Brazil's President defends World Cup construction projects
She says most of money earmarked for construction is for country's infrastructure
President Dilma Rousseff hosted a dinner for journalists, shared personal stories
She is running for a second term in October
With just a little more than a week until the first kickoff of the 2014 World Cup, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff hosted a dinner for international journalists and countered criticism that too much money was spent on stadiums while infrastructure projects languished.
Rousseff told her guests that many of the country’s ambitious infrastructure plans were never intended to be finished for the World Cup, but the mega sporting event was simply used as an excuse to get projects off the ground.
“Nobody builds a metro in two years,” she said on the a terrace of the presidential residence, Palacio da Alvorada, designed by renowned Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.
Of the 143 billion reais ($63 billion) earmarked for infrastructure projects, only 8 to 9 billion reais were meant to be used specifically during the Cup. “The rest isn’t for the Cup, it’s for Brazil,” she said.
With the June 12 kickoff just around the corner, Brazil has seen a series of protests and strikes against World Cup projects, as well as criticism over construction delays and cost overruns.
But Rousseff said Brazilians would start to go football crazy as soon as the national team steps on the pitch in the inaugural match against Croatia.
She pointed to a 49% jump in the sales of televisions as a sign that Brazilians were anxiously awaiting the event.
“That’s how we watch the games. Not in the stadium. We get everyone together in front of the biggest TV,” she said. “If Brazil wins, we go to the street.”
The President fielded questions and told stories over a buffet dinner that featured Brazilian beef, French wine, a traditional seafood stew known as muqueca and tapioca ice cream – although she skipped dessert herself.
When asked whether she thought it was a mistake to host World Cup matches in 12 different cities instead of the minimum eight cities required by FIFA, Rousseff said the international football association chose the cities and added that now was not the time to ask what could have been done differently.
FIFA has always said Brazil insisted on the 12 cities to ensure the whole country was involved in the World Cup.
It’s a delicate moment for Rousseff, who will run for a second term in October’s presidential elections. For many Brazilians, the success of the World Cup and even of the Brazilian team are tied up with her electoral prospects.
Rousseff is the favorite, but her margin has steadily declined, making it highly likely that there will be a runoff vote.
A survey released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center found 72% of Brazilians were “dissatisfied with the way things are going in their country” and 61% said they thought hosting the World Cup “was a bad thing” because it took money away from schools, health care and other public services.
At the Tuesday night dinner, Rousseff said she didn’t think the World Cup should be politicized and even went on to talk about her time as a political prisoner during the Brazilian dictatorship, something she rarely discusses.
“I spent the 1970 World Cup in jail. I think something like a World Cup is independent from politics,” she said. A victory for the Brazil squad would be a success for the country, not for her presidency or her party, she said.
Rousseff also reiterated her view that the recent demonstrations were a sign of a functioning democracy and said they would be allowed as long as there wasn’t any vandalism, violence or attempts to disrupt the games.
Over the leisurely dinner that lasted for more than three hours, the President also talked about some of her favorite TV series – “Downton Abbey” and the first two seasons of “House of Cards” – and authors, such as Jane Austen and Leonardo Padura.
The President appeared relaxed and smiling throughout the evening, even telling the table of journalists about the time she “escaped” on the back of a red Harley-Davidson with a friend and drove around Brasilia unbeknownst to her security detail.
Rousseff said she has high hopes for Brazil in the Cup and plans to attend the opening and closing ceremonies, but will watch the other games on TV.
And if Brazil’s football archenemy Argentina were to win?
“You would hear the biggest silence in the country,” she said. “But I don’t think it will happen.”