Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Olympics

Since Brazil is in the international spotlight this month, I thought it appropriate to explain what I understand of the situation and see around me. I haven't been following the U.S. media coverage of the Olympics much, but I've heard it's really bad and several people have been asking me what's going on.

This image was circulating on Facebook during the World Cup, and it is equally relevant now. Another grafiti artist in Rio made the following:

First of all, I live in Salvador, and the Olympics are taking place in Rio de Janeiro, which is over 1,000 miles away. I haven't heard much about the Olympics affecting things here, although a few soccer games are happening at the Fonte Nova stadium in Salvador, recently renovated for the 2014 World Cup. Second of all, we all need to understand that Brazil is undergoing a subversive coup within the national government. The democratically elected president in 2013 is now forcibly "away" (afastada) from the government - she is suspended and not allowed to rule for a 90-day period. In May the Senate voted to continue with an impeachment trial, and while that is happening, Vice President Michel Temer from the PMDB party has stepped up and is serving as president. He has already suspended social programs and changed key ministers in the government (like the President's cabinet) and immediately de-funded education. The party largely responsible for this impeachment is PMDB, which stands for the Party of the Democratic Movement in Brazil. But make no mistakes, they use the term "democracy" as a cover-up for their conservative policies, which revolve around free trade, tax cuts for corporations and international investment. They are anti-union, anti-welfare, anti-gay, anti-women, and racist. A lot of their discourses resonate with those of Trump supporters. The party is largely made up of wealthy white men from the Southern, more industrial and wealthy regions of Brazil. In fact, the entire government of Brazil is majority male and white. Although President Dilma Rouseff's election in 2011 was a historic and progressive moment for national politics, it was largely achieved because of the success of the previous president, Luiz Lula Inácio da Silva, who ruled from 2003-2011. Both Lula and Dilma are from PT - The Worker's Party- which is the first national party in Brazil, democratically elected, to hold power for such a long time and actually redistribute wealth, provide welfare, fund cultural and educational projects, create institutional space for social and racial issues including affirmative action, rights for indigenous communities, etc. 

PMDB and its supporters claim that their impeachment process is democratic and lawful. They claim to follow the procedures outlined in the 1988 constitution (note how young Brazil's constitution is, and how new their democracy is, emerging from a dictatorship in 1985). However, their claims for impeachment revolve around what they are calling a "failure of responsibility", a very vague term, referencing mostly her use of funds without Congress' approval for social welfare programs. This "failure of responsibility" only became relevant when Brazil was facing an economic downturn, and many claim that PMDB simply wants to take power to alter the economic policies in order to save the economy in the way the dictatorship and previous conservative rulers have done, by increasing exports, cutting social services and incentivizing privatization and foreign investment. This is partially why U.S. media and corporations might be interested in supporting the impeachment and portraying Brazil as such a mess, in need of new leadership. Although corruption is endemic in all ruling political parties in Brazil (and perhaps the whole world?), pointing to PT as more corrupt than PMDB simply makes no sense. Both have been charged with money laundering, though each throws that fact in the other's face as proof of something worthwhile. Some more radical parties are calling for new elections, rejecting both parties and their rulers (because Brazil actually has a multi-party system). Dilma will be officially tried on August 26, and that decision will determine the future of the country's leadership. Many are afraid, many are protesting, though these things may not be publicized, for political reasons I assume.

There are a lot more details to this story, which is complicated, and at least a year in the making. If you want more information about current issues in Brazil, I suggest the following to start: 
Dangerous Subversion of Democracy
Contentious Impeachment Vote in Brazil (video of the majority white male senate kicking out the first female president in Brazil's history)
Epidemic of Anti-Gay Violence
Gang Rape in Rio de Janeiro

Given the grave political and economic crises in Brazil, it's not an ideal time for the Olympics. I can't speak for those in the city of Rio, but I think that most Brazilians throughout the country have bigger issues to deal with, mostly unemployment, finding ways to pay bills, educating their children, keeping safe given increasing crime rates. The agreements to hold the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016 were made during Lula's presidency, when Brazil's economy was growing and inequality was shrinking. This high moment for Brazil has clearly passed, though boom and bust cycles are historically common in most Latin American countries. There were large protests in anticipation of the World Cup, some of which I attended and wrote about in 2013. These protests may have contributed to the general frustration in Brazil and discontent with the government's spending, more in support of international events and athletes rather than their own people. The protests have continued in response to police killings, especially in Rio de Janeiro, which are a result of supposed efforts to "clean up" the city in anticipation of the World Cup and the Olympics, where young black men are killed at a much higher rate than in the U.S. See Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on this issue.

Some of you may have seen the following Buzzfeed article about Rio's Olympic Village and the lack of preparedness to receive athletes. The Australian team refused to stay in the Village and went to a fancy hotel in Copacabana instead. Months ago people were already talking about the toxic bay to host some water sports. I read a few tales of European athletes traumatized by the sewage water, some even refusing to participate in the events. I believe people in Korea made the following video:

Although some of these representations are extreme and at times racist, I'm happy the sewage situation in Brazil is getting coverage. The lack of sewage infrastructure, treatment and sanitation in Brazil is an environmental disaster --this is not an exaggeration or a media play. In every Brazilian city I've ever been to (I think some in the South with greater resources and more European heritage have more environmentally friendly systems), there are several open sewage rivers running through the city and directly into the ocean. In Salvador it's popularly known not to go into the ocean after it rains due to the likelihood of getting a rash or sickness. This is because when it rains, all of the runoff goes directly into the oceans. There's also very precarious trash collection, especially in some neighborhoods, so the rain brings with it trash as well. I've been to beaches in Bahia full of trash, on particular days with particular currents. I've heard from old-timers in remote beaches that the wildlife has drastically decreased over the past decades. The PT party was certainly not an example for environmental policy or protection. They have refused to protect the Amazon, and basically let the company responsible for the major dam break in November in Minas Gerais off the hook, despite destroying a thriving river and an entire town that depended on the river for sustenance and economic opportunity. The toxic sludge continued to dump into the Atlantic Ocean with no treatment and very little international coverage. 

Before you jump to the conclusion that Brazil is a broken, backward country, I encourage those of you from the U.S. to consider the events going on there. What the international community currently sees are mass shootings, police violence and the rise of a white supremacist dictator-like figure in U.S. national politics. Perhaps all of this could serve as a reflection of both media coverage, and the kinds of problems that we face collectively given the current national and "democratic" systems some of us live in. Remember, many people currently living in this world are colonized and have absolutely no democratic rights, many live under dictatorships or in war states, many are refugees with no state at all.

Despite all of these issues, I love sports. I'm going to watch the Olympics and enjoy them. I have a television and internet, and my life in Brazil is among the best possible. And I'm not alone... many people share the luxuries I have, and fear losing them. 

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