By Kelly J. Baker, Contributing writer
On August 5th, the Summer Olympics began in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Nations from all over the globe tuned in and/or streamed the different competitions to see how their athletes stack up against those from other nations. Athletes trained hard for their chance at the gold, and we watched as much for the triumph of winning as the agony of defeat. During the summer games, the globe’s attention turns toward Brazil and the surrounding countries of Latin America.
Currently, Brazil faces some serious challenges. There’s the threat of the Zika virus carried by mosquitos. The CDC issued the warnings about travel to Brazil, especially the consequences of Zika for pregnant women and the possibility of birth defects. The New York Times reports that health officials cautioned aquatic Olympians to keep their mouths closed while competing in the water. Brazil’s efforts to clean up sewage and garbage didn’t remove as much of the pollution as they initially hoped. Additionally, Brazil’s President Dima Rousseff faces impeachment over charges of corruption, kickbacks, and bribes.
In the lead up to the Olympics, media outlets examined charges of corruption in Brazil and Latin America. Political corruption, however, is not a new problem. There’s a longstanding history of bribes, payoffs, and kickbacks by elected officials. Two new books shed light on political corruption in Brazil and the other countries that make up Latin America, and another new book showcases the importance of hosting events, like the Olympics, for Brazil.
In Latin American Democracy: Emerging Reality or Endangered Species? (Taylor and Francis, 2015), editors Richard L. Millett, Jennifer S. Holmes, and Orlando J. Pérez pull together a group of qualified contributors to analyze the progress and shortcomings of democracy in Latin America. Contributors evaluate the successes of these newer democracies as well as the persistent challenges that remain for both the leaders and citizens of these nations.
In the preface to the updated second edition, the editor notes that over 30 years have passed since Latin America adopted democracy and toppled authoritarian regimes (p. i). In many ways, political leaders and the citizens who vote for them are still working out what it means to govern and to be governed in a democratic fashion. In his introduction, Millett lists some of the problems that Latin American democracies still face:
- Democratic elections don’t guarantee that leaders will necessarily govern democratically, and politicians often prove to be ineffective when elected (p. 3).
- Judicial, police, and prison systems remain weak, inept, or corrupt, so citizens are not guaranteed safety or protection.
- Corruption continues even with the transparency of elections. Politicians in Latin America often seek to extend their influence and their time in office through bribes, manipulation of who can vote, and preventing outside reviews of the whole electoral process (p. 2).
Compounding these problems are the high rates of income inequality and crime in Brazil and Latin America. Even with the increased security from hosting the World Cup in 2014 and now the Olympics, citizen security remains a pressing issue for Brazil (p. 220). Because of the inability of Latin American governments to protect citizens, their governments, and elected officials can appear ineffective and corrupt. In a chapter on democracy and corruption, contributor Gerardo Berthin describes the increasing awareness and visibility of corruption, which “can be perceived both in everyday dealings with governmental officials (petty corruption) and in major national government contracts and/or the financing of political parties (grand corruption)” (p. 245).
Political corruption becomes an admitted problem that people in Latin America want solutions for. For example, President Rousseff of Brazil, who appears on the cover of Latin American Democracy, currently faces impeachment for corruption. Her possible impeachment suggests that citizens of Brazil refuse to ignore political corruption of elected officials any longer, and they plan to take action.
Rather than focus solely on the problem of corruption in Latin America, Miguel Tinker Salas offers a complex portrait of Venezuela’s history that counters the common media portrayal of the country as an adversary of the U.S. Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford, 2015), provides a concise, engaging history of the country with keen attention to how oil impacted both culture and politics. Tinker Salas demonstrates how Venezuela proved different from Brazil, Mexico, and the rest of Latin America in a variety of ways:
- Oil was the main product that Venezuela produced, and the government relied on the profits from its sales to fund social programs.
- Venezuelan leaders didn’t emphasize the racial and ethnic diversity of its citizenry (p. 14).
- The rich petroleum deposits often obscured the deep economic and racial inequalities in Venezuela leading to a portrayal of all Venezuelans as unified and wealthy (p. 15).
With the election of President Hugo Chavez in 1999, Tinker Salas writes, “Venezuela became everything they had attempted to negate” (p. 19). Venezuela appeared too similar to other Latin American countries because they were now “led by a mixed-race, charismatic ex-military officer” who sought to “improve conditions for the poor” as well as encourage them to “participate as full-fledged citizens” in this new vision for the nation (p. 19).
Venezuela came to set the tone for discussions of public policy. Policies the country proposed – “nationalist energy policy, multipolar international relations, regional integration, food security, and national sovereignty” – emerged as essential to the “mainstream political discourse” in Latin America (p. 17). In 2007, the US Ambassador to Chile held up Venezuela as a model for what Latin America could become even though the relationship between the U.S. and Venezuela continues to be fraught and tense.
Yet, Venezuela also suffered from the corruption present in Brazil and the rest of Latin America. Despite the country’s progress, there was still military interference in the government (including a failed military coup against Chavez in 2002) and other forms of corruption including a lack of checks and balances on the president’s power.
Michael McCarthy of the Washington Post recently proclaimed that Venezuela is a “powder keg” because of an impending economic crisis due to falling oil prices since 2013. Relying on oil, writes McCarthy, led Venezuela to not develop other parts of the economy or fight corruption, both of which might have helped to stall their current economic woes.
While corruption tends to dominate media portrayals of Brazil and Latin America, Rodanthi Tzanelli considers Brazil’s presence on the global stage and the hosting of mega-events, particularly the 2014 World Cup. In Socio-Cultural Mobility and Mega-Events (Taylor and Francis, 2015), Tzanelli theorizes what hosting a mega-event like the World Cup does for the host country.
What did Brazil gain from hosting the World Cup?
- Brazil claimed a prominent and visible position in our increasingly globalized world.
- A mega-event, Tzanelli writes, demonstrated that Brazil “ranked amongst the world’s political and economic leaders” (p. 4).
- The World Cup was an opportunity for Brazil to prove “to others that Brazilian culture holds the key to world progress and global mobilities (of talent, technologies and art styles)” (p. 24).
- Brazilian identity, crafted by Brazilians, was on display in both the spectacle of the World Cup and in how the Brazilian soccer team played matches.
- The World Cup made Brazil appear modern, advanced, and prepared, counter to the portrayals of Latin America that focused on poverty, crime, and corruption.
Tzanelli takes an in-depth look at the spectacle Brazil created for this particular mega-event. Corruption is not the pressing concern of Socio-Cultural Mobility and Mega-Events, but rather theorizing the importance of mega-events for the countries that host them.
Tzanelli’s concept of the mega-event could easily be applied to the Olympics too. Hosting the Olympics is a method for Brazil (and Latin America) to show the world what they think their country and region really are. To represent what they imagine Brazil to be.
In this particular mega-event, Brazil shows the world what matters to the nation.
Brazil is a complex nation, a democracy still in progress working toward solutions for corruption. The same could be said of Latin America as a whole. Political corruption emerges as a part of the region’s past and present, as these three books show, it will not necessarily be a part of the region’s future.