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Challenges abound as Brazil celebrates Olympics win

October 4th, 2009

pele2The weight of a troubled history has taught Brazilians not to expect too much. Their country, it is often said, is the “nation of the future — and always will be.”

On Friday, the International Olympic Committee declared that the future is now.

In a leap of faith recognizing an emerging player on the world stage, officials awarded the 2016 Olympic Games to Rio de Janeiro, giving it the honor of staging the first Olympiad held in South America.

The selection of Rio over rivals Chicago, Tokyo and Madrid set off a joyous celebration in a city known in roughly equal measure for its beaches, its carnival and its vast, crime-ridden shantytowns. While Chicago backers in particular reacted with stunned silence, in Brazil the decision was met with a fervent hope that the country might finally be approaching its vast potential.

“I say with all frankness: Our time has come,” President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva declared. Like U.S. President Barack Obama and officials of the other finalist countries, Lula made a personal appeal to the Olympic Committee before its vote in Copenhagen.

After the vote, a teary-eyed Lula told reporters: “I confess to you that if I died now, my life has been worthwhile.”

Back home on the famed Copacabana beach, an estimated 1 million people gathered to await the decision. Many were prepared for disappointment — expecting another instance of a less-developed country getting the short end of the stick. Teacher Lucio Correia da Silva said he was worried when he found out that Obama was going to Copenhagen.

“The mood now is of vindication, as if Brazil had proven a point to the world,” he said.

Brazil pursued the honor vigorously, promising to spend $14 billion to overcome daunting logistical and social challenges — twice as much as the next highest candidate. About 85 percent of Rio residents supported the Olympic bid, according to the IOC, compared with 55 percent in Chicago.

Brazilians regard the Olympics as an event that will lift their country, an increasingly important economic power, to the global stage and transform Rio, much as the 1992 Games built Barcelona, Spain, into a tourist and meeting venue.

While much of the world is still extricating itself from recession, Brazil’s economy is expected to grow between 4 percent and 6 percent next year. The country is leading Latin America out of recession, according to a forecast released Thursday by the International Monetary Fund.

In recent years, its economy has ridden strong demand for natural resources such as iron, timber, sugar and soybeans. The discovering of major offshore oil deposits are expected to make it a major energy exporter by 2012. And under Lula, the government seems to have broken a cycle of hyperinflation, currency devaluations, bank failures and credit crises.

The vote is also a testament to the influence of Lula at home and his growing prestige abroad. Nearing the end of his second term, the former union official who was once jailed by military rulers, still enjoys approval ratings around 80 percent.

Framed by Sugar Loaf mountain, the Atlantic Ocean and the Christ the Redeemer statue hovering overhead, Rio is a city of enormous charm and festive spirit. It is also a city of extremes. Luxury hotels and condominiums along Ipanema and Copacabana beaches are ringed by impoverished “favelas,” or shanty towns, known to movie-goers through films such as “City of God.”

Rising cocaine use and trafficking are at the root of much of crime.

Tuesday, for example, was a pretty typical day on Rio’s crime blotter. At dawn, an unidentified man was found shot to death in the trunk of a Renault which had been stolen from an executive transportation company. A couple of hours later, a gang invaded a Copacabana apartment building, robbed 30 residents and got away. At about the same time, police closed in on drug dealers in one favela, killing a juvenile, arresting six people, and seizing weapons that included two homemade bombs.

Faced with that level of crime, corporations have fled, and the tourist and convention business has suffered in recent years. To maintain order during the 2007 Panamerican Games in Rio, the country sent 18,000 extra police and soldiers onto the streets.Jorge Barbosa, who heads an advocacy group for slum residents, said nothing in the Olympic bid addressed residents’ need for education, better housing and security.

“We’re insisting that the government give social meaning to these Olympics by investing in the favelas,” Barbosa said.

Nevertheless, crowds took advantage of a citywide holiday Friday and streamed toward Copacabana Beach to await the decision. The country’s Olympic organizers erected an enormous pavilion there to deliver the results.

Copacabana travel agent Ana Lucia Perez da Costa cheered and cried for joy. “I’m very happy because this will help sports and give a boost to kids of all ages and social classes,” she said.

“There’s no doubt Rio deserves the Olympic games! I just hope it really brings benefit to the city,” said Vitor Benvindo, a Rio-based historian. “But I confess I’m skeptical. I am happy for the city, but I doubt the good intentions of politicians.”

The pride was not limited to Brazil. It struck a chord across Latin America, which has not hosted the Olympics since Mexico City 41 years ago.

Some in Latin America saw the selection as a kind of North-South battle. The Mexican newspaper El Universal on its front page Friday published a collage of Lula and Obama facing each other, imitating a poster for a boxing match. “Obama vs. Lula. Only one will emerge a winner.”

The city faces enormous infrastructure challenges. But some of the cost and planning for the Olympics will be shared with Brazil’s preparations to host the 2014 soccer World Cup. The 2007 Panamerican Games left a legacy of massive traffic tie-ups, monumental cost overruns, and disappointed citizens who said economic benefits never materialized.

The organizers promised to meet IOC demands to construct 17,000 hotel rooms, as well as a 32-building Olympic village. The city’s irregular topography of mountains, beaches and lagoons limits its mass transit options, and the relatively short subway system will add just a few stops by 2016. Rio is expected to construct a series of express bus lanes resembling a highly successful system in place in Bogota, the capital of Colombia.

As with most previous venues, Rio promised the Games would have significant economic benefits for the city. A University of Sao Paulo study released this week said the $14 billion investment would reap four times that value in goods and services sold.

Organizers have promised that directly or indirectly the games will create 120,000 jobs before and during the event.

But many economists question the staying power of that economic development. A 2007 study by the Bank of China prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics found that in nine of 12 host cities, a region’s economic output grew more slowly in the years after the games than before them.

By Los Angeles Times


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