South America has been a special part of my life for four decades. I have lived many years in Brasil and Peru. I am married to an incredible lady from Argentina. I want to share South America with you.
Leading visitors around one of the sites that in under four months’ time will host the 2016 Olympic Games, Rio de Janeiro mayor Eduardo Paes — sleeves rolled up and sweating under the scorching sun — is keen to stress the positives.
The 1.2m square-metre Barra Olympic Park complex, where medals will be won and lost in 16 sports including swimming, cycling and gymnastics, is close to completion, he insists. Around him, workmen install the last of the seats and a few athletes carry out final tests of the facilities.
“Everything is well in hand, well-organised and practically ready," says the man in comments that are in stark contrast to the sense of crisis and allegations of corruption that have dogged South America’s first Olympics. “Is everything resolved? No. There is always still a screw to fix here or there. But I’m working 20 hours a day. I’m very proud.”
Brazilian politics are engulfed in crisis, with President Dilma Rousseff facing impeachment in a crucial Congress vote and her government seemingly unable to stop the economy from shrinking. Amid such problems, Mr Paes, who at 46 has already spent half his life in politics, has stepped in to fill the vacuum to become the public face of Rio 2016.
Some believe the man who has led Brazil’s second-largest city since 2008 could be a future presidential candidate, even if his career has not been without blemishes. He was recently caught on leaked police recordings joking with Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva about the corruption allegations faced by the former president.
But speaking to journalists with the strong accent of a carioca — as Rio residents are known — he rejects criticism over the Olympic preparations, especially of corruption.
Rio is the home of Petrobras, the state oil group at the centre of a spiralling corruption scandal, in which former company executives, such as Paulo Roberto Costa, are accused of collaborating with politicians to extract bribes from construction companies. Mr Paes’ name has been mentioned in the investigation, but he has not been charged with anything and insists he is “clean”.
“In the municipal [Olympic] projects, I guarantee there was none [corruption],” he insists. Challenged to explain why the Olympics should be any cleaner than Petrobras, he says: “Because over there they had Paulo Roberto Costa. And over here you have Eduardo Paes. That’s it.”
He dismisses fears that Ms Rousseff’s possible impeachment could leave the country without an elected president during the Olympics. The government is still functioning, Mr Paes says, noting how Ms Rousseff opened a sports centre in Rio last week. “Brazil is no longer a banana republic … we are living through an intense political crisis yet governments are still working,” he adds.
The mayor also rejects the idea that the games are elitist. Of the R$40bn spent on Olympic-inspired projects, 57 per cent was private sector money, he says. The majority of public cash went on projects that will benefit the city, he insists, including dedicated bus links that have more than trebled the proportion of the population who have access to mass transport to 63 per cent.
Only R$7bn of the total went into facilities such as the stadiums, he adds, and of that 60 per cent came from the private sector. “This [elitism] criticism is made by those who do not know the city — who sit in Ipanema drinking a caipirinha,” Mr Paes snaps, referring to Rio’s elite beachside neighbourhood.
"Who’s going to use the BRT [dedicated bus lines]? The rich kid who protests against inequality while travelling in his own car … or the worker who will use the BRT to go to work and back to his house?”
The mayor admits some things are out of his control, such as delays to the rail extension to take visitors towards the Barra Olympic Park site and the clean-up of Rio’s polluted bay. These were matters for the state government, he says.
The other issues that have dogged preparations for the games, the mosquito-borne Zika virus and the threat of violent crime and terrorism, are also largely the responsibility of state or federal governments, he adds.
Health officials believe the Zika threat will be reduced by the time the games begin in August, with Rio’s dry season offering fewer opportunities for mosquitoes to breed. On terror, a drug war has raged for decades in Rio’s favelas, but religious extremism is almost unheard of in the city.
Yet those who would disagree with Mr Paes’ optimism are easy to find. Only two years ago, John Coates, vice-president of the International Olympic Committee, said Rio’s preparations were the worst in recent memory. Others doubt whether the games will pass off without event. “In all probability, Brazil will not have a legitimate and stable government during the games,” says Rafael Alcadipani, an academic at Getulio Vargas Foundation. “If we have a security situation, this could be problematic.”
Yet the mayor’s confidence is supported by José Mariano Beltrame, Rio state security secretary who points out the city has successfully hosted many events in the past decade, including the 2014 football World Cup.
“The games could start on Monday and we would be prepared,” Mr Beltrame says.
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