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Instead Of A Moment In The Sun, Brazil Faces A Perfect Storm

Protesters parade an inflatable doll of Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff in Sao Paulo on Wednesday night, shortly before Congress voted to suspend her. The sashes say "Goodbye Dear" and "Mother of Big Oil." Rousseff, the president since 2010, now faces an impeachment trial.
Andre Penner
Protesters parade an inflatable doll of Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff in Sao Paulo on Wednesday night, shortly before Congress voted to suspend her. The sashes say "Goodbye Dear" and "Mother of Big Oil." Rousseff, the president since 2010, now faces an impeachment trial.

This was supposed to be Brazil's time to shine. The country's economy was surging a few years back, the 2014 World Cup fueled the national obsession with soccer and the 2016 Summer Olympics were on the horizon.

But the Zika virus, a nasty recession and endemic corruption have demoralized many Brazilians and sent protesters into the streets. Now impeachment proceedings, which led to Thursday's suspension of the president, Dilma Rousseff, have put an international spotlight on Brazil for all the wrong reasons.

Perhaps the Olympics in August will cheer up Brazil. Or not.

"Things are getting uglier here every day," Rivaldo, one of the country's retired soccer heroes, wrote this week. "I advise everyone with plans to visit Brazil for the Olympics in Rio to stay in their country of origin. Your life will be in danger here."

Rewind to, say, 2010, and Brazil's prospects seemed blindingly bright. The country had apparently surmounted chronic problems that dragged it down for decades and inspired a memorable insult: Brazil is the country of the future — and it always will be.

At long last, it seemed the future had finally arrived.

Political instability had receded into history in favor of a stable democracy. Rousseff embodied this change. A former militant who was arrested and tortured under a military dictatorship in the 1980s, she was twice elected, first in 2010 and again in 2014.

On the economic front, Brazil's bountiful agriculture exports made it a global darling, joining Russia, India and China as one of the BRIC countries reshaping the global economy.

And the World Cup and the Olympics would be the showcases for all these triumphs.

But the global recession hit Brazil hard a few years back and exposed its frailties.

World demand for its agriculture and raw materials fell sharply and has yet to recover. Brazil's economy contracted 3.8 percent last year and is doing just as badly this year as the country suffers one of the worst recessions in generations.

The decline has revived questions about whether South America's largest nation has actually built a diversified, resilient, modern economy or if it just hitched a ride to the global commodities boom that may not be replicated anytime soon.

When the economy was soaring, Brazilians rising into the middle class were willing to overlook corruption among the political and business elite.

"We have a society in which corruption is highly acceptable by the society as long as the economy flows in a positive manner," Thiago de Aragao, a political analyst with Arko Consulting, told NPR last month.

Now that many Brazilians are losing jobs and sliding back into poverty, they're much less forgiving.

The country's state-run oil giant, Petrobras, is at the center of a massive corruption scandal that has tarnished many politicians. Almost 60 percent of Brazil's Congress faces charges that range from bribery to homicide, according to Transparency Brazil, which monitors corruption in the country.

Rousseff's supporters have dwindled dramatically, but those still backing her argue it's hypocritical for politicians facing serious accusations to sit in judgment of her.

Take, for example, Michel Temer, the vice president who is now filling in as president for Rousseff while she is suspended. Yet he was fined for violating campaign finance laws and may not be able to run for elected office for eight years.

The impeachment charges against Rousseff accuse her of fudging budget numbers to make the country's finances look better when she went on a spending spree while running for re-election in 2014.

When the Olympics open Aug. 5, Rousseff may still be fighting for political survival rather than basking in the glow of a global audience.

Host countries often lose money on the Olympics, but politicians love the spectacle and the temporary "feel good" effect it usually generates. But even that may be a challenge for Brazil.

Olympic ticket sales are lagging. International visitors may be deterred by the Zika virus, widespread street crime and the drumbeat of negative news. For many Brazilians, it's hard enough finding cash for groceries, let alone Olympic tickets.

When the country was awarded the games in 2009, "It was a very optimistic moment for Brazil, and I think the Olympics were another message that we were being accepted by the developed world," Marcelo Barreto, a famous TV sports journalist in Brazil, told NPR earlier this year. Today, "I think there is a feeling of disappointment in the air, with Brazil itself. People are concerned with more pressing, urgent things right now."

As NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro reported from Brazil, there's talk of moving up Rousseff's trial so it doesn't coincide with the Olympics. That's hardly the choice Brazil expected to confront as it prepares for a global celebration in Rio.

Greg Myre is the international editor of NPR.org. Follow him @gregmyre1

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Greg Myre
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.