4 days before the Olympic Games start, Rio seems far from ready

With the Rio Olympics only days away, the city remains plagued by problems, including political unrest, infrastructure failures and heavy traffic. Jeff Brown speaks with Paulo Sotero of the Woodrow Wilson Center, “Brazilianaires” author Alex Cuadros and NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro for a report on the city’s status just four days before the 2016 Summer Olympics are set to begin.

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    With the Summer Olympics set to open in Brazil later this week, big questions remain about whether Rio de Janeiro is ready, and whether it can get completely ready in time.

    Jeffrey Brown has our look.


    The governor recently declared a state of public calamity. City waterways are fouled and filled with bacteria, streets are clogged with traffic, and transportation projects aren't finished. And beyond the Olympics, political chaos, as President Dilma Rousseff awaits an impeachment trial.

    Days before the start of the Olympic Games, we look at the state of play in Brazil with NPR's Rio de Janeiro-based Lulu Garcia-Navarro, Alex Cuadros, author of the book "Brazillionaires," a look at wealth and inequality in Brazil in the decade leading up to the Olympics, and Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

    Welcome to all of you.

    Lulu Garcia-Navarro, let me start with you.

    How prepared or unprepared is Brazil for these Games? And how are people that you're talking to feeling about the Games just before they start?


    I mean, I think it's undeniable that it's been very bumpy, just starting with the athletes and the Olympic Village. Half of them couldn't move in. They had to send in an army of repairmen to fix basic infrastructure questions like electricity and plumbing.

    And we have seen a lot of other complaints, just today in the media village, some of the reporters complaining about the lack and quality of food. So it has been very bumpy. If you speak to ordinary Brazilians, they are not surprised by the problems, but they are definitely disappointed.


    And just to stay with you a moment, even today, we heard of reports of huge amounts of traffic, 70-mile backups there in Rio. Have you experienced some of that?


    I have.

    I mean, Rio is always a challenging city to move around in. It's a city with huge mountains and poor infrastructure. Add to that the fact that you have dedicated lanes now that are for Olympic transportation, buses and cars for the IOC members.

    And that's meant that just people who are moving around the city in regular vehicles have had to face enormous amounts of traffic. Getting from Copacabana to the main Olympic venues, which are about 20 miles away, took me about two-and-a-half a hours the other day. So, it is a challenge.


    Alex Cuadros, the promise was that these Games, of course, would benefit Brazilians beyond the Olympics, right, that they would reach the larger society.

    In what ways do you see that happening, and where is it falling short?

    ALEX CUADROS, Author, "Brazillionaires": Well, look, I think that the Olympics were pitched to Brazilians as an excuse to modernize all of this woefully lacking infrastructure in Rio.

    And some of the projects that were built really will help the population at large. A number of express bus lines were created that are going to be a big benefit to the working-class Brazilians who can spend two-and-a-half-hours commuting each way every day.

    But Lulu talking about the traffic, you know, she brings up a really interesting point, which is, why were most of the Olympic installations put in this wealthy suburb known as Barra da Tijuca? It's an area of the city where only 300,000 people live, and where people are generally much wealthier than the rest of the city.

    Meanwhile, poorer areas of the city like the north side remain desperately in need of public works.


    Paulo Sotero, of course, the original idea also — this goes back to when Brazil got the Olympics in 2009, I think — was a kind of coming out party for the country on the world stage, right, to present itself as a major power and certainly an economic power? Where does that — how does that look now?

    PAULO SOTERO, Director, Brazil Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center: Well, it looks like the government oversold the story, because that really didn't come to pass.

    Brazil a few years after that entered into its most serious economic crisis in a century. Eleven million people lost their jobs. So the promise of the Olympics didn't have a chance. At the same time, we know now that people in the government in the state of Brazil were involved in a criminal organization, so says the attorney general of the country, stealing, assaulting the largest Brazilian company, Petrobras, headquartered in Rio.

    So, obviously, if we knew then what we know now, I believe most Brazilians would have been against hosting the Olympics. And now most Brazilians are disappointed, and not expecting much from the Olympics.


    So, Lulu, let me go back to you in Rio.

    One major issue, of course, is security. With all that's happened in various cities around the world over the past months, how big a threat is it there? How seriously is it being taken?


    I think it's now being taken extremely seriously, but, again, as with everything here, the criticism is that the Brazilian government took the threat too seriously too late.

    If you look around the streets of Rio de Janeiro right now, it's a heavily militarized city. You have over 80,000 security forces here. That's twice the number of the London Games. And so you're not lacking for security.

    But certainly there are serious questions about how safe the venues are. There were just questions today about some of the security measures at some of the main venues. And so we still have to see exactly how the Brazilian government is going to deal with the very real threat of terrorism.


    So, Alex Cuadros, when you look — you have been looking at the financial state and the economic state of the country for the last decade or so.

    Apart — sports aside, what would constitute success for Brazil at this point? And what are the prospects?


    Well, look, I think that the near term for Brazil is not pretty.

    You know, it's in the deepest recession in possibly a century. Millions of jobs have been lost. But, at the same time, I think that Paulo pointed to this moment when there was this amazing optimism about Brazil, and I think that people exaggerated then in their euphoria about Brazil's prospects as a country.

    And I think that, by the same token, right now, people may be exaggerating in their pessimism. So, it may be that we're approaching, if we haven't reached, the bottom of the well, and that simply by virtue of the fact that we have fallen so much in Brazil, things are going to start to bounce back.


    You mean expectations are so low at this point that perhaps things will look OK?


    Well, look, you know, the economy has shrunk by so much that, when there is a rebound, it's going to be significant, just because of the base of comparison.

    And, you know, Brazil is not a Venezuela. We're not seeing kleptocracy on the scale that we see there. This is a functioning country. It's a diverse economy. And I think that, at least in the medium-term, it's going to bounce back.


    It's also true, Paulo Sotero, that we have gone into many other Olympics thinking, oh, they're not ready, this is going to be a disaster, they're going to have all kinds of problems, only to see some great success.

    So, what do you think the prospects are here?


    I think prospects to have a good Olympics is reasonable now.




    Reasonable. Do not underestimate the capacity of Brazilians in general and people from Rio in particular to throw a party.

    And Cariocas, as we call them, are famous for that. They have the Carnival every year that are great parties. They happen on the clock. And they are very well-organized.

    I believe also, as the athletes converge, you know, their effort, their merits will take over, and this will be a story of the real Olympics, but it will be, above all, a story about the Olympics.

    This is a very positive, interesting event. People — actually, tourists coming to Rio will be very warmly welcomed by people. They already are. And, actually, they should mingle with the people. They should go up to the hills and be with the people. Actually, the best summer in Brazil are up in the (INAUDIBLE) in the so-called slums.

    This is a very generous and nice people. So, don't equate Rio and slums with crime. Yes, there's crime there, but, as Lulu said, heavy security for 15 days. So, enjoy Rio. Enjoy the Olympics.


    And, Lulu, just 20 seconds here, just, is your sense that people really feel the weight of this, I mean, that there's a lot riding on this?


    I feel that they do feel that there is a lot riding on this, but they're also very much ready for it to be over.

    There's been a huge buildup. This has been a country that has been going through so many different things, as we have mentioned, economic, political crises, the World Cup just two years ago, and now this. So, I think Cariocas want this to be a success, but I also think that they very much want these Games to be over soon.


    All right, in the meantime, let them begin, right?

    Lulu Garcia-Navarro, Alex Cuadros, Paulo Sotero, thank you, all three, very much.


    Thank you.

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