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Rio 2016: with one year to go, how has Lula’s legacy fared?

In August 2016, the Games of the 31st Olympiad will officially open in the Estadio do Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. For the host nation, Rio 2016 is the culmination of a range of political, economic, social, and cultural ambitions.

The foremost advocate of Rio 2016 – former populist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – said of the games during the bid process: “For others it is just another games. For us it will be an unparalleled opportunity.” But whether da Silva’s populist legacy is enough to see the games through to success is open to question.

Lula’s legacy

Da Silva – popularly referred to as Lula – is a man of humble beginnings. Working class by birth, upbringing, and profession, the former machine operator is widely recognised as a man of the people. Considered the most prominent member of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) when coming into power, Lula derived his political support from a widespread dissatisfaction with the inequalities of Brazilian society, and a disillusionment with the political leaders who failed to address them. Lula was swept into power on the wave of progressive populism in 2003, and served two terms.

Once in office, Lula moderated his anti-capitalist tone. He strategically engaged with global capitalist forces, as well as embarking on his more widely anticipated social welfare agenda. Continuing the policies of his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Lula observed an economic orthodoxy, while distinguishing his administration through large-scale social initiatives, most notably the Bolsa Família.

On the left, he was criticised for maintaining market-oriented economic policies. Meanwhile, the right was wary of him enacting a more overt socialist agenda. The centre-left Lula government balanced its moderate agenda against its interest in maintaining a parliamentary majority. Upholding a broad and unstable set of alliances imposed puzzling contradictions on Lula, his government, and the PT. Even so, the party remains in power today under Dilma Rousseff – Brazil’s first woman president.

The promise of Rio 2016

Unlike other candidate cities such as Chicago, Madrid, and Tokyo – whose funding relied heavily on private capital – the Rio 2016 bid pledged unrivalled use of public funding at city, state, and federal levels.

In addition to the US$2.82bn budget for the Organising Committee of the Olympic Games, US$11.1bn was pledged toward capital investments to Rio’s urban condition. Planned improvements include enhancements to public transport, a high-speed rail system and approximately 300km of new traffic lanes. There are also plans to upgrade Rio Galeão International airport, put in place better environmental management systems, power and security equipment, and enable city-wide Wi-Fi access.

These ambitious plans are a sure sign that the games are being used by Rio and Brazil as a springboard to rebrand. Rio’s bid to the International Olympic Committee was led by four short films, created by Academy Award-nominated director Fernando Meirelles. The films represented a “New Rio” as emblematic, and symptomatic, of a “New Brazil”, while also positioning Rio as a destination which would further globalise the Olympic community and “unite the world like never before”.

One of Meirelles’ depictions of the “New Rio”

Brazil continues to draw in tourists through stereotypical images of samba, sun, sea, and futbol. But when it comes to “brand Brazil”, there’s a thin line between sticking to the stereotypes, and getting stuck in them. The Olympics was heralded as Brazil’s moment to gain reputation and influence beyond Carnival and the football pitch.

But preparations for the games are overshadowed by some of the same dark clouds that plagued the 2014 FIFA World Cup – namely, a lack of transparency and vagueness around costs. The estimated cost of the World Cup stadiums ranges from slightly over US$3.6 billion more than planned to three or four times the initial amount. Worse, the stadiums built across the country have been referred to as white elephants. While they looked the part for the World Cup, these developments are seen to do little for the people, communities, and cities in which they were constructed at considerable cost to the government.

Currently, construction for the Olympic Games is behind schedule. Political corruption appears widespread, in line with the stereotypes of Brazilian politics and business practices. The latest incident involves Petrobas, the state-owned oil company, and several other companies contributing to the preparations for the games.

The games have also come under scrutiny for environmental reasons. Testing has shown that the competitive waters of Guanabara Bay are so contaminated with animal carcasses, rubbish, and human fecal matter that boating athletes training in the waters are liable to fall ill. The Brazilian government later admitted that although efforts were underway to address the issue, it may not reach its goal of reducing water pollution by 80% ahead of the games.

And so it would seem that political populism has its limits. Now one year away, Rio 2016 appears less a catalyst for a “New” Brazil or a “New” Rio, and more a short-term theatre production. The preparations so far have not adequately addressed the long-standing issues of poverty and inequality, crime and violence, environmental degradation, and political corruption – all of which have been raised by the movements (such as copa para quem? and Movimento Anti-Copa de Decoração de Ruas) opposing the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games. In the end, Lula’s legacy may prove to be one from which President Rousseff wishes she could escape.

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