A Postcard From Rio, Where World Cup Readiness Remains Uncertain

Less than 50 days remain until the kickoff of the World Cup in Brazil. Many questions persist about the country's readiness and the potential for further protests.

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Soccer fans are counting down. Forty-seven days to go until the World Cup in Brazil. The country is in the news again but not for the reasons it might want. In one of the key host cities, Rio de Janeiro, riots broke out in a major tourist area earlier this week. Big questions over the readiness of stadiums and infrastructure also remain. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is our South America correspondent, and she's with us today in our D.C. studios. Lourdes, nice to have you here.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: It's great to be here.

CORNISH: So let's talk about that violence last week. What exactly happened?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One person died in the clashes between police and slum dwellers in Rio de Janeiro. It all started when protesters took to the streets after a dancer was killed in a shanty town, or favela. People in that shanty town say he was a dancer who was killed by police who mistook him for a drug dealer. This favela is right next to Copacabana Beach, the very famous tourist area in Rio, and the confrontations shut down whole streets there. You had the firing of weapons, burning tires, just mayhem, and this is just less than two months ahead of the World Cup. So it caused a lot of problems.

CORNISH: And what concerns of the spark about what might happen during the World Cup? I mean, do people think that an event like this could spark more protests?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is one of the things that has Brazilians very nervous. The eyes of the world are on Brazil right now. This is soccer's biggest tournament. The international press are flooding in. And events likes these are getting a lot of attention. Brazil is spending a fortune, literally, on security for the games. This is the most expensive World Cup ever, closing in at some $13 billion, some say even higher. And there will be 170,0000 security personnel involved: soldiers, policemen, private-trained security guards. There will be drones, bomb-sniffing dogs, robots, cameras, you name it. It's a massive undertaking.

And part of the reason for this, of course, is that we saw huge protests last summer in Brazil, sparked partially by the huge cost associated with the World Cup. People say, why aren't we spending money on hospitals, on education? Why on stadiums? And so there are concerns that what happened in Copacabana just this week could happen on a larger scale while the event is taking place.

CORNISH: You described this massive ramp up, and yet, some people have been calling Brazil's preparation for the games disastrous. Why?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, not even the world soccer-governing body FIFA is giving Brazil high marks for its preparation. Most of the stadiums were late. They were wildly over budget. Sao Paolo Stadium, where the games are actually going to kick off, is still not ready. And the head of FIFA says it will host the World Cup opener in that stadium, but it will be ready at the very last minute. That may just be days before the event.

So, you know, there have been delays involving all sorts of stuff and mostly over workers' safety. We've seen three deaths associated with the building of just that stadium alone. It's been a mess, frankly, and it's not just the stadiums. The infrastructure works, the legacy works that are associated with the games have either been shoddily done or not done at all. So, you know, you're going to see many tourists who are going to arrive in Brazil, they're not going to find new airport terminals. They're going to be met with tents and temporary structures.

CORNISH: Now, needless to say, biggest soccer event on the globe, right? Brazil is one of the most soccer-loving nations in the world. And then you got this election just months after the games. I mean, what happens if this doesn't go well?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's going to be tough. You know, Brazil has bet a lot on these games. When they got the World Cup, the former president, Inacio Lula da Silva, famously cried with joy. And I'm not sure if the successor's tears, if she has some, will be motivated by happiness. There's been a lot of criticism of the handling of the event. 80 percent of the cost of the stadium is being born by the taxpayers. That has people there very angry. These are people who are going to go to the polls come November. They're going to be voting for a new president. And if Brazil doesn't win the World Cup it's hosting, let's say, the worst happens, the team doesn't even win, it could cost Dilma Rousseff, say some analysts, the actually presidency in November.

CORNISH: That's NPR's South America correspondent, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

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