As the Olympics Near, Brazil and Rio Let the Bad Times Roll

  • 2016-06-30
  • The New York Times

In 2009, when Rio de Janeiro won the right to host the 2016 Olympic Games — beating out Madrid, Tokyo and Chicago — Brazil was flying high. Although it had not escaped the consequences of the 2008 financial crisis, it had suffered less economic damage, and come back more quickly, than other countries, including the United States. With the economy booming, the federal government felt so flush that its popular president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, had instituted a series of expensive social programs that helped push millions of poor Brazilians toward a better life. The Economist magazine predicted that Brazil would soon be the world’s fifth-largest economy, leapfrogging Britain and France. “I’ve never felt more pride in Brazil,” Lula (as everyone in Brazil calls him) said after Rio’s bid victory was announced. “Now, we are going to show the world we can be a great country.” He wasn’t the only one who felt that way. On Copacabana Beach in Rio, a huge party broke out.

The Games begin in six weeks, but nobody is partying anymore. The economic — and social, and political — conditions facing Brazil and Rio have changed drastically. A huge corruption scandal that began at the country’s giant oil company, Petrobras, resulted in exposés and investigations into dozens, if not hundreds, of high-ranking politicians and members of the business elite. Lula’s handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff, is being impeached for covering gaps in the government’s budget in ways that were allegedly illegal. (She has never been connected to the larger scandal, however, despite having once been the chairwoman of Petrobras.) Lula himself is under investigation.