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.
RIO DE JANEIRO — On Friday, Dilma Rousseff is expected to become the first duly elected head of state in nearly four decades to not attend the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games being held in his or her country.
The reason? Well, it’s numerous and complicated but it begins with impeachment proceedings that have caused her to be stripped of all power and ends with her chief political rival becoming her replacement, on an interim basis for now, and declining to offer Rousseff access to the VIP suite at Olympic Stadium. His office did encourage her to attend and sit “in the stands below him.”
Needless to say Rousseff, who claims the impeachment is just an attempt at a bloodless coup, wasn’t enthralled with that option.
“I do not intend to take a secondary role in the Games in Rio,” she told the media.
And so the Opening Ceremony, where the host head of state routinely appears in front of a packed stadium and a global television audience that might approach one billion and announces the official opening of the Games, will go off without the elected or traditionally recognized leader (in non-democracies) for the first time since 1980. That’s when United States vice president Walter Mondale stood in for President Jimmy Carter at the Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y. Why didn’t Carter go? Back then, the Olympics weren’t considered that big of a deal, so U.S. presidents never went to the Olympics. Ronald Reagan was the first at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.
Such political tumult is not ideal as the world focuses on Brazil. The country hoped to use the Olympics as a way to rebrand itself as a safe, modern country that’s ideal for business investment and tourism.
Instead, there is this, which around here it is just shrugged off as another day in national politics. After all, not only is Rousseff under the cloud of impeachment, her presidential predecessor and political mentor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, is himself under investigation for corruption.
Back in the U.S., voters have historically negative opinions of major presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The approval rating for Congress is often in single digits. You’d have to be hopelessly naïve to believe there isn’t a measure of malfeasance at almost any level of government, from the White House to City Hall.
Yet, Americans can take heart in this … at least we aren’t Brazil.
If you think U.S. politics is a train wreck, compared to here we’re some kind of example of good government out of an idealistic high school civics class. Viewing it through that prism can help make America great again. Or something like that.
To answer the question on how the Olympics got to this overwhelmed developing country in the first place, let alone how Brazil spent an estimated $26 billion (and counting) on the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics — yet still have sewage openly flowing into Rio river ways — you could start with the politicians.
In this case that means Lula da Silva, president from 2003-11. Like a Brazilian soccer star, he’s known by one name, Lula, and was once immensely popular; he was born of the working class to an illiterate mother.
He brought the World Cup and Olympics to Brazil, managing to win favor of voters from both FIFA and IOC, two groups not exactly known for their fair and clean elections. To win a World Cup and an Olympics back to back ought to, in itself, be a crime because the low probability that one, let alone both, could occur without nefarious conduct. It’s a feat duplicated only by Vlad Putin. Maybe Lula did it honestly. If so, he’s the greatest politician of all time.
There were various scandals throughout Lula’s terms, but things really ratcheted up after he left office. In March, his home was raided and he was questioned in a bribery scheme involving a major Brazilian oil company.
That’s when Rousseff, who was his chief of staff and then succeeded him as President, gave him a job on her staff, the benefit of which is that top Brazilian governmental officials enjoy special legal protections. (Gee, can’t imagine how that might backfire and lead to corruption.) A Brazilian Supreme Court justice, however, blocked the appointment noting it was an obvious effort to save Lula from prosecution.
He was indicted last week on obstruction of justice charges, although not before declaring, “I doubt that anyone in this country is more law-abiding than me.” Apparently, the judge does doubt that.
Rousseff, of course, has her own problems. As Time magazine recaps: “a vast corruption scandal at state oil giant Petrobras, which occurred when Rousseff served as chair of its board, swallowed the political class and contributed to what could be Brazil’s worst recession since records began in 1901. The investigation, known as ‘Car Wash,’ revealed an entrenched web of kickbacks worth billions flowing between politicians, officials, construction firms and political parties, with her own re-election campaign in 2014 implicated in the graft.”
That’s a heck of a paragraph. And yet that isn’t even why she was impeached. She’s accused of breaking fiscal responsibility statutes, namely claiming a budget deficit was a surplus. Rousseff claims innocence and says this was just an attempt to unseat her. In the spirit of bi-partisanship and an attempt to not further humiliate the country, her impeachment trial was rescheduled after the Games.
Mostly, though, the people of Brazil are just furious that no one seems focused on making Brazil great again, or even great for the first time. The World Cup construction was absurd, with modern soccer stadiums built in small cities where such a thing wasn’t essential, and an acute need for hospitals, schools, roads, drainage and sewage control — true basics of life — does exist.
Landing the Olympics in Rio came with a promise to do something about infrastructure, most notably the longstanding tradition of pouring raw sewage into local waters. Seven years later, the filth still flows and the world looks on in outrage. Maybe there was no way to stop Zika or end street crime, but they couldn’t even start a new sewer system?
It’s a sentiment shared by the locals. A recent poll found that 56 percent of them want to leave Rio … for good.
So as Lula deals with his troubles and Rousseff deals with hers, an Olympics facing almost unprecedented uncertainty and challenges officially kicks off here on Friday. The torch will be lit. A parade and party will be staged.
And for the first time in decades, the person who is supposed to be in charge of the host nation won’t be there to see it, let alone ring the historic moment in.
All things considered, that might be the only part of the story that makes any sense here in Brazil.