HUNTING WHITE ELEPHANTS / CAÇANDO ELEFANTES BRANCOS

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12 November 2014

A sad end

As I mentioned some months ago, I will be leaving Brazil for Switzerland in January of 2015, joining the Space and Organization Research Unit in the Department of Geography at the University of Zurich. As of January 1, I will be the editor of the Journal of Latin American Geography, so let´s got those manuscripts rolling in.

After spending six of the last ten years in Rio, I´m not encouraged by the direction the city has taken, nor indeed that of the country as a whole. The recently released homicide numbers are tragic and pathetic, but not surprising. One official said that Brazil could “celebrate the stabilization” of homicide rates. More than 50,000 people are murdered each year in Brazil, the vast majority poor, black men.

Elections may bring out the worst elements of a country´s character and the recent exercise in collective box ticking showed the real frailties in Brazil´s democratic system. The debates between the presidential candidates were spoofs, the questions typically irrelevant, and policy issues wholly ignored. The level of public discourse is pushed to the bottom by media conglomerates that use their platforms as blunt political instruments. The opposition candidate, a George W. Bush playboy type, ran on a law and order platform that would put the young black kids that didn´t get killed behind bars at an even earlier age. The wealthy coxinhas of the South got up their Reaganite hackles to attack the “undeserving poor” who have benefitted from the PT´s largesse. The moving of people from extreme poverty to absolute poverty is positive, but it does not and will not change the power structures in Brazil.

The PT is mired in corruption scandals that should touch the highest levels of power, but somehow always falls short. The emptying of moral authority has been exacerbated by the explicit use of state companies for personal enrichment and the consolidation of power. There may be a way back from the precipice but without electoral reform or a general revolt from the PT´s base, the gig is up. Pursue developmentalist consumerism based on automobiles, closed condominium residential landscapes, and mega-events at your own risk! Of course it is the powerful syndicates of the automobile industry that brought the PT to power in the first place, so this model should come as no surprise. Brazil has a fundamentally conservative, reactionary political class that is allergic to change. 

The World Cup was never talked about in the election cycle. Readers of HWE will know why, but the opposition couldn´t very well complain about privatization and the maddening profits of civil construction firms, banks, telecommunications, and media conglomerates, or the increased police presence, summary arrests, human rights violations, etc. If the PT can´t or won´t point to the positives of the World Cup as evidence of good governance, then who will?

Football in Brazil is more depressing than ever. And while Brazilians will always remember where they were for the 7-1, the day to day is equally traumatic.

OBobo has started an editorial line to convince people that  “Maracanã lotado” is less than the number of people murdered every year in Brazil. To me, this seems an attempt to install collective amnesia about public space and culture. Vasco put out some discounted tickets and had 42,000 paying fans last weekend and the babadores who write for Obobo clamored about how they had filled the stadium.  15 years ago, the capacity was 179,000. 10 years ago, the capacity was 129,000. Five years ago it was 89,000. Now, it´s around 55,000 because the police say that they can´t guarantee safety beyond that number. I have witnessed first hand the death of pubic and space and culture in the Maracanã. Not many Cariocas seem to care.

Years ago, I wrote about the Vasco Fiasco, where a youth trainee died from lack of medical attention and then tried to hide their other nefarious human trafficking practices. Yesterday, Vasco had another fiasco with the re-election of Eurico Miranda to the presidency (with senator Romário´s support). Miranda embodies the old school of the cartolas in a way that few others do. I met him ten years ago when he was president of Vasco and since then, nothing in Brazilian football institutions has changed. If anything, it is less transparent and more corrupt. Not many Brazilians seem to care.

Remember the Portuguesa-Fluminense debacle at the end of last season? To refresh: Portuguesa played an ineligible player with 15 minutes left in the last game of the season, were docked points and relegated, thereby ensuring Fluminense´s (and Flamengo´s) permanence in the first division. A police investigation has revealed that, as expected, Portuguesa sold their spot. Who paid? Who cares? This isn´t news, just business as usual.

The CBF just received 100 million dollars in “legacy” money from FIFA. This is the money that Blatter dropped out of the plane as he fled the Confederations´ Cup protests – but it was an already programmed cash transfer. If someone out there still believes that the CBF doesn´t know how to get around the independent auditor, or that this money is going to be used to benefit Brazilian society in a meaningful way, or that we should continue to listen to the never-ending stream of half-assed bromides coursing from the mouths of …eh – deixa para lá – I can´t even get upset anymore.


The day to day of living in a pre-Olympic city I am going to leave to other commentators. Following and commentating on the contortions of Rio de Janeiro and Brazil in this highly turbulent time has been very rewarding and frustrating. I may not have survived without the blog and the great feedback from readers, so thank you. If you want to find the non-blog pieces I´ve been writing over the past few years, please go to my academia.edu site. I will keep HWE up as an archive and have some spin off projects that I will announce in due time. For now, I´ve got to get a move on. Tchau.

02 October 2014

Global Parties, Galactic Hangovers @ Los Angeles Review of Books

FOR MOST COUNTRIES, playing in four semi-finals of the last six World Cups would be considered a major accomplishment. But not for Brazil. At least since the 1938 World Cup, football has become the defining characteristic of the country, and since the 1970s, there has always been an expectation that Brazil will win the Cup, that losses are mere detours on a predestined path to glory. This belief had become so powerful as to be evangelical in its certainty  abandon all doubt, the salvation is coming before 90 minutes have passed. God, Zico, Socrates, Romário, Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Kaká, and Neymar will provide.
In the 2014 World Cup semi-finals, however, the visiting German national team didnt only defeat Brazil 7-1. They embarrassed, humiliated, and toyed with the country of football on their own very expensive turf. Brazilians are still having trouble processing what happened. Just as the colossal failure to win the 1950 World Cup still haunts the national consciousness, the historic 7-1 drubbing by the Germans will shape the Brazilian football narrative for the foreseeable future.
Most of the post-World Cup media coverage favored this narrative, the opposite of the storyline leading up to the Cup — one of Brazilian favoritism on the field and impending disaster off. Before, Brazil´s seleçãohad the support of Vegas oddsmakers while the media clamored about the lack of preparation, the threat of social upheaval, and the decelerating economy. Naysayers doubted that the infrastructure of a country with such obvious deficiencies would be capable of hosting such a large event. And yet, as Brazil mourned its football team in Belo HorizonteMineirãostadium, the World Cup itself was heralded as a success.
Incredibly, everything went according to plan. The stadiums were ready on time. The airports functioned well. Though expensive, there were enough hotels. Only one major piece of infrastructure collapsed, killing two people and injuring dozens — but no one blinked. The football was entertaining, the parties pulsating. The systematic violence used against protesters was brushed off as a necessary measure against radical student groups and anarchists. The police didnt commit mass murders, few tourists disappeared, and Brazil came out on the other side of the World Cup with its reputation intact. The pessimists were either shunted aside, swept up in the euphoria, or never interviewed again. The smug satisfaction of FIFA and their Brazilian partners in government and industry bubbled over in their champagne glasses. After years of haranguing Brazil for their apparent disorganization, FIFA president Joseph Blatter gave Brazil a 9.25 out of 10, calling the tournament “very, very special.”
Though hyperbolic and facile, this is the narrative that seems to have won the day. Now that the dust has settled and Brazilians try to digest seven German goalsit is important to understand how Brazil managed this outcome and what has changed, because the Olympics are next.
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In 2007Brazil’s former Minister of Sport Orlando Silva declared that not one penny of public money would be spent on the 12 World Cup stadiums. The logic was clear: stadiums are great investments, so the private sector will take them on. Yet the private sector was under no obligation to deliver FIFA-standard stadiums; the government was. The Brazilian governments transparency sites indicate a public layout of more than 4 billion dollars in stadiums, the majority of which have been handed over to private consortiums. According to the Danish NGO Play the Game, the Brazilian World Cup stadiums are among the most expensive ever built and have become sites of social exclusion. In any country, stadiums reproduce and reinforce the existing socio-economic and cultural structure. In Brazil, these new stadiums have consolidated the privileges of the elite at the expense of everyone else.
One of the governments justifications for the 10 billion dollar outlay on the World Cup was that Brazil was not investing in the tournament, but in the future of Brazilian cities. The investments included airport upgrades, communication lines, security, port renovations, hotels, tourist infrastructure, and urban mobility projects.
The majority of these projects, however, either attended to the demands of the Brazilian elite or reinforced the dominant paradigms of urban mobility. The multi-billion dollar investments in airports were long overdue, but will not stitch together more effectively Brazils urban archipelago. The main beneficiaries will be business travelers between Brazil´s major cities.Meanwhile, it is still not possible to travel between major cities by rail, andBrazil´s woeful road system was condemned by the World Health Organization for racking up more than 50,000 deaths a year. Thegovernments urban solution is more Bus Rapid Transit lineswhich are cheaper than metro and light rail, but notoriously damaging to the urban fabric. BRTs mean more buses and more cars, less space for bicycles and pedestrians, and a massive subsidy for civil construction firms andautomobile manufacturers.
After years without significant investment, no one questioned the utility of the infrastructure projects themselves. Meanwhile, the usual processes of long-term urban planning were discarded in order to throw pet projects into the Responsibility Matrix that every host city signs with FIFA. To achieve the short-term goals of the World Cup, host cities were given an exemption to Brazils federal Law of Fiscal Responsibility. This exemption allowed for deficit spending and the emergency financing of over-priced infrastructure. Cheap loans? Throw another project in. Tight deadline? Increase the cost, and do away with environmental impact studies, due process, and human rights. According to the Popular Committees of the World Cup, tens of thousands of families were forcibly and illegally removed from their homes.
Continue reading at the Los Angels Review of Books website..

30 September 2014

Rio´s Naked Geography

The hunt is quietly continuing, but the beasties are mostly sleeping, so I have been pursuing them through other means than the blog. Here is a video of a lecture that I recently delivered at the University of Richmond in their Cross Speaker Series. Many thanks to David Salisbury, the faculty and staff of the Geography Department as well as the Department of Anthropology and the Business School for bringing me to Richmond. More HWE text on its way soon.




26 August 2014

The traumas and dramas of post-Cup, pre-Olympic Brazil

Tied to a period of economic growth and political stability, Brazil has aggressively pursued a series of mega-events from the Pan-American Games in 2007 to the 2016 Rio Olympics. These events are used by the Brazilian national and local governments to showcase their economic prosperity and to promote the country as one that is on equal footing with global powers. However, with the comings and goings of the international sporting caravans, each requiring billions in public financing, the question remains: where is the benefit for the ordinary Brazilian that stays behind after the parade has moved on?’

20 August 2014

Post-prandial teeth picking

The hunt for Brazilian White Elephants continues, albeit at a slower pace than before the World Cup. The hunters have gorged on their catch for a month and have started to take on the physical characteristics of their prey. Though the appetite has dulled through repetitive ingestion of the same delicious meat, the knives are still sharp.

FIFA released its technical report last week, finally revealing their official count of stadium capacities and attendances. While FIFA will not reveal the number of tickets available for each category, nor the number of VIP, VVIP and hospitality tickets, or make their general figures for attendance and costs at their tournaments public information. Yet from the information they do provide we can glean some insight into the generalized trouble with measuring the costs of the tournament.

As I was picking my teeth with a piece of tusk, I found the following information regarding stadium capacities for the World Cup:


FIFA Copa2014 Portal DW FA EC WS
BH 58170 62160 64500 62547 64000 62000 62170
BRA 69439 72800 71000 68009 71412 68000 70064
CUI 41112 41390 43600 42968 43000 43000 44336
CUR 39631 43000 42000 41456 41456 44000 43981
FOR 60342 63900 67037 64846 63903 65000 67037
MAN 40549 44500 44310 42374 44000 41000 42374
NAT 39971 42000 45000 42086 43000 42000 42086
POA 43394 50000 60800 48849 47100 43000 51300
REC 42610 46000 46000 42849 46000 46000 46154
RIO 74738 78838 76000 73531 78838 71000 78838
SAL 51900 55000 50223 48747 53700 50000 56500
SAO 62601 68000 65000 65807 68000 60000 65807

(DW=Deutsche Welle, FA=English FA, EC=Engenharia Civil, WS=World Stadiums)

Incredibly, all of these sources have different seating capacity numbers for the stadiums. As I have pointed out before, none of the four Brazilian government transparency sites for the World Cup agree on how much the stadiums cost. Given that there isn't agreement about how many people can fit in the stadiums themselves, this shouldn't be surprising.


14 July 2014

Lead and Circus

The lion tamer and Sideshow Sob
Felipão showed that herding well-groomed cats into a functional football team requires more than an emotional whip and a neatly trimmed moustache. The abundant talent at his disposal fell victim to their own incessant preening (the team spent the day before the Holland match at the salon), a lack of tactical cohesion, a penchant for petulance and hyper-inflated expectations of easy success predicated on a military-era worldview. The continual displays of adolescent weeping from nominally grown men were contrasted by the lion tamers’ glib assertions that everything was going just fine. The mewing display of the Seleção on home soil will hopefully force a long-overdue cleaning of the litter box.

The flea show
Messi, Rodriguez, Muller, Ruiz, Navas, Jones, Howard, Mascherano and hundreds of brilliant athletes played more than 130 hours (five and a half days!) of competitive, entertaining and emotionally draining football with a damn interesting narrative arc. Seen from the height of a surveillance drone, the movement on the pitch might look like dancing fleas.

The painted and bearded ladies
I kept waiting for a goal celebration in which a player scores from a free kick, scoops up some of the magic spray and lathers it on his face only to take off his boot and give himself a shave. While I was waiting, FIFA kept showing me beautiful women in the stands. The loveliest of the lovelies had their faces and nails painted in national colors, raw emotions on display for me to consume. The bearded ladies were in drab sackcloth, cleaning the toilets after the show was over.

The Ringling Brothers, Bynum and Bailiff
FIFA is making money as quickly as they are losing credibility. How is it possible that year after year, tournament after tournament, we face the same issues of ticket corruption, black box management, a lack of transparency and consistency in refereeing decisions, partial and selective use of technology to apply sanctions to players, and the innumerable other banal absurdities that surround people that insist on five star hotel accommodations and limousine service? The owners of the circus established the logic and sequence of the show and make their demands known to all. Once you step out of that narrowly framed mind-set there is suddenly nothing to talk about because the money is in the bank, the crime has happened and Whelan has made his millions on the Lamm.

The elephants and their tents
Have you ever had an elephant trumpet directly into your ear? If not, you clearly haven’t been to a World Cup match. The hyper-mediatized spectacle under the big top assaults all the senses except smell (there is a small army of dark-skinned workers to shovel away the mess). Before and after the match, the tens of thousands of singing and chanting fans were drowned out by the state-of-the-art sound system, eliminating any possibility of soaking in the moment (for a neutral). As the fireworks exploded around the Swiss and German manufactured roof of the Maracanã, tear gas and percussion grenades pounded the faces of those who dared to question the financing of the circus with public money. The elephant tents won’t come down once the circus has gone, but their exclusionary structures and violent assaults on common sense and public culture will continue.

The trapeze act
There was not much mention of the eleven workers that died while constructing the World Cup stadiums, nor did they receive a collective minute of silence before any match. The dangerous conditions under which most heavy construction workers in Brazil toil were exacerbated with time pressures. True, many thousands of men made many millions of dollars constructing the tents and roadways and hotels for the circus. The vast majority of them made it home every day without injury. The same can’t be said for those who were crushed under a hastily constructed overpass in Belo Horizonte. The lack of outrage is itself outrageous.

The carnies
How is it possible to pull off the World Cup in a country without a highly qualified work force? Put billions of public funds behind it, hire temporary employees en masse, convince people to volunteer their labor, and get highly mobile global technicians to do the rest. There is an ever-larger cadre of companies that roam around the world to design, build, and run stadiums, provide security, manage tourists, run catering, install telecommunications, negotiate with gadflies, and pay handsomely to convince themselves and others that this is all for the good of the people. These carnies make good money and are invariably dependent upon the Ringling Brothers to get their contracts signed and credentials guaranteed. The other carnies are local surplus labor hired by companies with links to prominent politicians. After the party they’ll return to a state of under-employment until the circus returns.

The strongmen
Oh my, oh my, how strong they are! They are so strong that the newspaper puts them on the front page and explains the myriad ways in which they have been trained to use their strength in emergency situations. The strongmen need not say a word, indeed, dialogue is considered a sign of weakness! They are so strong that they exude dark clouds of poison and move through crowds with sticks. The strongmen are so strong and so big that they are everywhere, even when they are not. Without the strongmen, we are told, the circus is impossible. Yet no one informed the strongmen that they are not the main act, that the performance of strength should be left to those who don’t have weapons, that the spectacle of raw and unbridled power is weakness incarnate.

The locals
Brazilians are, on the whole, lovely, warm, generous, friendly and hospitable. They made the best of this World Cup both for themselves and for others. The delays, inevitable confusions, dysfunctional systems and other daily inconveniences of daily life that tourists confronted were made better through innumerable small and felicitous encounters. Brazilians made Brazil seem like a tremendously functional place for a short time, and their warmth and charm will be the lasting impression that most tourists take away. There were also demonstrations of the dark side of the Brazilian character that went unnoticed by many visitors as well, mostly because they didn’t catch the meaning or didn’t recognize what was no longer there: the tasteless chants towards the president at the opening and closing ceremonies, the elimination and privatization of public space in the service of a fickle and arrogant elite, and a more generalized transfer of public wealth to private hands. Before the World Cup the Brazilians were saying “Imagina na Copa…”, wondering how we were going to have so many extra people in the cities. Now we have to  “Imaginar realidade…” with cities in debt, traffic worsening, WC projects unfinished and an election on the horizon.

The hangover
Deficit spending, infrastructure collapse, slow economy, literal hangovers, and divided opinion about whether or not it was worth it. The party, as predicted, was amazing. Brazilians can put on a show de bola like no one else. There will be massive saudades for Brazil four years from now while journalists are trying to get to Yekaterinburg. Just because it was an amazing World Cup doesn’t mean that it’s ok to have it. It’s not some kind of global potlatch where the international tourist class can come a feast at the expense of others every four years. The impacts are as real as the spectacle is ephemeral. It doesn’t make for good newsprint and it’s not a story with a happy ending, no matter how many saves Tim Howard made.

Football is probably the only thing that would bring so many Latin Americans to Brazil in such numbers. This was a great tournament for South American solidarities to develop (except for the Brazil-Argentina taunt fest). Through the overwrought infrastructure projects, the Brazilians were showing off their wealth to their neighbors and to the Germans and Swiss and other truly wealthy nations (and making them even more so through contracts and tax breaks/subsidies).

In a country as desperately unequal as Brazil, the party should have been more modest and more inclusive, the spending more transparent and the dialogue with the population should have happened years ago still has not begun. The strengths and weaknesses of Brazil were on partial display during the WC. This was not a normal month. There were 64 games and 64 holidays in twelve cities. Life in Brazil doesn’t usually run this smoothly but there were many important lessons that we can take from the Brazilian capacity for organizing the World Cup. When there is a real (or perceived) necessity, Brazilian cities can work for many people some of the time for specific events. The organizing committees did a great job of pulling everything together within a regime of exception and the tournament pleased even Jerome Valcke. Things were so good that for a short period and for some people it seemed as if the chronic problems of police violence, education, infrastructure, labor conditions and socio-economic disparity didn’t exist in Brazil. The Brazilian media continues along with this narrative that has been echoed in the international press.

Now that we are back to reality, there can hopefully be a more frank analysis regarding the lack of transparency in government and the private sector, the irregularities in constructing stadiums and WC related infrastructure, the forced removals of low income communities, rampant real-estate speculation, the gross human rights violations that happen as a result of hosting mega-events, the diminishing access to public space and leisure activities (including professional football), and the lack of general consciousness about the impacts of consumer choices (from food production to sewerage). Of course, none of these problems are unique to Brazil yet the hosting of the World Cup exaggerated them.

There should also be a larger conversation about the mega-event business model that brings the circus and all its actors to town before moving on to the next town, the next country, leaving behind fuzzy memories of a fantastic party and vague recollections of some terrible things that happened along the way.


The 2016 Olympics are x days away and will be until they are not. Until then we can put all of these conversations on repeat, use the same sound bites, talk to the same people about the same things and very little is going to change. The World Cup has shown the potential of the circus to crush public debate and to anesthetize critical thought while the tents are illuminated and the fleas are dancing under the brutalizing glare of the strong men.

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