Brazil is rapidly approaching a historic milestone: in August, Rio de Janeiro become the first South American city to ever host the Olympic Games. But there’s another, less auspicious, Olympic milestone that will be crossed soon, too: Brazil will be the first country to feature two host presidents at its opening ceremony. Dilma Rousseff, the country’s president and self-proclaimed “mother” of the Rio Olympics, has been suspended from office and is awaiting trial in what her supporters say amounts to a coup. The organizer of her ouster, her former vice-president Michel Temer, has been asked by Olympic organizers to preside at the opening ceremony as the country’s interim president—but Rousseff has been granted an invitation well.
The country’s National Congress has become a battleground between Rousseff’s Workers’ Party against its opponents on the right, with politicians of all stripes drowning in a massive corruption scandal. These concerns are all underscored by a substantially downtrodden economy. The upcoming Olympic spotlight attracts the attention not only of Brazilian authorities, but of nations and organizations from around the world, which unsatisfied citizens might exploit to voice their dissatisfactions. So what can visitors and viewers expect from the Brazilian public at the world’s biggest international sporting event?
The context of the country’s woes is lengthy. Rousseff was officially suspended on May 12, and now must wait for her impeachment trial, which is due to happen sometime within 180 days of the suspension. The public has responded to Temer’s ascencion to the presidency in many ways, most commonly with the phrase Fora Temer, which means “Temer, Get Out.” This tagline has popped up all over the country in the form of graffiti, posters, tweets, and in speeches, a shorthand for what many consider to be an illegitimate government.
Rousseff stands accused of mismanaging federal funds and distorting national economic performance. She has denied these accusations, and in June independent auditors hired by the senate found these allegations to be without merit. Rousseff’s party, the Worker’s Party or PT, ushered in an unprecedented era of economic growth thanks to its consensus-based approach to governance. Rousseff worked hard to establish an anti-corruption reputation, but her tenure as the chairwoman of the Petrobras board when nearly 20 billion Reais (US$5.3 billion) was illegally exchanged in the form of bribes has called that reputation has come into serious question.
The web of corruption in Brazil is far-reaching, due to a long history of economic inequality and invulnerable politicians. Combating white-collar crime is nearly impossible. Many in Brazil’s National Congress enthusiastically supported Rousseff’s impeachment under the guise of condemning corruption—yet more than 150 of those same Senators and Deputies are under investigation for crimes ranging from illegal enrichment to even to attempted murder. The Petrobras corruption investigation is known as Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash), because one of the first money-laundering fences the authorities discovered executives using was a car wash business.
Petrobras, officially known as Petróleo Brasileiro SA, is an oil & gas giant that played a large role in energizing Brazil’s economy in the past decade. The corruption within it took the form of a cartel, in which Petrobras leaders allowed a group of construction companies to massively overcharge them in their development contracts. Construction executives would keep the surplus from these contracts, and return some of it to Petrobras leaders, as well as helpful politicians, as kickbacks. They would also keep some for themselves. Since Petrobras is state-run, these bribes often took the form of campaign donations. Even though Rousseff denies any knowledge of corruption while she was chairwoman, many have suggested that she is guilty not only of financial negligence, but abusing the public-private ownership structure of Petrobras and funding her election campaigns with stolen money. Furthermore, the same companies that organized this cartel with Petrobras are now expected to build the majority of Olympic infrastructure and stadiums.
Brazil’s political crisis began to receive international attention around the same time that the world eagerly turned its gaze towards Rio in anticipation of the Summer Games. Demonstrating the unbelievable growth the country had experienced recently was a major element of the Brazilian bid for the Olympics, yet Brazil, despite having the strongest South American economy, has been struggling through one of its worst recessions in almost a century. Mario Andrada, the Organizing Committee director of communications, has claimed that “no other country in Olympic history has lived through such difficult political times so sharply close to the Games.”
While some are busy buying tickets or following the torch, student and Salvador local Heron Sena has been participating in an occupation of Salvador’s Ministerio da Cultura building, protesting the Temer interim presidency. While he admitted Dilma Rousseff is far from perfect, he believes the impeachment is more than just a coverup for the Lava Jato investigation, as many suspect — Sena believes it is an effort to keep Brazilian policy centralized within the same small elite group, and furthermore, that it is part of an international containment of the progressive left’s advances all across Latin America. Protesting this is so important to him, and the other 50 or so participants of the occupation, that they refuse to leave the building until Temer steps down.
With so much at stake, one would expect Rio 2016 to be the perfect soft-diplomacy platform for Brazil to take a big step in the right direction—except the country remains divided about what the right direction is. Further, most within the occupation were dismissive about the significance of the Olympics to them, and especially didn’t expect the Games to bring any tangible changes to their own lives. “We already know about the prejudice events such as the World Cup will leave in an underdeveloped country”, Sena explains, “and our occupation could not have any sort of presence [at the Olympics] because the law does not allow it.”
Their occupation began in response to Michel Temer’s inauguration almost immediately, and the Salvador team here quickly united with 11 different cities occupying in similar fashion through mediums such as Facebook and Twitter. They host gatherings most weekends, which give the impression of just another samba party from a distance. The drumming and singing is overpowering, but upon arrival, it’s clear there is nothing casual about their parties. The chants, the speeches, the dances, the slam poetry, the musical performances — it’s all in protest. Their Twitter videos capture the experience well, and most are entertaining just from the sheer talent of the protestors. In one of the final moments one Saturday night, a girl and her cross-dressing friend concluded their speech by spontaneously and completely undressing on stage, earning the most vigorous applause, and the longest “Fora Temer!” chant of the night.
Their weekend events were certainly entertaining, but the occupation’s real purpose is to organize workers, artists and other cultural movements to collectively speak out their dissatisfaction for Temer’s government, which they all consider to be illegitimate. And almost all participants saw potential for the Olympic spotlight to facilitate change in combatting corruption throughout the country and worldwide. The unprecedented amount of international journalists focusing on the country will all be untainted by the suppressive Brazilian media. There’s no doubt their focus will be the athletic events, Sena conceded, but if there is a bigger story to be found in dismantling the country’s corruption, who is there to stop them from exposing it?
Oppression and corruption are not exclusive to Brazil, nor is the struggle to remove dishonest politicians. Yet with any knowledge of the country’s exceptionally elaborate system of corruption, the hundreds of convictions that have already allowed for 93 convictions offer some encouragement for change, and they show how this summer could be a huge victory in the name of justice. “Corruption is a very serious problem, so the investigation should not be obstructed in any way, even if our national reputation is demoralized, even if companies do not invest in Brazil,” said Sena. “If we preserve our image, and by extension these politicians, we will sacrifice a lot of more essential things.” Other participants passing through the building stopped to nod their heads in agreement upon hearing these words. To them, the Olympics offers the unique opportunity to finish a historic exposure of the country’s biggest problems, rather than flaunting Ipanema beach and Christ the Redeemer as if life was still business as usual.
Despite such potential, most of the students expressed anxiety anxious at even the suggestion of protesting their government at the Olympics because of anti-terrorism laws in place for the event. Brazil has no history of conventional terrorism, nor any real connection with existing political conflicts overseas, yet security chief for the state of Rio de Janeiro, Jose Mariano Beltrame, has publicly stated that “terrorism is the number one worry” for the Games. A total of 85,000 security personnel will be employed for the event, making it the most extensive security operation in the country’s history. And since the passing of ambiguous legislation that blurs the distinction between protest and terrorism, concerns have arisen that civil society’s fundamental rights may be restricted throughout the Games. This worried Sena, who believes that as long as Temer remains in power, the chances of erratic, violent crime will be higher. Correspondingly, he believes, the Temer administration would not refrain from exploiting a public terrorist attack or other similar tragedies to justify the suspension of civil liberties.
Jessica Carvalho, a 27-year-old who recently moved to Salvador from São Paulo, offered more insight into the possibility of protest at the Olympics. She is not a direct participant of the Fora Temer movement because she has been traveling most of this year, but she has been involved in civil protest throughout her life, most prominently in the widespread 2013 protests that led to millions marching on the streets of Brazil’s biggest cities. While students and citizens mostly prioritize eliminating corruption, Carvalho believes the government has a large interest in maintaining a reputation. “The media still wants to sell Brazil as a happy place,” she explained, noting that events like the World Cup and the Olympics are perfect examples to do just that. To demonstrate her point, she discussed her experience engaging in some of the first protests of 2013; back then, she noticed that the mass of peaceful protesters were often ignored by the media in favor of the loners who violently confronted police. Similarly, she and her friends would see images on social media of the same aggressive individual photographed on different sides of the same protest, inciting violence in both.
The conclusion she drew was that the government or opposition parties paid people to create a chaotic, dangerous environment in order to dissuade protests. Repressing dissenting opinions is not new in Brazil; while the government has still not acknowledged these accusations, Reporters Without Borders has cited 190 attacks on journalists, mostly by the police, within those same 2013-2014 protests. This is among many reasons RWB labeled Brazil one of the most dangerous places on the continent for journalists. Carvalho sees no possibility for any protest at the Olympics, and believes “the reputation of Brazil is not something we have control over.”
The Games themselves have become a source for protest. In some cases, Olympic infrastructure has come at the expense of entire communities, justifying evictions without compensation. Brazil is muddling through very serious problems that have escaped its Congress for years. But that doesn’t mean this is the end — corruption has never been properly exposed on such a grand scale, civil society is arguably as politically-informed as ever, and of course, the Olympics have never been hosted in South America before. This summer could be one of the most significant transformations in Brazil’s modern history. The absence of protest at the Games, moreover, does not signify the absence of civil discontent within the country. Make sure to look beyond the gates of Olympic Park to grasp the reality of life in Brazil in August.