Wikileaks: Rio Olympic Games and the Politics of Terror

Even as Brazil complains about the U.S., which goes over well amongst left constituencies both domestically and abroad, it collaborates with Washington in its intelligence gathering efforts.
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Over the past few years, Brazil has undertaken a vast public relations effort aimed at improving the country's image. The South American nation has employed an upscale Manhattan PR firm to issue glossy brochures extolling Brazil's many economic accomplishments including a thriving agribusiness industry and an impressive aerospace and industrial sector. While such achievements are certainly impressive, what's even more noteworthy is that the Lula administration has boosted economic growth even as it dramatically slashes the poverty rate. As part of Brazil's PR blitz, the government and the corporate sector have sponsored lavish press junkets to the country showing off the South American nation's stable political institutions and sophisticated electoral machinery. What if, however, Brazil's public relations campaign got derailed, say, by the threat of terrorism or, even worse, an actual terrorist attack? According to documents recently released by whistleblower Wikileaks, Brazilian authorities are much more concerned about such an eventuality than they commonly let on. As I pored over the documents, I was particularly struck by one 2009 cable emanating from the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia, detailing security vulnerabilities in advance of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

When Brazil won its bid to host the games, the entire country celebrated and spontaneous parties broke out on Copacabana beach. For Brazil, attracting the games to Rio signified that the country had, at long last, garnered long overdue international recognition. In the midst of the festivities, Lula declared that Brazil had kicked the so-called "street dog complex," meaning the notion that Brazil somehow did not merit inclusion within the world's club of most important nations. Going yet farther, Vera Álvarez, the Ministry of Foreign Relations Coordinator for Sporting Cooperation, exclaimed that the IOC or International Olympic Committee's decision reflected Brazil's "primacy on the continent" and regional leadership. Álvarez also promised that the 2016 games would be the "greenest" and most environmentally sensitive Olympics yet. "We are finished being the country of the future and are the country of the present," remarked Dilma Rousseff, Lula's Minister of Energy who was just recently elected Brazil's next president.

Lack of PreparednessYet, Wikileaks cables suggest that the country is woefully underprepared when it comes to planning and logistics, particularly at the federal level though "Rio also faces a host of challenges building infrastructure and paying for the Games." Indeed, local authorities have already drafted a euphemistically termed "Favela Pacification Plan" which would evict drug traffickers, establish a sustained police presence, and provide basic services to favela residents."While Brazil successfully hosted the 2007 Pan American Games, U.S. Chargé d'Affaires Lisa Kubiske notes that "The Olympics will present a different kind of challenge." Brazil, she continues, has "articulated a vision for the Games -- an Olympiad based on South American culture, openness to youth and environmentally friendly that played well in terms of domestic politics as well as appealing to the IOC." A progressive vision perhaps, but Brazil seems to be taking a rather relaxed approach in terms of preparedness. "Articulating the big picture goals and leaving details to the last minute," Kubiske wrote, "may be a typically Brazilian approach, but could lead to problems."

Comments aside regarding the lazy and tropical nature of Brazilians, it would indeed seem that the country will face some dire logistical hurdles. To make sporting events more accessible to the South American public, the government has agreed to distribute complimentary tickets to the working poor and South American youth. The Ministry of Foreign Relations however frankly concedes that it has not given much thought as to how such a policy would affect sales or security. As if that was not serious enough, there are even greater logistical nightmares in store including "the potential flow of youthful spectators across Brazil's borders." Kubiske adds, somewhat charitably, that it is unclear how such a stampede will be managed.

Assessing the Terrorist Threat Level in BrazilCompared to mere logistical hurdles, however, terrorism looms as an even more significant threat. Just how much risk will Brazil face in future? Cables show that Brazilian intelligence officials are concerned about the so-called Tri-Border Region of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, home to transnational crime and illegal movement of arms, money, drugs and the like. According to U.S. officials in Brasilia, the Lula government has been concerned about the area "primarily for the potential that terrorists may exploit conditions there--including lax border controls, smuggling, drug trafficking, easy access to false documents and weapons, movement of pirated goods, uncontrolled cash flows--to raise funds or arrange logistics for operations."

On the other hand, the primary concern of Brazilian and U.S. officials is not the Tri-Border region but "the presence and activities of individuals with links to terrorism--particularly several suspected Sunni extremists and some individuals linked to Hizballah [sic]--in São Paulo and other areas of southern Brazil." Brazilian intelligence officials, meanwhile, have appealed to "moderate, second generation Arabs, many of whom were successful businessmen in Brazil, to keep a close eye on fellow Arabs who may be influenced by Arab extremists and/or terrorist groups."

Sounding the alarm bell, consular U.S. officials in São Paulo claim that "While Brazil's Islamic community is peaceful and has many friendly elements, it also contains reservoirs of strong suspicion of the U.S...While the majority of Brazil's Muslims are moderate in orientation and the overwhelming majority is moderate in deed and action, genuine radical elements do exist here, some in the Tri-Border area of Foz de Iguacu and others among São Paulo's estimated 20,000-strong, Hezbollah-oriented Shia population. Muslims at the moderate, Sunni-oriented Future Institute charge that Shia immigrants sometimes come to Brazil with Hezbollah support (allegedly USD 50,000 is a typical sum) to found businesses to support Hezbollah in Lebanon."

The Politics of the War on TerrorSome Brazilian officials, Vera Álvarez for example, frankly admit that the country faces a severe terrorist danger. Yet according to the Americans, many within the political elite are still in serious denial about the problem and say that terrorism simply does not exist. Others within the Brazilian Foreign Ministry, also known as Itamaraty, are defensive on the issue of terrorism, claiming that the IOC does not consider Rio's security situation inadequate [at long last, however, Itamaraty has admitted that terrorists could become interested in targeting Brazil as a result of the 2016 Olympics].What can account for the state of denial? It is here that the Wikileaks documents offer a fascinating look into internal political fissures within the Brazilian political elite. According to U.S. officials, Brazilian sensitivity resulted "in part, from their fear of stigmatizing the large Muslim community of Brazil (estimated, but unconfirmed, by some sources at over a million) or prejudicing the area's image as a tourist destination." Perhaps more significantly, however, the Brazilian posture was "designed to avoid being too closely linked to what is seen as the US's overly aggressive War on Terrorism."To be sure, terrorism and the government's state of readiness in advance of Rio's Olympic Games is a serious issue. However, for my money the Wikileaks documents are more important in terms of what they reveal about the politics behind the War on Terror and Brazil's relationship with the United States. According to documents, terrorism has become a political hot potato in Brazil, perhaps not too surprising in light of the nation's troubled recent past. In Brazil, social activists like the Landless Peasant Movement or MST as well as the influential Brazilian Bar Association link counter-terrorism with repression from the hated and reviled military era of 1964-1985. Both activists and their allies in the Lula government have resisted implementing counter-terrorism legislation as it smacks of the retrograde past.The Lula government, which forms part of South America's turn to the left, routinely engages in anti-imperialist rhetoric. Much to the chagrin of U.S. officials, Brazil has no official list of terrorist organizations and does not recognize the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC, which fights the pro-U.S. government in Bogotá, as a terrorist group. To add insult to injury, Brazil labels both Hamas and Hizbollah as legitimate political parties. What is more, according to cables Brazilian officials participate only "reluctantly" with the U.S. on joint intelligence operations and at conferences the Brazilians "often decry statements made by U.S. officials claiming that the TBA [Tri-Border Area] is a hotbed of terrorist activity and challenge U.S. participants to present the evidence on which U.S. officials base those statements." Itamaraty officials, meanwhile, "repeatedly question the value of this four-way cooperation [Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and the U.S.], insisting that 'bilateral concerns should be addressed bilaterally.'"

Brazil's Two-Faced Diplomatic GameWhat is perhaps most surprising, however, is that even as Brazil complains about the U.S., which goes over well amongst left constituencies both domestically and abroad, the South American juggernaut actually collaborates with Washington in its intelligence gathering efforts. The cables, then, suggest that there is a marked difference between Brazil's public and private face. What does this mean for the U.S.? Always the opportunist, Washington seeks to outflank Itamaraty by dealing with high level Brazilian officials in the intelligence and military apparatus. Constantly looking for an opening, one U.S. official harked on the upcoming Olympic Games in a report.

"Given the high degree of interest in the Olympics among Brazilians and the high value Brazil places on conducting a successful Games," the official wrote, "there are already opportunities for the USG [U.S. government] to pursue cooperation toward the Games, and to use such cooperation to further broader USG objectives in Brazil, including increased cooperation and Brazilian expertise on counterterrorism activities. As we look ahead, taking advantage of the Games to work security issues should be a priority."

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008). Visit his website at

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