. But this process would be more like a multiyear marathon, not a short 100-meter dash.
Despite all of the negative headlines, the political repercussion of the Rio Olympics for the current government tends to be limited. With the global spotlight on Rio coinciding with the timing of Rousseff’s impeachment—which is expected to happen later this month—it is reasonable to expect some demonstrations, mostly against President Temer. However, rather than provide an accurate reflection of growing discontent, these protests will create a false perception that public opinion is shifting away from Temer to favor Rousseff. The protests will, however, benefit from—and be amplified by—intense media coverage—more smoke than fire on that front.
As for the risk of terrorist attacks, these are obviously hard times to make predictions, particularly given how little sophistication—and how much insanity—is needed to conduct a deadly rampage. But historically, Brazil hasn’t been a target. Moreover, the arrest of a group of suspected terrorists in late July, ostensibly for posing a threat to the Games, seems to have been more of a false alarm than a real risk. The group’s supposed links to international terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State, are sketchy at best, and it appears there was no planning of an actual attack—only somewhat vague and amateurish demonstrations of sympathies toward terrorists. In fact, the arrest was probably motivated by the government’s desire to be seen as proactive in tackling security risks, and by security forces that are seeking more resources and support by raising awareness of the risks the country may face.
If there’s a lesson that can be learned from all of this, it’s that jumping doesn’t make you taller. The World Cup and the Olympics, unsurprisingly, were not a passport to great power status, as some Brazilian leaders enthusiastically hoped. Social and economic development require long-term planning and more scrutiny with regards to public spending. The hope now is that popular discontent will prevent politicians from making the same mistakes or false promises.