SAO PAULO – The headlines coming from Brazil’s largest and most important city indicate turmoil less than a week before the city hosts the opening match of the FIFA World Cup.
On Thursday morning, the metro station across the street from the new stadium was invaded by commuters revolting against a metro worker strike that left more than 3 million commuters scrambling to cram into city buses to get to work. The partial metro shutdown caused over 200km of traffic backups, and pure transit chaos.
The day before a few hundred police held a protest outside the stadium, calling for better wages, while another group of more than 12,000 protesters completely shut down “Radial Leste”, the key highway leading to the World Cup venue.
Meanwhile, I drove by the stadium Wednesday night and construction crews were still building the temporary stands that will support an extra 18,000 fans at the venue during the World Cup.
Add it all up, and it makes for quick snapshot of an image to the outside world of a country unprepared just days before hosting one of the world’s largest sporting spectacles.
But President Dilma Rousseff has a response to the critics which is essentially this: There is more to the story than what you’ve read in the newspapers or seen on the nightly news about Brazil in recent months we’re just fine, thank you very much.
At a private dinner Tuesday night at the president’s official residence with 12 Brazil-based foreign correspondents, Rousseff was confident and straightforward, yet much more relaxed, unscripted, and warm than she normally comes off in public settings.
Surely it was a stroke of public relations genius to have us over for dinner a week before the World Cup, but it also was a rare opportunity for us to get a feel for the mood and thinking of a president who rarely speaks to the press.
Her key message, as you might expect her to say, was that Brazil is prepared to host a great World Cup. She showed not even the slightest doubt otherwise.
On delays in World Cup projects? “Nobody builds a subway in two years,” she said, before adding, “Well, maybe China.”
She defended the federal government’s World Cup spending on infrastructure (about $8bn) saying – again and again - it is for the Brazilian people and not for FIFA or football tourists passing through.
Stadiums? In response to the often-citied criticism that the costs to build 12 stadiums (about $4bn) have diverted from other more important areas, her office says spending on health and education in the past four year has been about $400bn, nearly 100 times more than on World Cup arenas.
Rousseff is a realist, and never insinuated healthcare, education and infrastructure are perfect in Brazil far from it. While eating pasta and drinking Coke Zero in the main dining room, she spent significant time talking about new scholarship programmes and a rail line for cargo trains in the interior of the country. What she seemed to be saying is that the World Cup-specific spending has little bearing on any other government spending.
Protests during the World Cup? It’s a democracy, people can protest, she said. However destruction of property or protests that try to interrupt the games in any way? Not going to tolerate it, Rousseff indicated, adding there would be a “total guarantee” of security.
FIFA? She spent little time talking about football’s governing body, probably following the age-old saying that unless you have something good to say, don’t say anything at all. “[FIFA] has given us a lot of advice, haven’t they?” she said at one point. The message was clear: Let’s change the subject.
Will the seats be ready at stadiums? Will the airport have a leaky roof when tourists arrive? Will tourists get dengue?
These are all micro-level questions (Rousseff laughed off the dengue one, by the way). Brazil – thanks to the World Cup and attention that comes along with it – is a country living in a moment when the micro is all that seems to matter.
This clearly frustrates Rousseff, and by having us over for a long dinner, in my view, it was an attempt to grab us by the shirttails and yank us back to be reminded of the larger picture in Brazil, where things perhaps don’t seem so bad as they do from up close.
Brazil was a country that emerged from a military dictatorship only 29 years ago. Rousseff knows it well.
“You know where I watched the 1970 World Cup?” she asked us at one point. “From a prison cell,” she said referring to her time incarcerated and tortured as a youth for fighting against the military regime. That put things into perspective real quick.
Sitting with Rousseff, up close, she came off to me as a big thinker and someone exasperated by the constant drumbeat of World Cup negativity on micro-level issues. She’s a woman consumed with the Brazilian micro issues that affect the Brazilian macro-level issues of the day. Everything else is background noise.
In her view, many problems in her country are partly attributed to Brazil’s own success in the past decade. In the last decade, tens of millions were lifted to the middle class, historic reduction in poverty, and near full employment means more people are working and travelling, leading to a strain on airports built in the dictatorship era.
It’s getting fixed. New terminals are being delivered, perhaps not fast enough for some, but delivered they are.
Last June, when tens of millions of people took to the streets over a two-week period in historic protests across the country, Rousseff saw it partly as a restless population hungry to see improvements in society done faster. “This is good,” she said.
At 9:55pm, after nearly two hours, Thomas Traumann, Rousseff’s minister of social communication, politely suggested perhaps we should allow the president to get some rest.
But Rousseff wasn’t hearing it.
She went on for another 30 minutes talking about Netflix and how much she enjoyed a recent episode of a Colombian TV drama about Pablo Escobar and how she longs for the joys of being anonymous again.
She then led us for a tour of her residence, and a brief walk outside where a warm breeze and low lying crescent moon provided natural light.
“When Obama’s youngest daughter, Sasha, walked out here ,” Rousseff, went on, she said “Wow, this is the most beautiful palace house I have ever seen.” Rousseff chuckled at the irony coming from someone who lives in the White House.
A few minutes before 11pm, Rousseff walked us all out to our waiting vehicles still chatting.
It was at that point I realised it had been over an hour since I had last heard her mention the words World Cup.
Fitting for a president I found to be quite at-ease that her country was about to put on a spectacular one, even if every little detail doesn’t match expectations of people flying in from Zurich.
Rousseff is a president seemingly ready to get on with it and write her own headline from this World Cup.