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Olympics affirms Brazil's rise, Lula legacy

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Rio de Janeiro’s successful bid to host the Olympics in 2016 crowns Brazil’s remarkable rise over the past decade from a near basket case to an economic and diplomatic heavyweight.

President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil wipes his nose during a news conference following the signing of the host city contract after Rio de Janiero was announced as the winning city bid for the 2016 Olympic Games at the 121st IOC session in Copenhagen October 2, 2009. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Just as the Beijing Olympics of 2008 marked China’s revival as a world power, Rio 2016 may be seen as a stamp of approval on the South American giant’s coming of age.

After decades of underachievement, Latin America’s largest country in recent years has finally made good on the immense promise of its abundant natural resources, vibrant democracy and vast consumer market of 190 million people.

Rio’s Olympics victory may be the most spectacular sign of Brazil’s surging profile under President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the country’s first working-class leader who nurtured an economic boom that has lifted millions of people out of poverty and made him one of the world’s most popular leaders.

Even the global economic crisis was unable to knock Brazil off its stride for long as the economy swiftly emerged from recession and returned to growth this year.

“All those people who thought we had no ability to govern this country will now learn that we can host the Olympics,” a tearful Lula said after Rio’s landslide win in the Olympic voting in Copenhagen on Friday.

“The world has recognized that the time has come for Brazil.”

Rio’s victory may add to a feel-good factor before October 2010 elections in which Lula is aiming to have Chief of Staff Dilma Rousseff elected to succeed him, said Ricardo Ribeiro, a political analyst at MCM Consultores in Sao Paulo.

“I think it’s exaggerated to say that this will significantly alter the presidential race next year,” he said.

The 63-year-old former union leader is constitutionally barred from standing for a third straight term, but he has not ruled out returning to the presidency in 2014.

Brazil’s seeming inability to live up to its promise was long summed up by the joke that “Brazil is the country of the future -- and always will be.”

That largely held true during the dark days of the 1965-84 military dictatorship and the years of runaway inflation and economic crises in the 1980s and 1990s.

The country was still struggling in 2002 when, as Lula was poised for the presidency, financial markets crumbled on fears Brazil would go the way of crisis-hit Argentina with Lula and his leftist Workers’ Party at the reins.

Since then, years of robust growth and Lula’s earthy charm, which plays as well at world summits as in Rio slums, have lifted Brazil to economic and diplomatic respectability.

By 2006, Brazil had paid off its International Monetary Fund loans early and this year pledged to lend the IMF $10 billion. It has won three coveted investment-grade ratings in the past 18 months and has increasingly taken its place as an equal among major diplomatic powers on issues ranging from world trade talks to climate-change negotiations.

Major companies like oil firm Petrobras and mining giant Vale have flourished, helping spread Brazilian investments and influence throughout Latin America and beyond.


In the wake of the financial crisis, Brazil has been at the forefront in pushing for more clout for developing nations in international decision-making, raising the profile of the G20 as well as the BRIC group of big emerging markets, made up of Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Lula’s appeal for South America’s first Olympics followed a similar line: rich countries have enjoyed more than their fair share of the Games’ spectacle and prestige.

Brazil’s rise has cleared a path out of poverty for about 20 million people, with help from Lula’s generous welfare programs.

A run of luck also has worked in Brazil’s favor, from the commodities price boom that boosted its exports of raw materials such as iron ore and soybeans to one of the world’s largest recent oil finds off Rio’s coast in 2007.

The government hopes that discovery will help lift Brazil into the elite club of developed nations.

Yet plenty of challenges lie ahead.

Brazil’s schools suffer from chronic underinvestment and the country has no world-class universities, leaving business leaders worried about a lack of qualified labor. Its creaking infrastructure also threatens to cramp growth.

Despite its multiracial identity, racism remains a severe but widely ignored barrier to education and jobs for blacks and indigenous Indians. And, for all its economic progress, Brazil remains one of the world’s most unequal countries with widespread poverty, lawlessness and illiteracy in its northeast region and the vast Amazon rain forest area.

Reporting by Ana Nicolaci da Costa in Brasilia; Editing by Todd Benson, Kieran Murray and Doina Chiacu