17 February 2016

Privatisation is the New Black (until it´s red)

Originally posted at The Allrounder on 18 January 2016
For a city that has contorted itself repeatedly over the last decade to host major sports events, Rio de Janeiro can’t seem to get its stadiums quite right.
Last week, the consortium that won the contract (under dubious circumstances) to manage the Maracanã stadium for 35 years fired three quarters of its workforce. The official reason is that the consortium, involving Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht and global sports management empire IMG, is “anticipating handing the stadium over to the IOC in preparation for the Olympics.” The real reason is that the stadium isn’t making enough money.
Another stadium, formally called the Estádio Olimpico João Havelange (after the disgraced former FIFA president and IOC member) and more commonly known as Stadium Rio or Engenhão, had its electricity cut off last week. This will be Rio’s venue for track and field during the Olympics, but right now the concession rights holder, Botafogo Futebol e Regatas, can’t pay the bills. Built for the 2007 Pan American Games, for ten times over budget, the stadium was closed in 2013 because the roof was about to cave in. Other Olympic stadiums, like the National Tennis Center and National Equestrian Center, are incomplete and without a contractor to finish them.
The privatisation of publicly financed stadiums is not a Brazilian innovation, but what is happening in Rio demonstrates the basic logic and typical consequences of the mega-event business model. Cities sign host-agreement contracts with international rights holders like the IOC or FIFA and are solely responsible for delivering infrastructure. Back in 2009, the Rio state government tried to arrange a public-private partnership to finance the R$1.2 billion renovation of the Maracanã. Unsurprisingly, no private company dared take on the task because stadiums are not inherently profitable ventures. Twenty-first century FIFA stadiums are expensive to maintain and depend on big crowds to balance budgets. But Brazilian football crowds are small, and there isn’t a North American-style consumer economy at stadiums that makes money for concessionaires.
So the private sector stayed away at the start, knowing that the state was on the hook for delivering World Cup and Olympic infrastructure and that construction and concessions contracts would be available later. In their absence, the State of Rio de Janeiro was forced to pay for another round of deforms to the Maracanã, following major renovations in 2005-06, that cost upwards of R$1.2 billion. The new architectural configuration of the Maracanã did not necessarily require its removal from the public domain, but the demands that the mega-event business model puts upon sports venues drive the privatization process forward. Because the stadium has all of the FIFA bells and whistles, the state lacked the technical and financial capacity to manage and maintain it, ensuring that only a specialised company with the know-how to run it could do so. Thus, the destruction and construction project justified privatisation. Now that the winner of the rigged privatization process, Maracanã S.A., can’t make ends meet, they are walking away from the contract, and the state must find a way to make Rio’s iconic stadium viable. Inevitably, the government will try to privatise it again, instead of looking for maximum public benefit.
Critical to understanding what is going on with Rio’s stadiums is the role of the 2013-14 protests and the on-going actions of civil society actors like the Comitê Popular da Copa e das Olimpiadas. Back when the Maracanã was being reconstructed for the World Cup (2010-2013), the Comitê Popular joined forces with a number of other groups to prevent the demolition of four sites adjacent to the stadium: two athletics facilities, a public school, and the former home of Brazil’s Museum of the Indian. These were long, hard battles with a lot of tear gas, legal actions, and dedicated resistance. All four of these installations are still standing. However, the Maracanã S.A. consortium claims that when the former governor ceded to public pressure over the four sites, he unilaterally changed the terms of the concession contract. Without the area around the Maracanã available for shopping malls and parking lots, the consortium insists that it cannot be bound to the contract. In essence, this was a real-estate deal that had a World Cup stadium on site. But with average attendance at Brazilian league matches below that of MLS, the stadium itself doesn’t make enough money for the company. Since there is no space for shopping, Maracanã S.A. now wants to give the stadium back.
When you turn on your tv later this year to watch the opening ceremonies of the Rio Olympics, this is the stadium you’ll be seeing.
All of this is happening in the midst of Brazil’s biggest economic and political crisis in decades. Many of the companies contracted to build venues for the World Cup and Olympics are under investigation by Brazil’s Federal Police for their involvement in a corruption scandal of magnificent proportions. The back-room cronyism and old-school coronelismo of Brazilian politics are alive and well in the sporting world: João Havelange (still kicking at age 99), Ricardo Texeira, J. Hawila, Jose Maria Marin, and Marco Polo del Nero are the Brazilians at the epicentre of the unfolding FIFA scandal. For the first time in modern history, one person – Carlos Arthur Nuzman – holds the positions of both president of the host country’s Olympic Committee and president of the upcoming games’ organizing committee. The mayor of Rio, Eduardo Paes, has come under intense scrutiny for the largest program of forced removals in the city’s history. The most visible of these removals is happening in a community called the Vila Autódromo, on the construction site of the Olympic Park. Across the city as a whole, the Comitê Popular estimates that more than 22,000 people have been forcibly removed from their homes during Rio’s mega-event cycle. The IOC evaluation commission always tells the international media that “all our questions have been answered,” without ever saying what those questions are. Once the Games have moved on, there will be giant sucking sounds from the vacuums of responsibility left behind.
As with the interminable shenanigans of NFL teams hopping between cities in search of the highest bidder, the World Cup and Olympic Games are monopolistic, institutionalized transfer-of-wealth programs that leave shiny new stadiums and massive debt servicing in their wake. However, it is not just the Swiss-based sports organizations that are raking in the billions. These events are ideal opportunities to transfer wealth from the public to private hands in local contexts, with the privatisation of stadiums only one of many instruments at the disposal of event coalitions. With 200 days until the 2016 Summer Games, Rio’s public, once again, has been exposed to financial, environmental, housing, and other risks by the very politicians who were supposed to be acting in their interests.
As the “legacy” projects fail one by one to materialize, the Rio government is no longer claiming that the Olympics are going to bring lasting economic benefits to the city. Instead, what Mayor Paes says is that the recent cuts to Olympic spending are a sign of fiscal responsibility – the equivalent of spending a year’s salary in a weekend shopping binge and then deciding that the rhinestone boots were a bit much. To be sure, the massive public outlays have brought some cosmetic improvements to the city, but the legacies of the 2007 Pan American Games and 2014 World Cup have been negative. Rio’s public coffers have been used as an ATM for a small group of closely articulated political and economic interests. When the promised profits aren’t sufficient, as Maracanã S.A. discovered, there is no risk in walking away in false indignation.

15 June 2015

Unraveling Goliath

Please find the original article posted on Anthropoliteia. This posting does not mean that I´ve taken up the blog again!

Like most football fans across the world, I have taken a perverse and personal delight in watching the bloated, jowly patriarchs of FIFA fall, one after another. Not only do I feel that the on-going investigations into the misogynistic world of backslapping, ham-handed, wink-wink deal making are confirming my own knowledge and intuition, but also that the doors to the smoky back rooms of FIFA have been prised open, exposing a global coterie of sycophants and their clever, intertwined, and illegal schemes.

For the last six years, I have been investigating how the hosting of the World Cup and Olympics impacts upon urban and social relations in Brazil. In this work, I have exposed how the intricate shell game of FIFA and the IOC extracts maximum wealth from host cities and countries while at the same time militarizing and privatizing urban space, violating human rights, and leaving legacies of debt and unfulfilled promises. For those who can afford it, the party is fantastic. Once the floodlights have burned out, the hangover lasts for decades. In Brazil, the links between big business, big government, and big sport are opaque and insidious, yet the connections to the most recent FIFA-crisis are all too clear. Brazilian companies and executives are in the spotlight, again, for all the wrong reasons.

The most surprising development is that it has happened at all. Since 1974, FIFA and its (two) presidents have cozied up to dictators and presidents, popes and prime-ministers, conferring upon themselves all of the pomp, power, and impunity of a head of state. They have showered riches upon themselves as the self-appointed stewards of the game and like the Euro-aristocracy resident on Mt. Olympus, have made others rich in the process. The complex systems of patronage and peonage that define FIFA´s political philosophy are the same as those used by colonial powers.  Big egos in white bodies (with apologies to Jack Warner and Issa Hayatu) rule this world by manufacturing consent through the distribution of favours, suppressing dissent through the militarization of urban space and the curtailment of civil liberties, and choreographing their marionettes who, in accordance with the Brazilian World Cup slogan, are “all in one rhythm.”  

Predictably, it was from FIFA´s band of servile minions - morbid troglodytes like Chuck Blazer, hyperbolic shysters like Jack Warner, and half-arsed opportunists like Ricardo Texeira - that the tightly wound FIFA-world began to unravel. Too much money flowing too quickly to the wrong people though the wrong country for too long, coupled with the FBI´s charming insouciance for the real-politik of global sporting affairs has resulted in a very hard, very determined tug on a lot of rotten strings. Among the unanswerable questions is, if it all unravels, will there be anything left of FIFA? Or rather, is it reasonable to think that FIFA can disassociate from the same kinds of oppression, violence, and injustice that define global consumer capitalism? There has never been a period in the era of mass-communications when FIFA was not corrupt, so how will it suddenly emerge? Will cutting off some heads of the scabrous FIFA-Hydra change the nature of the beast? While behind the scenes deals are being struck, these desperate attempts to consolidate power are finally in conflict with an exasperated public, the FBI, and a thirsty press corps. Somehow, despite the rot, we are still captivated by football.

As the events of the past weeks have unfolded, the depth and extent of FIFA´s criminal network has become evident even to casual observers. The sudden resignation of FIFA´s communications officer, Walter de Gregorio (responsible for Blatter´s 2011 re-election campaign), may be a sign that there is no message to deliver, no more damage control to be done. It is almost impossible to keep track of the threads, but some of the more intriguing are that:
 - The Germans may have swapped arms for a Saudia Ariabian vote to get the 2006 WC.
·    -  FIFA authorized a $10 million USD bribe to then-CONCACAF president Jack Warner.
·     - Jack Warner split this with his deputy Chuck Blazer, who used the money to keep a Trump Tower apartment for his cats.
·    -  The 2018 and 2022 WC votes were bought, as were 1998, 2006, 2010, and 2014. The 2002 WC was not exempt, either, but corruption allegations against corrupt officials were never pursued.
·    - Nike, the Brazilian Football Confederation, the ex-president of Barcelona, Sandro Rossell, and the Qatari royal families have exchanged hundreds of millions of dollars between them.
·    - FIFA paid the Irish FA 5 million Euros to not make noise about being wrongly disqualified from the 2010 WC.
·    - All of the television broadcasting rights contracts for the WC, as well as the Copa Libertadores, Copa América, and other tournaments in Brazil, and much of South America, were illicitly gained.

This list is far from comprehensive and spans several modes of corruption, ones that affect governance, publicity, as well as actual decisions on the field.  One hopes that in the coming months, the details will emerge to fill in these categories. In the meantime, everything  – from marketing contracts to penalty decisions to hotel accommodations – is tainted with corruption.

Journalists and academics that report on and research global sport had yet to touch the bottom of the fetid pool, but even for us it still comes as somewhat of a surprise that the rest of the world can now read about match-fixing, illegal transfers, human trafficking, money laundering, Swiss bank accounts, bribery, racketeering, falsification of contracts, etc. as an integral part of the way football is organized. With the recent politicization of labour rights for NCAA athletes, the banal cruelty of playing a World Cup on turf, and the destruction of human life in the NFL and its subsidiaries, perhaps there is a chance that sport and politics will find a place in the public consciousness.
In reality, the FIFA saga is a captivatingly complex morality play being acted out on a global stage with curious twist: the chorus is hundreds of millions strong and may be able to influence the plot. Will the hood-eyed prince, Michel Platini, make his move for the presidency now? Will the court jester, Zico, show that he can perform better than Texeira? Will Blatter actually leave or is he just circling the wagons? This is not about using sport as a force for good, or as FIFA claims “developing football everywhere”. Sport is about power and we should be aware that our places in the audience impact on its exercise.  

We know World Cup games are bought and sold. We know that the WWC is being played on turf because football associations are on FIFA's leash and have more power than the players. We know that thousands of kids are trafficked across borders, sold into prostitution, or are molested, mistreated, or die because of a lack of medical attention. For every Dani Alves or Neymar, there are a hundred thousand broken legs and a million broken dreams in Brazil alone. We know of the bribery behind World Cup bids, the illegal and blindingly idiotic stadium building contracts, the militarization of cities for FIFA VIPs, dirty billion dollar television contracts, institutionalized racism and sexism, and a never-ending series of lies, deceptions, and platitudes. There is no “Fair Play” in or with FIFA.

As a reminder of how short our memories are, it is nearly a year to the day that the 2014 World Cup kicked off in Brazil. Of the twelve stadiums, in the twelve cities, ten are in serious difficulty. The only two that are not going through financial and political turmoil are the two built by clubs in Curitiba and Porto Alegre. Of all the football associations implicated in the current FIFA hullabaloo, the Brazilian federation is the most embroiled. The Brazilian João Havelange was FIFA´s modern architect and his granddaughter an executive director of the 2014 World Cup famously quipped about the R$ 30 billion outlay, “however much was spent, or stolen, already has been” [so why worry?].  

None of the “legacy” promises made by FIFA has come to fruition in Brazil. On fleeing the country as protests erupted around the Confederations´ Cup in 2013, Blatter announced a $ 100 million USD “legacy fund”, that would be administered by the CBF. This is the Brazilian organization recently run by a man now sitting in a Zurich jail house and currently headed up by a man who fled Zurich and ran straight to Brasilia where he was honoured by senators and congressmen. Of course, FIFA regulations prevent the Brazilian government from interfering in CBF affairs, a position that is at least consistent with the surrendering of territorial sovereignty that comes with hosting the World Cup. This takes the form of tax exemptions, restrictions on advertising, and the ability to close any street in a host city, at any time, for any reason.

And now, as if to prove the point that the Canadian World Cup doesn't matter, the Copa America kicks off in Chile, a country with long and painful associations between football and politics. In the same way we should remember those tortured and murdered in Santiago´s National Stadium, we should also remember that the same people who organized, broadcast, and advertise at this tournament are implicated in the shambolic governance of football. The show goes on with the same delirious media coverage, the same lack of critical reflection, the same people making more money than ever. It may be that FIFA and football are beyond reform as long as the crowds pour their money in and conform to FIFA's inexhaustible list of prohibited behaviours. Is it possible that the global chorus of football fans can only hope to sing their teams on to victory, while the dark-suited protagonists squirrel away their millions? Can anything change if we only watch the ball?

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.
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..


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