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Top 3 predictions for Brazil in 2016

These are shaky times in Brazil, but I believe it is fairly reasonable to believe that these predictions will stand the test of time. Of course everything can change if revelations emerge sometime this year.

1 – President Dilma Rousseff will not be impeached.

What I wrote in July still stands. Then I said there were more than 10 reasons why Rousseff’s impeachment was so unlikely. And there are some new motives too.

The first new reason is political: the opposition is far from the two thirds of 513 deputies needed to send the final impeachment decision to the Senate. Even if that number is reached, it is hard to believe that the president will lose at the Senate. Rousseff’s key victory came in an alliance with the president of the Senate, Renan Calheiros, who has worked as a counterweight to lower house speaker Eduardo Cunha and Vice-President Michel Temer, both of them impeachment plotters. That division in her junior partner PMDB made it even less likely that the centrist party would unite against her in Congress.

The split has made it difficult for Cunha to hold control of PMDB deputies. And it has also created new difficulties for Temer to remain as PMDB chairman in the next party elections in March. The initial agreement with Calheiros was later incremented with an alliance with PMDB key leadership in Rio, including mayor and presidential hopeful Eduardo Paes and governor Luiz Fernando Pezao. These two hold the most precious governments run by PMDB members and have had support from Rousseff to properly host the next Olympic Games. That alliance alone could be enough to stop her impeachment.

But there is more. Unpopular Rousseff made a cabinet reshuffle last year that gave PMDB the biggest budget of her administration. When one of their deputies was awarded the helm of the Health Ministry, the chance of impeachment already dropped sharply — that is the word of most serious political consultants I heard last year. Despite recent frictions between the ruling Worker’s Party and PMDB, most PMDB members aren’t radical and are keen on having government jobs to keep quiet. That reshuffle has made such an impact that the PMDB convention that was supposed to mark the break-up with Rousseff now seems lean towards a more conciliatory ending.

PMDB can now conciliate more because street protests against Rousseff are smaller and support for her impeachment is not as impressive as opposition members expected. Many of those who took part in mass demonstrations to criticize her administration have not gone out to demand her impeachment — that is too much for many Brazilians who have just as little faith in those that would replace her.

Finally, Brazil’s Supreme Court has so far played a clear anti-impeachment role, imposing a lot of difficulties in a process that was only kicked off after speaker Cunha openly made a movement to remove himself from the risk of being ejected from his position. It is hard to believe that Brazil’s top justices will allow the opposition to play by its own rules with Cunha — which seemed to be the case in the first semester of last year.

Of course there will be analysts saying that impeachment is looming large, but they are the same people that said Rousseff would be removed in August. Then September. Then October. Now they say March. They are wrong again.

2 – No major reforms, economy still lagging

Not being impeached is likely to be Rousseff’s biggest win in the year. With three more years in office, she is already a lame duck that has shown little sign of reinvention to make the best out of the rest of her second term. If she is lucky, Brazil’s economy will grow 0% in 2016. The political uncertainty is the main hurdle for the economy: the impeachment debate could last until April and the supreme electoral court will decide within a few months whether her ticket with Temer should be invalidated or not. The Worker’s Party is accused of sponsoring Rousseff’s and Temer’s campaign with funds embezzled from state-run oil giant Petrobras.

After her permanence on the job is assured, there will be no time for a legislative agenda that helps Brazil deal with its economy crisis. From July to October, there will be a recess in Brasilia until the end of the mayoral elections. In that vote Rousseff’s party is likely to be hammered, which will give her even less of a mandate to propose reforms in November and December. 2017 isn’t lost yet, but that may be only because the economy hit the floor.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is going to decide whether it should remove a number of deputies and senators, including speaker Cunha, for their involvement in the Petrobras scandal. That alone will halt Congress for the first semester. But its impact can be broadened, since other key political figures might be entangled by the mushrooming corruption accusations in the state-oil probe. Even former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who plans to run for president again in 2018, is likely to face investigations that will also dominate the political debate after the impeachment talk is over — many analysts believe that the target is more him than Rousseff.

That complex internal political situation, plus the sharp drop in commodity prices and the hard landing of the Chinese economy make Brazil’s 2016 less than exciting on the economy side. That means Rousseff will have to show the vision that she has lacked so far to stem job losses and increase productivity. She will have to trust her own executive orders to make that push. But it is hard to believe that consumer and investor confidence will suddenly pick up again in the middle of a year of so much political emotion.

3 – Rio Olympics will succeed, but with shortfalls

It will be my fourth coverage of the Olympic Games, this time for the Associated Press. I can barely wait, that is why I moved to Rio. My first Olympic work was during Athens-2004. Although I didn’t go there, I read, wrote and translated dozens of stories for Reuters on chaos, financial collapse and white elephants. It was clear that the Greek had mismanaged their time to build, but they delivered a nice edition of the Games — what they did to their sports equipment later is a different issue. Four years later I went to Beijing and it was all about human rights violations, censorship, air pollution and the risk of terrorism. The Chinese certainly looked tense and upset with foreigners. When it all ended, those of us that stayed longer in China saw a massive relief on the streets. At London-2012, I could cut the British tension in the air with a knife thanks to a massive security blunder: the government brought back soldiers from Afghanistan to operate X-ray machines in Olympic venues. Even the excessive rain made people jumpy. The locals relaxed in the second week and to this day many want to do it again.

Rio is now tense with the Olympics, but I expect the same to happen: a lot of fun once it kicks in, no big incidents, but some shortfalls that will make cariocas wonder how much better they could have done in their preparations. For the 2016 Games, the biggest issue is clearly the dirty waters in which competitors will be in. And that won’t change. Organizers may say what they want, but those waters are shameful and they are not what government officials promised when Rio won the bid. There will be a number of reports about expected difficulties, but, just like I said before the World Cup, none of those will bring a major problem to the Games. Which doesn’t mean that the criticism is not fair, as in any edition of the biggest sporting event there is.

The constructions seem to be on time, the budget cuts don’t seem to have a bigger impact on the full operation and Rio seems to be getting a new face in some very degraded parts of the city. But it is still less than the promise of cleaning the waters of Guanabara Bay, not running over residents in poor areas to build Olympic venues and leaving a subway infrastructure legacy that cariocas could be proud of. Brazilians don’t have much of an Olympic sports culture and are known for leaving things for the last minute, but it is fair to say that ticket sales have been disappointing and most Brazilians outside Rio don’t even think of the Olympics now. To make it worse, pregnant women all over the world don’t even consider coming because of the outbreak of Zika virus in Brazil — that disease can transmit microcephaly to their babies.

But I am still sure that once the sport begins it will be a great party, like in most Olympic Games. If there is a people that knows how to throw parties that is Brazilians — no matter how much our economy lags, how many white elephants are left behind or how many politicians end up in jail.


World Cup one year on: missing those great days despite missed opportunities

Brazilians went mad when a FIFA executive admitted Russia and Qatar could lose rights to host the next World Cups if there is proof they corrupted the process. No, it wasn’t because of a potential vote buying scandal. “Send it back to us,” “We are ready to do it again,” and “Give it back so we can lose to Germany once more” were some of the most common reactions in social media. Who would have thought of hearing that one year ago, in the middle of the global wave of defeatism and the blame-Brazil-for-the-worst-World-Cup-ever discourse?

(To be honest, I did think everyone would love it. It is in many posts in the archives.)

The only Brazil World Cup disaster deserving of that name

As it is now clear, most people here keep their criticism about the immediate costs of the tournament. Many of the projects that were delayed now seem to be forever delayed, which shows a disgraceful lack of commitment from authorities to their countrymen. Still, Brazilians have little doubt about the success of the World Cup organization. Not only none of the pre-World Cup horror stories were confirmed, but also foreigners enjoyed being here. As a German colleague told me after the final, “Brazil is great, it feels more normal than the expected.”

It is only fair that one year on most of the stories about World Cup legacy will involve overpriced stadia that are still empty, like Brasilia’s and Manaus’. Those two, among others, came about because of political reasons. Their cost is highly suspicious and I have a hunch they will somehow appear in the ongoing FIFA scandal snowball. The FIFA standard arenas that make sense, including those in big capitals like Rio and Belo Horizonte, are now so mismanaged that they are often as unoccupied as the ones where professional football is a fantasy.

But one year ago the problems that the media cared about were in the organization. There were stories of arenas collapsing during the tournament, dengue fever outbreaks, fans and teams being stranded in unfinished airports, a security crisis with unpredictable results, protests that would disrupt roads, subways and every possible means of transportation, riots after Brazil was hammered by Germany… The list could go on and on. All the catastrophic predictions were wrong. They were wrong because they were based on a provincial mindset.

One of those provincial traits that persist is the bashing of the World Cup for the fact it hasn’t brought immediate economic development to Brazil. Whoever buys that argument fails to understand that big sporting events are not meant for that — they are a marketing opportunity for the country and a good means to speed up construction that would have taken so much longer to build. In Brazil’s case, for the sake of argument, it would have taken even longer than it did. A very clear example of that are the improvements for São Paulo’s arena, which sits in a degraded region. Or in Salvador’s subway system.

Another mistake is to believe that Brazil spent so much in the World Cup that it made investments in healthcare and education impossible. The price tag I consider inexcusable is the US$ 5 billion on stadia. That should never have been spent. But Brazil spends US$ 50 billion every year on healthcare. Every year. The country invests US$ 30 billion on education. Is that enough? Maybe it isn’t. But it surely isn’t the construction or renovation of stadia for once in decades that stopped presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff from investing elsewhere.

By the way, Lula and Rousseff are also partly responsible for the tone of the pre-World Cup debate in Brazil. After Brazilians took to the streets in June 2013, the tournament wasn’t even a big issue. But in the months that followed the criticism mounted, and it sounded if only federal government were investing in the tournament. With an election coming in 2014, a big chunk of the opposition and the media decided to turn against the event, as if it was bound for failure. That is also why some collegues said I was pushing for the pro-government simply because I insisted the World Cup wouldn’t be a disaster. It was as if being critical meant being excessively negative.

Well, they were wrong in that too.

World Cups are a difficult event to manage, and it sure wasn’t simple for Brazil. What was indeed simple was to expect disaster without considering how much there is behind these big sporting events. Brazil made a lot of mistakes, but none of them were decisive for the success of the organization of the tournament. That is just a fact. And it is a fact that many will now take into consideration when they think of Rio Olympics preparations. For Brazil to be seen as a country that can be a bigger touristic destination, the World Cup was a great test. Not all is about price tags.

One year on, Brazilians still hear friends from abroad say “I wish I was there.” Others say “it was one of the finest experiences I ever had.” The best of hearing those words is to know that they are true. By the way FIFA, let us know if you open the slots for 2018 and 2022. We’d love to have them both if you will (no bribes, though).