Brazil Engaged in Another Olympics: Reshaping Its Image Before Games Open

Economist's cover on BrazilBrazil received a huge boost in its international image with its selection as the host of the 2016 Olympics, but it was really just the cherry on top of the overall recognition of the country’s ascension to the ranks of one of the world’s most important countries. Now, as it finally takes its place on the world scene, there has been a great deal of concern about what kind of image Brazil hopes to project, now that the world is really paying attention.

There are signs of positive change. The Economist featured Brazil in a special edition, lauding the country for its economic, political, and social progress and essentially deeming it a country to be taken seriously, the “country of the future” that has finally arrived.

Though the set of articles did mention some of Brazil’s challenges, it mostly focused on its successes, specifically in finance, investment, banking, and other macroeconomic areas. The international media has given its blessing to Brazil, advertising progress made in diplomacy, governance, and the economy.

But there’s a lot more to the big picture. Even though Brazil has been very successful fighting poverty, it still has a long way to go; it moved up but is still only 75th on the Human Development Index ranking, falling behind Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Mexico, Cuba and even Venezuela.

Despite the fact that international businesses are now salivating over Brazilian consumers, who are buying all sorts of products at unprecedented rates due to rising salaries and access to credit, they seem to be echoing American consumers before the crisis.

Since they can buy expensive items like TVs and cars by paying in installments, consumer debt is high; a recent study showed that 64% of consumers plan to use year-end bonuses to pay off debt. And all you have to do is take a ride around any big city in Brazil to see how poverty still holds an iron grip on major metropolitan areas.

Still, these issues are clearly areas where Brazil is making great progress. One hurdle Brazil is having trouble with is its image abroad. While the US incredibly became to the world’s most admired country after the 2008 elections, Brazil stayed at #20 and scored highest in the area of culture.

The truth of the matter is that most non-Brazilians view the country as an eternal party and not necessarily as a “serious” country. Tourists flock to its seaside cities for the beach and expectations of experiencing Carnaval, whether or not it’s the actual holiday.

Rio de Janeiro is largely what outsiders expect of the entire country (that, or a jungle) and have very ingrained stereotypes about Brazil’s party reputation. That’s the only reason I can imagine that Rio was elected the world’s best gay destination, since my experience was that Buenos Aires catered much better to gays.

In Rio, there are only a handful of gay clubs (at least, that the general public knows about), and a section of Ipanema known for its gay beachgoers. I can only imagine its reputation for constant partying could be the answer.

Brazil is hoping to change its image by the time the Olympics roll around, to prove that it is in fact a serious country. Image branding experts say Brazil has an enormous opportunity to change its image during the Games, rather than using tired cliches that outsiders will recognize.

However, I think it will be pretty difficult for Brazil to use an event like an Olympics to do this, other than pulling the event off without major problems. The entire point of an event like this is to showcase the country’s culture and people, not its banks or institutions. I can hardly imagine an opening ceremony with twirling dancers in miner or factory uniforms; you can bet there will be lots of samba and Carnaval regalia.

To boot, Brazil also struggles with another stereotype: beautiful, easy women. This was abundantly clear when P. Diddy, recently vacationing in Rio, called Brazil “a tsunami of asses.” Too often, the whole country is branded as a place where you go for sex and to meet women, rather than, say, a place to invest or start a business.

The Olympics is not the wisest venue for Brazil to reshape its image, since it’s much easier to showcase its vibrant culture and huge pool of talented athletes than its social progress or big businesses.

Instead, it has seven years to keep doing what it’s doing, to improve governance and fight corruption, continue with economic stability and successful businesses, and an even better mission of diplomacy. A truly sterling reputation is gained with time and success, not by a single event.

International Law

While I’d like to focus on the Italian extradition case, I thought this little tidbit from last week’s Economist special on Brazil would help understand the circumstances a bit better.

In a piece entitled “The self-harming state,” the author includes a short explanation about some of the challenges of the Brazilian judicial system. Because of endless appeals for many types of cases, the Brazilian Supreme Court received 100,000 cases in 2008.

In Rio de Janeiro, the state cited as having “the most efficient” in the entire country, there are 800 cases in the appeals level of the courts, and 800,000 cases pending in the first level of the courts. The oldest case currently pending in the Rio courts is from 1911.

So with that, let’s talk about Battisti.

For those of you unfamiliar with the case, here is a basic summary:

Cesare Battisti, an Italian, was part of a communist extremist group in the 1970s in Italy. In the early 80s, he was charged with four murders committed by said group, as well as robberies and other crimes. He fled the country and lived in France for a time, and then made his way to Brazil in 2004. He was arrested in 2007 and imprisoned in Brasília, where he has remained until now.

But early in 2009, President Lula granted him political amnesty. This did not sit well with Italy, which has an extradition agreement with Brazil (enshrined in Brazilian law). Finally, last week, the Supreme Court voted to extradite Battisti.

However, what was interesting to note was that despite the definitive decision – one of the judges claimed due to the nature of his crimes, Battisti could not be considered a political refugee, since crime is crime despite political motives – the judges ultimately left the decision to the President, making their decision more symbolic than anything. (Lula was a bit busy this week and has yet to announce his decision).

I found this odd because of another case making its way to the Supreme Court, the Goldman kidnapping case. In the United States, a similar case involving a Cuban boy was resolved in less than year due to intervention on behalf of the executive branch, and the boy was returned to his father.

But when Brazil had the opportunity to take a similar approach, the executive branch repeatedly stated that Brazil is a sovereign nation with an independent judiciary, which would be the sole entity responsible for deciding the American boy’s fate. They also stressed the judiciary would perform its duties in a timely fashion, which has not been the case.

Meanwhile, a similar kidnapping case with a Canadian child in Brazil was resolved in the courts – they ordered the child to be sent back to his father in Montreal – but the order was never executed, and the child is still in Brazil, over two years later.

Italy has threatened the Brazilian government about the Battisti case, but since the threats mostly involved soccer and tourism, they weren’t taken very seriously. But the country is closely watching the case, and the Italian government has made its stance clear.

The US has not formally made any threats against Brazil with the Goldman case, though a bill was submitted in Congress to remove Brazil’s trade preferences unless Brazil fulfills its commitment to the Hague Convention (the bill has not yet been passed).

In both instances, the competent jurisdiction to try the cases are in fact in Italy and the US, respectively, according to international law. But Lula, who as a leftist himself, is sympathetic to Battisti (he was jailed by the dictatorship back in the 70s), as well as to Sean’s kidnappers (Sean’s stepfather’s family has political ties to Lula).

I’m not sure why Lula chose to intervene in one case and not the other (or why the Supreme Court came to the decision to let him do so), but it would seem that moral relativism, political pressure and personal sympathies played a role. In both cases, the legal outcome seems clear: both foreigners should be sent back to their countries of origin, where trials will be held to decide their fates.

But it seems unclear if this will happen, and justice has yet to be had. The outcome of these cases will be critical for Brazil to prove that it is not a haven for criminals, kidnappers, and accused terrorists – especially ones with political ties close to the president’s heart.

International Politics

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met with President Lula in Brasilia recently, after delaying a trip several months ago. His visit has been met with protests across Brazil, including major ones in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, as well as criticism from the international community.

After all, Ahmadinejad came out the victor of a fraudulent election wrought with bloody protests, is a proud anti-Semite and Holocaust denier, and a virulent homophobe – not to mention his regime hardly respects human rights or democracy.

Jornal Nacional interviewed Ahmadinejad in Iran and the reporter (who could really use some English lessons) asked about certain issues, including the Holocaust and homosexuality, but mostly softballed the rest of the questions.

Despite a few loony answers (including one declaring that capitalism is evil but he’d just love to trade with Brazil, which is definitely not changing its capitalist system anytime soon), Ahmadinejad came off looking like an affable guy. He certainly made a concerted bunda-kissing effort towards Brazilians, complimenting their soccer players and sucking up to the viewing public.

It seems that Lula has decided that given Brazil’s relatively new position as a world leader and his fame as a diplomat and one of the world’s “most well-liked” politicians, he should take on one of the most difficult international challenges that exist: the Middle East crisis.

The president of Israel recently visited to discuss commercial ties (and also to preempt the Iranian president’s visit, though he claims he doesn’t oppose the visit), and the Palestinian leader was also recently in Brazil. What came out of both visits was Lula taking the side of Palestine, criticizing new Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory and calling for the US to let the UN take over as the mediator of the conflict.

This is in line with his politics and his belief that he is the leader of the so-called Third World, since throughout his administration he has made a point to speak on behalf of developing countries and to defend their interests.

But agreeing to meet with Ahmadinejad in Brazil to discuss commercial and nuclear agreements is an incredible gamble and a seemingly naive move. The Iranian leader, who has not been cooperative with the UN on nuclear issues, wants to work with Brazil on nuclear development, which is an obvious red flag for other world leaders who have relationships with Brazil.

Ahmadinejad has made clear who his enemies are (the US, Israel, and anyone who is firmly allied with either one), and by taking an us versus them stance, becoming Brazil’s ally will ultimately not be favorable to Brazil. Becoming friends with a pariah doesn’t necessarily make you a diplomat; it makes you sympathetic to someone no one else is sympathetic to, and it legitimizes the person as a leader.

[I’d like to imagine what would have happened if leaders had treated Bush like Ahmadinejad in 2000, since they share several qualities in that they came to power through election fraud and love bombing stuff. I wonder how things could have been different if the world refused to recognize his legitimacy.]

Two experts explained their views on the visit in two articles featured on

Ricardo Caldas, from the University of Brasília’s Political Science department:

“The Iranian president is turning into an international pariah. Iran is going in the same direction of North Korea: they are countries that either carry out genocide or are totalitarian or disregard human rights, persecute the opposition and rig the elections. Brazil doesn’t have any reason to get closer to a country with these characteristics.”

Representative Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat Congressman:

“This is a gross mistake for a respected president of a respected country. To elevate Ahmadinejad, when he represses his own people, denies the Holocaust, says he’ll wipe Israel off the map – it shows Brazil isn’t ready to be taken seriously as a world player.”

The Americas Society’s Eric Farnsworth also weighed in:

Lula’s defense is that his goal is to discuss peace and to prove Brazil’s ability as a diplomat, able to meet with and negotiate with everyone. But he also made a vague mention of discussing “those who seek to profit” from war in the Middle East, which would seem like the US.

This finger-pointing does not fit into another speculation, that Lula is hoping to expand his diplomatic ties to parlay a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. Nevertheless, Lula has been cautious with other “friendships” with rogue rulers like Chavez and the Castros, and an invitation to Brasília for someone like Ahmadinejad is a big deal and from a political perspective, potentially disastrous.

The bottom line is that befriending a ruler no one is willing to even acknowledge is a very big gamble. Brazil has just managed to take its place in the international spotlight as a country with political and economic clout, and this particular event seems to be a power move more so than an intelligent diplomatic play.

Lula is thumbing his nose at the US and other Western powers, trying to say that he is capable of something they are not (supposed diplomacy) but really picked the wrong person to try this move with. Brazil may be a world power now, but with power comes responsibility.

Rachel Glickhouse, born in 1984, spent two years living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil after graduating from college in 2007. She now lives in New York with her Brazilian husband. She has also lived in Spain, the Dominican Republic, and Argentina and has traveled through Latin America. You can find more about her in her blog:


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