Mega-Events and the Neoliberal Production of Space in Rio de Janeiro

By Sam Smith
2016, Vol. 8 No. 03 | pg. 2/7 |

“Rio’s New Postcards”: Branding the Global City

The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images ― Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

The image of Rio de Janeiro as a place of global commerce and investment, vibrant multiculturalism, and erotic play is intimately tied to claims about its value as a venue for the approaching mega-events. Mediated by the spectacular imagery of Olympic advertisements sponsored by the Olympic Public Authority (APO) and municipal, state, and national government, the Olympic brand reaches viewers in Brazil and abroad. The role of imagery as a form of branding and commodification of a specific place has been essential both to the initial win of the Olympic bidding process, and to the construction of Rio as a place worthy of investment in the context of the approaching games.

The criteria for a successful Olympic bid by a city are volatile, and the concomitant voting process is frequently subjected to allegations of corruption. Crucial criteria include the presentation of the city as worthy and capable of the massive infrastructural modifications of Olympic renovation, and convincing the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that security, effective transport, and housing will be assured.7 Olympic-themed advertisements attempt the careful association of these key elements with the city as a space for capitalist development, as seen in a 2011 advertisement sponsored by the state of Rio de Janeiro (Fig. 2). It juxtaposes the language of “infrastructure, logistics, and effective public administration” with images of industry, commerce, and the unique topography of the city of Rio, suggesting the role of ‘institutional security’ and ‘transparent public administration’ in assuring Rio’s readiness to receive capital investments from the world (Foreign Policy 2011).

The notion that Rio is a global city, a “key location” for industry and markets, has been essential to constructing its value and viability as an Olympic venue. Portrayed as a new link in the global network of “Olympic villages,” the city’s market value is produced in part through its role as one of many “command points in the organization of the world economy” (Sassen 2006:7). In its efforts to win the Olympic bid by producing itself as one of these “global cities,” the governmental bodies of Rio de Janeiro, including the Olympic Public Authority (APO)8 and state administration, have emphasized the need for facilitating ‘flows’ of ‘global capital’.

In setting the stage for the mega-event, they have made clear the prioritization of infrastructure to enable access to markets and the creation of opportunities for injection of money into the market through lodging, restaurants, and other activities, in what is regarded by financial planners as a ‘safe environment for capital’ (Schwambach 2011). By asserting its capability to host sporting mega-events, the state-market apparatus tied to the Rio games envisions its advocacy efforts as taking place at the very level of the brand invoked in the image of Rio De Janeiro.

Mazzarella (2003:185) suggests that the formation of the ‘brand’ over time is central in the spread of consumerist ideologies that have trans-regional appeal. He points to the semiotic capacity of a well-executed brand to lend ‘performative credibility’ to a commodity by emphasizing stability and consistency, the capacity to bridge the local and the universal, and through the creation of ‘personalities’. Alongside this understanding of the brand as a temporally mediated phenomenon, Tsing’s (2005) notion of an ‘economy of appearances’ provides a useful model for understanding the ‘value’ of a place for international finance capital.

Produced at the level of image and investor desire, lofty promises form the basis for courting the confidence of the market. Hosting mega-events has thus been described as a means by which a city seeks to “become ‘sticky’, attracting and maintaining capital investments through “the promotion of selective place information (Hall, C.M., 2005; qtd. in Sassen 2006: 59). The growing purchase of Brazil’s foreign debt in exchange for interest is frequently the subject of national branding tactics that court foreign investments.

As part of these tactics, the Olympic brand works as a set of strategic images that emblematize its host city as a site for the linkage of the global and local, and the locus of peaceful, multi-cultural sporting spectacle. The 2016 APO have put great effort into the creation of the Olympic brand. The logo for the games (Fig. 3), the product of a team of dozens of designers and marketing experts (along with an official Olympic font), reflects a particular ideal of Brazil that is consistent with a longstanding trend in Brazilian nationalist imagery, with its roots in colonial slave plantations, that Goldstein (2003) refers to as “color-blind erotic democracy.” As I later explain, the myth of ‘racial democracy’ in Brazil has long stood to mask deep-seated racial inequalities and everyday forms of structural violence. The ‘eroticism’ of the national brand draws upon imagery of sexual playfulness and adventure.

Fig. 2. Accept Rio’s Invitation: Come Invest Here

This advertisement combines distinctive images of the city Rio with imagery of global communication and trade, suggesting its role as a node in a transnational network of cities as centers of industry and commerce. Infrastructure and security are foregrounded as the basis for successful business investment. The fact that the ad is sponsored by the state government, yet features the city and nearby industry, foregrounds the pre-eminence of the city as also a ‘command center’ for the rest of the state (Foreign Policy 2011).

As portrayed during the symbolic torch passing during the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, this nationalized eroticism typically references the barely clad female bodies of carnival.9 The logo employs the city as an icon for civic and national pride in the ‘carioca culture’ of Rio de Janeiro. Simultaneously, the image strives to emphasize Rio’s place as a node within a global network of cities.

Three figures composed of the colors of the national flag link hands in playful friendship, forming the shape of Rio’s unmistakable sugarloaf mountain. These elements are ingeniously combined into a logo that reflects the iconic national colors, racial co-mingling, and the oft-remarked topographic beauty of Rio as a space of revelry and global camaraderie.

Carioca, originating from the autochthonous Tupi language, is a term used to describe a person born or residing in the city or broader metropolitan region of Rio de Janeiro. It is frequently employed as a term of pride or distinction10, especially in its association with the origins of famous genres of music and dance including Bossa Nova, Música Popular Brasileira, and Tropicália. Participation in civic events, including the enormous annual Carnival emphasizes what is thought of as the unique character of the city. People of diverse class backgrounds consider participation in the festivities of dance and music practically compulsory.

Notions of the carefree nature of play, of a relaxed carioca attitude, and the value of futebol as a national symbol, are readily employed in the imagery of advertisements. In a video from the official Rio 2016 website, a light-skinned, adolescent girl who introduces herself as Ana offers to show us the Maracaña zone11, a newly branded section of the city named for the huge stadium at its center. The camera zooms out to present to us a panoramic view of the stadium’s renovation works. “Everything is changing fast around here!” she tells us with excitement, as the video accelerates to show her walking around the area at warp speed. “And in 2015, it will be ready to receive more cruise ships, which will increase our accommodation capacity.”

Fig. 3. Rio 2016 logo

Designed by a Brazilian company and unveiled in 2010, the logo was organized around four tropes: “contagious energy, harmonious diversity, exuberant nature and Olympic spirit.” The logo suggests the distinctive topography of Rio combined with representations of global linkage and camaraderie (

She continues, “Already, everything is ready. The only thing we are still missing: YOU!” The advertisement paints an exuberant and child-like image of the games to come, while emphasizing infrastructural developments. The image of Rio is here produced as a utopian space of exuberance, in accordance with President Lula’s promises that the games would be filled with Brazilian ‘passion, energy, and creativity’ (BBC 2009).

The 2016 games are being branded in ways that not only create international appeal, but also play upon local desires that cross-cut barriers of class, race, and position. As an opportunity to showcase idealized aspects of Brazil, and an excuse for undertaking large-scale industrial and public works projects, the games stand as sites of simultaneous and frequently contradictory spaces of civic participation.

On the one hand, the games stand for moradores (residents) as an opportunity for national camaraderie, and a site of civic participation. Residents frequently articulate the belief that the games are a good thing, and a positive development for Brazil, and that is their implementation, not their spirit, that has resulted in disproportionate negative effects for the poor. On the other hand, the Copa and Olympic events simultaneously become sites for resistance against what are understood variously as bureaucratic corruption, hegemonic transnational capitalist interests, and racist exploitation. The outrage of resistors within the favelas is thus framed in ways that do not necessarily object to sporting mega-events as whole, but rather bemoan their exclusion from the games as civic participants and beneficiaries (see Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. “Destroying my Community for the sake of the Copa”

Metrô- Mangueira c. 2012. Street art in Metrô- Mangueira juxtaposing symbolic participation in national sport with imagery of demolition, sadness, and death (

Branding has extended not only to imagery projected internationally through the media12, but has also participated at the level of urban restructuring itself. The Porto Maravilha (“marvelous port”), and Bairro Carioca (“carioca neighborhood”) projects, as part of the nationally sponsored infrastructural overhauls of the city, are exemplary of these newly ‘branded’ spaces which first emerged during preparations for the 2007 Pan-American games.

One interpretation of the role of these branded neighborhoods is as a normalizing influence, a propagandistic portrayal of positive development in spaces that are deeply fraught. In this understanding, the images reflect discourses that are bluntly disjunctive with the lived material experience of development. While partially accurate, I suggest that this reading elides the performative element of these brands, as playing upon elements of carioca pride that amount to more than simple deception. Importantly, they reflect shared desires for civic participation, which have not been eradicated but are instead situated as sites for rational capitalist development.

The release of Olympic City themed Monopoly game (Fig. 5) is another, somewhat startling example of a branded product that carries the triumphalist imagery of Olympic sport and infrastructural development as playful and peaceful initiatives. Announced in early 2013, the game brazenly touts the connection of private profits to public projects and the branding of the city’s zones in conjunction with the Olympics. The effect is a reduction of contradictory, violent and long-term processes of spatial restructuring to the realm of the innocuous, the game. In this process, ‘truth’ is not simply displaced by fictional representations. Rather, the very terms of growth and progress are reproduced as commodities. The desire for inclusion in the space of the city is produced as the desire for the commodity form, deeply imbricated with emerging regimes of law and political economy.

Fig. 5. Banco Imobiliário (Olympic Monopoly)

Olympic Monopoly: Infrastructure and pacification projects are included as essential elements, as players race to invest in branded Olympic zones in pursuit of private monopoly over the Olympic City. An actual game card reads: “Your property value has gone up with the pacification of the neighboring community. Receive R$75,000.” The city government has been criticized for its purchase of 20,000 copies of the game for distribution in local schools (Conexão Jornalismo 2013).

Neoliberal Dreams: The State/Market Nexus in Rio de Janeiro

As a way of broadly describing a trend that has developed within the institutions of the IMF and World Bank, guided first and most notably by the hand of the Reagan and Thatcher administrations in the 1970s and ‘80s, the term neoliberalism reflects distinct historical developments of government. Privatization, deregulation and state austerity have appeared as pervasive demands in the spread of these institutions’ policies and practice.

The specificity of the term ‘neoliberalism’ must be emphasized, as it is frequently misused as a catchall for contemporary stereotypes of capitalism, development, and state cronyism. I use the term to describe, specifically, the incorporation and reproduction of ‘free market’ ideologies with state regimes, where government comes to serve as an agent, rather than regulator, of capital.

As the period of intense economic growth under the military dictatorship of 1964—1985 drew to a close and political democracy returned, Brazil’s economic future seemed uncertain. The 1980s in Brazil have been termed ‘the lost decade’ by political economists, as a period of ‘sluggish growth’ and increasing inflation in the context of a “crisis of the import-substitution-industrialization model of development” (Novelli and Galvão 2001:5-6). The antidote to this period of slow growth appeared as Brazil entered into broader processes of political and economic change which Auyero and de Lara (2012), borrowing from Polanyi (1944), have termed the ‘great neoliberal transformation’ in Latin America. This transition to ‘free market ideology’ as an abertura (‘opening up’) to foreign markets was emblematized by the December 1989 election of Fernando Collor de Mello. Mello’s presidential inauguration speech promised a shift towards privatization, state cutbacks, and deregulated markets. He argued, “The state did not merely lose its ability to invest, but what is even more serious, due to its erratic and corrupt conduct, it inhibited domestic and foreign investment. I believe that fundamentally it is up to free initiative - not the state - to create wealth and dynamize the economy…” (Novelli and Galvão 2001: 7).

The abertura occurred in conjunction with of the contemporaneous acceptance by Brazil, and most other states in Latin America, of the “Washington Consensus” (Amann and Baer 2002: 946). This constituted a set of prescriptions designed in Washington D.C., which, with the endorsement of the IMF and World Bank, promoted state policies that promoted trade liberalization, privatization, opening to foreign investment, and austerity measures. These strategies were framed by arguments of the ethical superiority of ‘free markets’ over regulated ones.

During the rule of the Mello’s administration, and the subsequent Cardoso administration of the 1995-2003, these promises would largely be fulfilled. The institution of the plano real (“real plan”) introduced a new currency (the real) and was designed to stabilize inflation. Over the course of the 1990s, Brazil experienced a huge inflow of foreign investment, most of it geared towards privatization connected to bank takeovers and the expansion of ‘production facilities’ (Amann and Baer 2002: 949). For a moment, the ideal of global integration appeared to be achieved, as Brazil’s economy seemed to flourish in its connectivity to the global market, while the state largely retreated from its role of economic governance. However, as the plano real began to fail and massive inflation returned, the Brazilian economy was plunged once again into financial crisis in 1999. Exacerbated by this crisis, Brazil’s economy was seen to reflect another common trope of neoliberalism, in the increasing gap between the material conditions of rich and poor. As noted by Caldeira and Holston (1999) a general increase in urban violence was also observed from 1990 to 1999.

In the early 2000s, the election of president Ignacio ‘Lula’ da Silva (ironically a former labor organizer and leftist) under the Worker’s Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores; PT), ushered in the next stage in Brazilian neoliberalism. Lula continued to encourage increases in foreign investment, amid promises to fix Brazil’s inflation and expanded foreign debt. He also agreed to continue contracts signed with the IMF by the previous Cardoso administration, which guaranteed privatization of banks in exchange for billions of dollars in development loans (Mollo and Saad-Filho 2004; n.p.). His successor, Dilma Rousseff (also a former leftist) was elected in 2011 and has thus far continued state policies of privatization and austerity, despite her public denunciation of ‘neoliberal’ policies at the World Social Forum (Mellen 2012).

The specificity of the character of the current administration as a neoliberal one, and of the term as a useful analytic, is a point I consider worthy of further interrogation. Ferguson’s (2009) distinction between liberalism and neoliberalism is a good place to begin in identifying the utility of the term. He writes,

[Liberalism] was always about finding the right balance between two spheres understood as properly distinct, if always related: state and market, public and private, the realm of the king and the proper domain of the merchant. Neoliberalism, in contrast, puts governmental mechanisms developed in the private sphere to work within the state itself, so that even core functions of the state are either subcontracted out to private providers, or run (as the saying has it) ‘like a business’ (Ferguson 2009: 172).

Under such conditions, the market appears to administer the state, in direct inversion of the liberal notion of a state-regulated market (Morris 2001: 192).

‘Neoliberalism’ as a set of ideologies must be heuristically separated from its practice as a constitutive regime of government. Ideologically, Harvey (2005:2) understands neoliberalism as suggesting that human well being is best served by ‘liberating’ an ‘entrepreneurial’ spirit. In this understanding, it is through competitions and markets that human liberation is sought. Neoliberalism in actual practice, as privatization, austerity, and deregulation, represents a set of active institutional interventions that function rationally to guarantee the legal rights of corporations, as seen in the formation of its political regimes (Oksala 2011:478).13

Contrary to conservative discourse in the US, it does not promote laissez-faire policy, but works positively as an agent for facilitating the growth of markets.  Neoliberalism must be understood not only as discourse but also as sets of practices that occur at the level of basic political orientations and the production of social categories. This constitutive political and social role of the state-market nexus may be suggestive of a new ‘neoliberal governmentality’ (Foucault 2008 [1979]), which I investigate further in chapter two.

Cultural practices and political economy comingle in ways that reflect a highly disjunctive relationship between ‘global’ economic trends and regional, national, and local encounters with these trends (Appadurai 1990). In Rio, such an observation perhaps helps to explain the ways in which neoliberalism may be at once decried, as in President Dilma Rousseff’s comment at the 2012 World Social, and simultaneously technically and structurally supported by her administration. It helps us to understand deep disjunctures between regimes of value formation between the residents of slums and capitalists. And further, it enables us to imagine ways in which multi-polar relationships may be formed that do not match a simple dichotomy of global and local. I suggest that all of these elements are in play as forms of state and non-state governance facilitate the growth of private profits in preparations for the 2016 games.

As private contractors in Rio de Janeiro rush to complete construction projects in preparation for the 2014 Soccer World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, international investment firms and state press releases express an intense excitement regarding the influx of foreign capital that will soon be funneled into the city in the form of foreign investments and tourism. Competing for state funds, private contractors vie for the rights to secure the profits associated with these investments. A three-tiered structure of government presides in Brazil at the national, state, and municipal levels, and all three are involved in funding infrastructural upgrades in preparation for the games, largely through private contracts.

The Brazilian national government has approved the expenditure, staggeringly, of more than R$1.5 trillion on its national Programs for Growth Acceleration (PAC), a set of ‘comprehensive’ infrastructural development initiatives. This includes investments of over R$30 billion in Rio de Janeiro alone, much of which will be funneled into private contracts. The first PAC was launched in 2007 by the Lula administration, and has been continued as PAC-2 under the Rousseff administration. A press release for the 2011-2014 PAC-2, which added R$958 billion (US $526 billion) to the existing PAC, gave the following details regarding the allocation of funds:

Just like in the first phase of the program, the plan is focused on investments in the areas of Logistics, Energy and Social-Urban, unfolded into six major fronts: Better City (urban infrastructure), Citizen Community (safety and social inclusion), My House, My Life (housing), Water and Light for All (sanitation and access to electric energy for remote locations), Energy (renewable energy, oil and gas) and Transports (highways, railways, airports, among others) (

About half of this money will go to energy investment projects, while just under a third (“housing”) will go towards ‘reducing the housing deficit, loans, and urbanization of precarious settlements’. This includes massive changes to Rio’s favelas in the form of infrastructural projects, ranging from street lights to the construction of cable cars. As I later detail, the utility of the projects for residents is far from transparent, while their benefits to private capital appear obvious.

Among the several Olympic zones being constructed is the Olympic Village, a complex intended to house many of the athletes and some of the most heavily attended ceremonies. Massive renovations are under way in the Porto Maravilha (Marvelous Port) zone, including the construction of a new modern art museum, creation of new and broader avenues and massive upgrades to shipping infrastructure. The Maracaña zone, centrally located, is the site of numerous shopping malls and plazas, as well as its namesake, the largest stadium and event venue. Connecting it all is a new bus rapid transit (BRT) system, a key component of transport infrastructure widely touted as part of necessary urban upgrades. The overall estimated costs of the Olympics and its concomitant infrastructural projects in Rio are massive. Expenditures have increased from 2009 estimates of R$23.9 billion to R$41.5 billion today (Olympic Public Authority, 2013).

Several large corporations stand to profit directly and substantially from the upcoming sporting mega-events in 2014 and 2016. Among them, Metrô Rio, Electrobras, and Chemtech industries are named as ‘companies to watch’ in a state sponsored advertising supplement featured in The Economist magazine. These corporations, as instrumental to the implementation of the PACs, have also managed to shape mega-events in ways that position them as powerful administrative actors. Later in this chapter, I detail the specific modes through which private capital comes to occupy a central role in the administration of these mega-events. First, though, I diverge in order to illustrate another, parallel history which, while deeply entangled with trans-regional processes, is frequently overshadowed by the political-economic history of the national and global scales.

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