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Tegucigalpa 2009, Rio 2016

There’s only really one story in Brazil these days: whether this country of 190 million is ready for prime time as a major geo-political player. Or perhaps more accurately, how far along is Brazil in its inevitable march toward that status. Being the “last in, first out” of the financial crisis was a real PR bonanza, and President Lula’s political skills on the world stage, backed by a skilled diplomatic corps providing support (or pulling the strings, you be the judge) has resulted in glowing coverage from the world press.

But chinks have also appeared in the armor. To cite one rather silly example, Barack Obama’s only barely on-the-record statement to Lula in London (“This is my man. I love this guy. He’s the most popular politician on earth”) has become comically overused and blown out of proportion here that it almost makes Obama look like a political genius. Lula is forever indebted to him for a phrase that cost him maybe two breaths. How seriously do you take a country that is so tickled by 10 off-the-cuff words from the president of the United States (and ignores Obama’s next sentence, “It’s because of his good looks,” that seems to imply he is not entirely being serious)?

Now, the same week Brazil is crossing its collective fingers and hoping the International Olympic Committee picks Rio de Janeiro to host the 2016 Games — which would make it the first South American city to do so — it finds itself in a mess in Honduras. Brazil has been positioning itself as at the very least a regional mediator (and at most a U.N. Security Council member) steering a moderate middle road between Chavez and Co. and the United States and more conservative Latin American leaders. Honduras’s elected president, Manuel Zelaya, has holed up in Brazilian embassy … or, more accurately, has taken over the Brazilian embassy and is using it to organize/rile up his own supporters. Lula has come down hard on the what he calls the “golpistas,” or coup leaders, the government of Roberto Micheletti, who took power three months ago and kicked Zelaya out of the country. This is hardly the stance of a middleman, and seems to align Lula with Chavez. Doubts remain whether Chavez and Lula planned the whole thing beforehand, though Brazil vehemently denies it and notes it didn’t ask for this role, but had to take in Zelaya when he appeared at the embassy door.

Meanwhile, most of the Brazilian press has taken Lula’s side, at least semantically, adopting the term “golpista” and barely mentioning Micheletti’s argument for taking power; by comparison, The New York Times calls Micheletti the “de facto president” and notes high up in its story today that Congress was part of the coalition that “ousted” Zelaya.

There doesn’t appear to be a clear way out. Micheletti’s government has issued an ultimatum to Brazil, to define Zelaya’s status — presumably as an asylum seeker — or face the consequences of international law, whatever those may be. (The worst case scenario would seem to be an invasion of the embassy.) A group of Brazilian deputies — the equivalent of congressmen — are on their way to Tegucigalpa, where they will meet with the Honduran Congress and visit the Brazilian embassy. That does not sound so good. They will apparently be let in, unlike the diplomats from the Organization of American States who were expelled recently. 

In other words, quite a mess. At exactly the same time that the most potent criticism against Rio’s candidacy for the 2016 Games is, more or less “It could be a mess.”  As Andrew Downie pointed out for Time, the much, much smaller task of running the Pan-Am games in Rio in 2007 was, while not technically a mess, evidence that Brazil is more skilled at putting together pretty proposals than carrying them out. And, it what may be a coincidence but surely has the Chicago boosters overjoyed, the New Yorker has a feature this week about the uncontrollable Rio favelas. (Luckily for Rio, it’s not available in full online, and the New Yorker is not exactly on every corner newsstand in Copenhagen, where the vote will occur on Friday.)

The Rio proposal was the highest ranked of any of the four finalists, gaining a “very high quality” rating. But then again, Lula gained Obama’s ranking the most popular politician in the world,  and it’s not doing him much good in Tegucigalpa.

(Stay tuned, I’ll be in Rio on Friday for the announcement.)