The world’s eyes have been turned to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, and the drama associated with the thrill of victory and agony of defeat has not disappointed. The love of sports transcends borders, and bringing top athletes together to represent their countries is the height of competition. The only thing that rivals the drama of sports is the world of politics. And once the pools have been emptied, the ping pong tables stacked away and the athletes have departed, Brazilians must turn their attention back to the only contest left in town: a political scandal for the ages. It is a debacle that will leave the people of Brazil feeling as deflated as a worn-out beach volleyball.
The main player in this political contest is Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached by the country’s lower house of congress days before the Olympics began. Rousseff has been suspended from her presidential responsibility pending a trial by the Brazilian Senate, prohibited from exercising presidential power, and her office filled by Vice President Michel Temer (who is also under investigation for corruption).
The setting of the scandal goes back to Rousseff’s tenure on the board of the state-owned energy company Petrobras and involves allegations of kickbacks for directing massive projects to specific companies. The breadth and depth of the corruption allegations have rocked Brazil’s political world, with more than 80 convictions to date and many more likely to follow. President Rousseff is the most high-profile politician to be snared by the scandal, and she will almost certainly be permanently removed from office by the Senate within a few weeks.
While Brazilians watch with interest as this political competition plays out, they are more than mere spectators; they are innocent victims of inept political leadership that squandered a grand opportunity for Brazil to take its place as a world economic leader. Just a few short years ago, Brazil was heralded as a model for economic development. The country touted the sixth largest population and eighth largest economy. The Economist magazine depicted the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue as a rocket launching into a limitless future of prosperity under the headline “Brazil Takes Off.” With 7.5 percent economic growth in 2010 and a treasure of natural resources, Brazil was well situated to make the predictions a reality.
Today, the Brazilian economy has shrunk by almost 4 percent in the past year. The forecast for 2016 is equally gloomy with projections of falling employment and rising inflation. Blame for this unfortunate economic reversal does not rest on politics alone, since commodity prices have decreased while the global economy has stagnated. Nevertheless, poor policy decisions, lack of reform, an absurdly burdensome tax code, and pervasive corruption serves as the model of how poor political leadership can ruin a good thing.
Over the past two weeks, Brazilians have enjoyed a much-needed break from the political turmoil by cheering their Olympic heroes and heroines such as beach volleyball phenoms Agatha and Barbara, rising gymnastic stars Diego Hypolito and Arthur Mariano, and of course the incomparable Neymar. But as the lights go up and the games end, the harsh reality returns of how the current political crisis is worsening the recession already gripping the country.
What is happening in Brazil serves as a sad example of how political games get in the way of economic victory. And while national leaders may pay a personal cost, such as being removed from office and possibly even going from the statehouse to the jailhouse, it is the people who suffer the most from the misdeeds of the powerful and privileged few.
Derek B. Miller is the president and CEO of the World Trade Center Utah. Previously he was chief of staff to Gov. Gary Herbert (R-Utah) and managing director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.