Tragedies bookended Brazil's year in the spotlight

Story highlights

  • The Olympic Games were always going to push Brazil into the headlines this year
  • But 2016 also brought a non-sporting scandal, tragedies and political strife

Shasta Darlington is an international correspondent for CNN based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Rio de Janeiro (CNN)It was January, 2016. I cuddled 3-month-old Luiz Felipe in my lap. Chubby, squeezable and defenseless, he felt like my children when they were babies. But Luiz Felipe was born with an unusually small head and underdeveloped brain.

We were in Recife, in northeastern Brazil, to report on a Zika virus pandemic that had been linked to a surge in birth defects -- specifically microcephaly. Doctors were already calling the infants "a lost generation."
I spent hours with producer Flora Charner and photojournalist Miguel Castro -- himself a new father -- in waiting rooms and clinics.
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We spoke softly to parents as they got the first diagnosis of microcephaly. And cuddled and cajoled tiny babies just beginning what, we were told, would be a lifetime of jabs and tests and physical therapy.
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It wasn't supposed to be like this. 2016 was going to be Brazil's time to shine on the global stage as it hosted the Summer Olympics, the first ever in Latin America.
But it certainly wasn't starting well for Brazil. Between November 2015 and November 2016, more than 2,000 babies were confirmed born with microcephaly. That compares with a couple hundred per year on average.
The mosquito-borne disease hit poor families in the northeast hardest -- but it quickly spread to Rio de Janeiro, the host city of the Games, during the height of the South American summer and Carnival celebration.
We went from doctors' offices to teeming Carnival, where costumed revelers partied, drank and smooched just as international health organizations announced that Zika could be transmitted sexually and was present in saliva.
The Zika crisis would end up being one of the major deterrents to potential Olympic visitors -- but not the only one.

Political pressure cooker

While Zika swept across the country, the political climate was also heating up with tens of thousands taking to the streets in protest against widespread corruption and demanding the ouster of President Dilma Rousseff.
Rousseff was re-elected by a narrow margin in 2014. But the economy fell into a deep recession almost as soon as the ballots were counted. With unemployment and inflation soaring, Brazilians were suddenly less inclined to ignore a ballooning bribery scandal.
It seemed like every week another "untouchable" business leader or political chief was being arrested as part of the "Car Wash" investigation, accused of paying or receiving massive bribes in exchange for lucrative contracts with the state-run oil company Petrobras.
Rousseff wasn't implicated, but leaders in her government and party were. Emboldened by the public protests, her opponents in Congress launched impeachment proceedings against Rousseff, accusing her of breaking budgetary laws to hide the sorry state of the economy.
The country seemed to be unraveling. And thanks to the upcoming Olympic Games, the whole world was watching.
We spent our days flying back and forth between the capital Brasilia and Rio de Janeiro, as the country's elected leaders got into heated debates and violent protests broke out in the streets.
Tensions escalated, with Rousseff telling Christiane Amanpour in April that the proceedings were nothing short of an institutional coup d'etat, driven by lawmakers accused of the far more serious crimes of corruption and bribery.
That same month, we sat down for an exclusive with Michel Temer -- the future-president and the man Rousseff accused of being a coup-plotter. He rejected any notion of a conspiracy and spoke of "reconciliation" and "pacification."
In May, the Senate voted to launch the impeachment trial against Rousseff and she was suspended. But not before receiving the Olympic torch in Brazil just the week before.
With just 100 days to go before the start of the Rio Olympics, the problems kept piling up. Zika fears and the political chaos had eroded confidence in Brazil and the Games, and ticket sales were sluggish.
For those who still planned to come, organizers failed to meet their promises to clean up the water venues. Sailors, wind surfers and rowers would compete in waterways clogged with sewage, where scientists had even discovered a super bacteria.

Let the Games begin

The Games themselves got off to an uneven start. A spectacular opening ceremony in the Maracana Stadium, put together on a shoestring budget, was undermined by delays at the Olympic Village.
But then the Olympic spirit kicked in and it was all about the sport.
I had been lucky to get a preview of this spirit weeks earlier, when I ran with the Olympic torch and passed the flame to my friend and CNN colleague Arwa Damon.
That July day was definitely the highlight of the Olympics for me. We met up with the torch in the prosperous city of Curitiba in Brazil's south. It was a quick 200-meter run, but it reminded me how inspiring the Olympic Games are for so many people.
Shasta Darlington and Arwa Damon run with Olympic torch
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You could see the pride on the faces of the people who turned out to line the torch route -- and even more so on the torchbearers, many of whom had been selected because of the contributions they had made to their own communities.
From sprinter Usain Bolt to swimmer Michael Phelps, the Rio Games themselves were full of dramatic moments.
For me, the most inspiring victory was Rafaela Silva's. The judo fighter won Brazil's first gold medal.
Silva grew up on the mean streets of one of Rio's favelas -- ironically called City of God. When she won that gold medal the whole country was celebrating not only her rags to riches story but the triumph of Brazil itself in beating the odds to pull off a largely successful Games.
In the end, the biggest scandal at Rio's Olympics was perpetrated by US swimmer Ryan Lochte. He claimed he and teammates had been robbed at gunpoint after a party, but later admitted he exaggerated the story after a police investigation revealed he had vandalized a gas station and argued with security guards.

A deadly crash

For Rio and Brazil, the end of the Olympics was followed by a new period of turbulence.
Rousseff was officially impeached days after the Games ended. President Temer installed the first all-male Cabinet in decades and the "Car Wash" probe continued to implicate politicians in both Rousseff's Workers Party and Temer's centrist PMDB.
And as the turbulent year was nearing a close for the scandal-plagued country, tragedy struck.
A plane carrying the scrappy football team Chapecoense -- on its way to compete in the South America Cup final for the first time ever -- crashed into the mountains in late November outside Medellin, Colombia.
Seventy-one people died and just six survived, a tragic turn of events in the Cinderella story of a team of unlikely champions. It was also a devastating blow to Brazil itself, a nation again grasping for success stories and role models in troubled times.
We found ourselves looking for answers in Colombia, visiting the site of the crash in the mountains near Medellin and speaking to investigators on the ground while my colleague Don Riddell talked to the bereaved families in Chapeco, Brazil, the team's hometown.
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While the country was mourning, Brazil's Congress voted to alter an anti-corruption bill. If approved, it would erode the powers of the judges and prosecutors leading the "Car Wash" probe -- and likely make life a lot easier for lawmakers under investigation.
Heading into 2017, the outlook for Brazil is not good. Political tensions are running high again, the economy is stalled and we are bracing for another mosquito season. But this time, will the world be watching?