No Major Effect

Paulo Sotero
Director, Brazil Institute, Wilson Center

The Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro – starting today – had the potential to boost Brazil’s international image. Director of the Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute and Brazil native, Paulo Sotero, tells The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder that this was always an exaggeration. However, he says the Games are somewhat of a missed opportunity.

TCB: If the Olympic Games in Brazil go well – that is, if there are no major security breaches and if the competitions run smoothly – what will this do for Brazil’s international image? And, conversely, if the Games don’t go well, what will be the effect?

Paulo Sotero: I think in either scenario it will not have a major effect. If things go reasonably well, people will understand that this is what happens in major sporting events globally. Before, there’s always a tendency to exaggerate or highlight the negatives: that the country’s not ready, that the venues will not be ready in time, and that the country has various negative aspects. And then, when you come closer to the events, people realize that what needed to be ready was, in fact, ready.

In the case of Brazil, there was an enormous number of negative things happening in the period leading to the Games, produced mostly as a consequence of decisions made in Brazil by Brazilian officials in government and the private sector. Many of those decisions are related to a criminal investigation of Brazil’s largest company, Petrobras that became public in March 2014. The investigations, which have exacerbated the country’s economic and political crisis, are supported by nine out of ten Brazilians. We did not know about these crimes when the Olympics were awarded to Brazil in 2009.

There is a great frustration in Brazil now about the Games. In 2009, it was supported by 96 percent of the population. Today, that number is around 40 percent. Even in Rio de Janeiro, which is hosting the Games, large chunks of the population say they are not interested. One important detail: Every piece of bad news about the Olympics and about Brazil was reported and published first in Brazil, by Brazilian journalists and media. So, the allegation that there is an international negative media campaign sounds hollow.

The environment has also changed. The Brazilian economy is now in an unprecedented third consecutive year of recession, 11 million people are unemployed, and there is a very difficult ongoing criminal trial involving dozens of businessmen and politicians. Basically, the country is not in the mood to host the Olympics, but having made the commitment, Brazil will do so.

Expectations are very low. I assume that once the Opening Ceremony kicks off, people watching the Games on television will be positively surprised about the beauty of Rio, which is in one of the world’s most spectacular urban settings. And tourists will enjoy the warm welcome they will receive by the cariocas, as Rio’s people are known.

With regards to security, many precautions were taken to make the city safe for tourists. I would even venture to say that tourists would enjoy going up the hills and talking to the people living in the communities there, the so called favelas. There are millions of people who live in those areas. Those are very lively communities. People tend to equate favelas with crime. Yes, there’s crime and plenty of problems there and elsewhere. But there are also families, schools, small businesses, restaurants, bars, and the best music in Rio. There is much more to Rio than the stereotypical picture of crime and slums. We may have a repetition of what happened in the 2014 World Cup. Most foreign tourists who came to the twelve cities in Brazil where the games were held left saying they had a wonderful time and would come back.   

So I think the Games will go well – assuming, obviously, that we will not have a terrorist event. Host countries traditionally increase their average number of medals in the Olympics. Brazil normally gets 15 to 20 medals total and about three to five gold. Brazilian athletes my do better in Rio.

That being said, the Rio Olympics is certainly a missed opportunity. Brazilians were told by the government in 2009 that this would be a coming out party of the nation as a  new global player—some people even talked about Brazil as a global power, which was an obvious exaggeration.

TCB: You mentioned that you don’t think security will be an issue. However, in the past, Brazil has been criticized because ridding cities of crime has also been accompanied by human rights abuses by the Brazilian police. Is this something we could see during the Olympics?

PS: No. First of all, there is no “Brazilian police.” Brazil is a huge country. Police forces are organized by 26 states, a federal district, and major cities among the 5,600 plus municipalities in Brazil. The focus here is the state police in Rio de Janeiro. Crime in Rio has been trending downward over the past few years (with a small spike this year). There have also been some experiments with community policing in Rio that have produced positive results, but this needs to be sustained by other factors, like job creation and provision of health and educational services in the poorer communities.

There is a stereotype that police in Brazil, in order to make the Olympics safer, will commit all kinds of abuses. Again, the Olympics will not be taking place all over Brazil.  The Games will be played for two weeks in one major city in Brazil, which was once the country’s capital. The focus must be on the Rio police force and the work it will conduct in coordination with a national police force that is called into service when needed and military forces that will also provide security. I believe this will go reasonably well. People will feel very safe and welcome in Rio during the Olympics.

Of course, there have been cases of police abuse – this is a constant in major cities in Brazil. But the world’s attention on Brazil during the Olympics adds to the local pressure on security forces to do what they’re paid to do: to prevent crime and protect the people without adding to the problems of public safety, which are real. The international presence is a positive and will help   reinforce the message. Nobody is more interested in security in Rio than its inhabitants.

TCB: If there is a major international security breach – for example, an ISIS attack – do you think the Brazilian government and Rio authorities will be blamed for not preparing adequately?

PS: The Brazilian government and Rio authorities are taking the possibility of a terrorist attack during the Games very seriously. The only criticism I have heard is that they started taking this seriously a little bit late, that is, they should have started having this attitude earlier.

Still, the fact is now the police intelligence forces in Brazil are working with international intelligence forces. As a result, a couple of weeks ago 12 Brazilians were arrested by the police in Brazil, working with intelligence officers from the U.S., Europe, and other countries, on suspicions of having tried to established connection with terrorists.

A terrorist attack is a terrorist attack. There is always a debate on whether governments are prepared for an attack. There was such a debate in the U.S. after 9/11. But if someone decides to grab hold of a couple assault weapons and start shooting people on the beach at noon on a sunny day, I don’t know how you protect against that. The possibility of a terror attack is always there.

TCB: Will the Games have any effect on domestic politics, like on the popularity of the current Temer-led government? Will it affect the timeline of Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment proceedings?

PS: Starting with the last part of that question, no. The impeachment proceedings will take place according to a timetable decided by the Brazilian Senate. There are set dates, regardless of what happens during the Olympics.

The legacy of the Olympics will be small for most Rio residents. New developments associated with the Olympics are in the Western, most affluent part of the city. There may be some benefit in terms of new public transportation in a few areas.

There is a potential positive political impact if the Games go well.   The public’s attitude is now very sour, with very low expectations. But if the Games go well, it could serve to improve the general mood in Brazil, especially as you start seeing statements by business executives and international companies announcing plans to go back to investing in Brazil. The country’s number one priority is to take control of its fiscal accounts, which is essential to resumption of sustained economic growth. That will depend on the federal and state governments tackling major  structural and regulatory reforms in order to make Brazil more inviting for domestic and international investors. I believe that is probably the scenario acting President Michel Temer has in mind. He and Brazil could certainly benefit if positive vibes generated by the Olympics are used for the purpose of regaining a measure of confidence. It will not be, however, that Temer will suddenly become popular once the Olympics are over. He could get a slight boost in popularity from a bettering of the mood in Brazil. But it will take more than an Olympic effort to get the country back onto a positive, promising path. 

The Author is Paulo Sotero

Paulo Sotero is the director of the Brazil Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. An award winning journalist, from 1989 to 2006 he was the Washington correspondent for Estado de S.Paulo, a leading Brazilian daily newspaper. He is a frequent guest commentator for the BBC, CNN, AlJazeera, Voice of America, National Public Radio, Globo News Television and the Brazilian Radio Network - CBN. He also contributes regularly to Brazilian and international... Read More

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