There may not be tanks on the street and no one shuttering the media or jailing opposition intellectuals, but don’t let the seemingly tranquil pictures from Rio fool you. The 31st Olympic Games, which open later this week, are taking place in a country embroiled in extraordinary political turmoil that some observers say amounts to a “soft coup.”
The Brazilian leader who will welcome the world’s Olympic delegations, Michel Temer, holds the unimposing title of “interim president.’’ (He is officially still the vice president.) He came to power in May after Brazil’s Senate impeached President Dilma Rousseff, the elected president and head of the left-wing Worker’s Party, or PT. For the moment, Temer’s ascension is a victory for the country’s business elite and his pledges to slash spending on government programs, which has reassured investors. But his administration and centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, or PMDB, face a fractious and divided Congress that may well not follow his lead.
Temer has plenty of critics. He appointed an all-male, all-white cabinet in a country in which more than half the population identifies as mixed race or black. And to the great consternation of Brazilian researchers, his first pick for science minister was a creationist.
Rousseff, the country’s first female president, was accused of doing something that has been widely seen as standard procedure for her and her predecessors: shuffling budget money to fund popular social programs before her 2014 reelection bid. (She denies the charges.)
After her impeachment in May, evidence surfaced that pointed to a more compelling reason the opposition wanted her gone as fast as possible. Temer’s political allies were recorded discussing plans to push Rousseff out of office so they could take power and shut down an Olympic-sized inquiry into corruption in Petrobras, the partially state-owned oil company.
A raft of politicians, including Temer himself and many in Rousseff’s Worker’s Party, are accused of taking bribes from Petrobras, whose board Rousseff chaired before she became president in 2011.
Rousseff has not been linked to the scandal.
“I consider this a soft coup,” said Richard Graham, professor emeritus of history at the University of Texas at Austin whose specialty is Brazil. “Legally they have the authority to remove her from office but the charges are ridiculous,” Graham said.
Not everyone agrees. Rosental Alves, founder and director of the Knight Center of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, said that while the pretext may have been flimsy, Rousseff’s removal followed the procedures set by Brazilian law.
“We are Latin Americans, and we know what a coup is. A coup, like the last real one in Honduras, was when the military storms the presidential palace in the middle of the night, puts a gun to the president’s head and takes him off in his pajamas,” said Alves, a Rio native, or carioca. “You can say what has happened is unfair and unjust, and that the crimes she are being accused of are very weak. But they are all done within the legal framework created by the Constitution.”
Brazil’s politics have long been a source of consternation in a country that has struggled to build democratic traditions. A professional clown ran for Parliament several years ago and garnered a near-record number of votes with a platform that declared: “What does a federal deputy do? Truly, I don’t know. But vote for me and I will find out for you.’’
To understand what’s happened to Rousseff, you need to go back to 2002, when Brazilians elected Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, known simply as Lula, as president. Lula, who will now stand trial in the Petrobras case, was a unique figure in Brazilian history, a self-made man from the desperately poor Northeast region who learned to read at 10. He had enormous popular appeal and charisma and he took office at what turned out to be a propitious moment. The country was just beginning to exploit oil reserves, the world economy was beginning to boom, and the Chinese were buying up massive quantities of soy beans.
Investors spoke glowing of the BRICs, the emerging nations whose economies would dominate the world in the 21st century. (Yes, that actually stood for Brazil, Russia, India, and China.)
In 2009, when Rio won the bid to host the Games – an effort Lula spearheaded, and to which Rousseff, his protégée, dedicated her presidency—Brazil seemed full of promise. It was a moment “when everything seemed possible… It was Brazil’s turn,” wrote Juliana Barbassa, a Brazilian-born journalist and the author of Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro and the Olympic Dream.
The country’s economy was booming due in part to economic policies Lula implemented, and in 2010, the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 7.5 percent. Five years later, Brazil’s GDP had plummeted by -3.8 percent in large part because of the collapse of the fossil fuel industry. Rousseff, Lula’s handpicked successor, began her second term in 2015, just as the worst recession in 80 years took hold. Her difficulties were compounded by the Zika virus epidemic and the international spectacle of a city seemingly unprepared to host the Olympics later this week.
Rousseff’s impeachment trial appears likely to be under way during the Olympics, with a verdict expected by September. Brazilian observers don’t expect her to last: “She’s out,” said Bryan McCann, a professor of Latin American history at Georgetown University.
Many in Brazil remain hopeful that Games themselves will go smoothly but the months leading up to the game have featured a steady drip of negative stories. One involved cariocas’ particular brand of irreverent humor. After the Australian delegation complained in late July that its athletes’ apartments in the Olympic Village had leaky plumbing, blocked toilets and exposed wires, Rio’s mayor Eduardo Paes cracked that he would import a kangaroo to the quarters to make the athletes feel more at home. Within a few days, the structural problems were repaired, and to patch things up, Kitty Chiller, the Australian delegation leader, presented Paes with a stuffed kangaroo. (It happened to be wearing boxing gloves.)
“Big spectacles? Rio can do that, even in strained circumstances,” said McCann. After all, it manages the extravagance of Carnival every year. The real losers in these Games, McCann said, are likely to be ordinary cariocas. Tens of thousands of poor families were relocated in order to make room for Olympic venues, and so far the improvements promised for the Games have not materialized. The world has seen endless images of untreated sewage, old TV sets, and dead bodies float in the putrid Guanabara Bay, the venue for sailing and rowing events. Delays have plagued the extension of subway lines. Urban violence remains problematic.
“It’s a lost opportunity for the people of Rio,” McCann said.
And Brazilians, who typically unite over sports, are feeling pessimistic about being under the world’s spotlight. In July, the polling firm Datafolha (PDF link in Portuguese) found that half feared the chaos of the Games will make them feel more national shame than pride. (Two years ago, the vast majority said they looked forward to them.)
But Alves, the journalism professor, expects those feelings to change once Games get underway. It’s not for nothing that Rio is called “The City of God”: views of its sweeping coastline, rugged Mantiqueira mountains, and endless supply of caipirinhas, the cachaça, sugar, and lime concoction that is the national drink, will likely ease many of the inevitable challenges. “The city,” said Alves, speaking from Rio, “is just so beautiful. And you can say this much about us: We know how to party.”