Brazil's World Cup ennui

The mood in Brazil is sour. With the much-coveted World Cup games less than a month away, it is hard to find the joy among Brazilians about this upcoming global event. The absence of visual displays promoting the games in cities like Rio de Janeiro further underscores the lack of enthusiasm that accompanies this event. Workers at the newly rebuilt airport in Brasilia, the nation's capital, are still scrambling to complete the signs and unveil the newest parts of that city's airport. The people movers lay dormant as travelers now drag suitcases long distances to the airport's older exit.

Daily strikes of police, bus drivers and other service workers have caused the usual traffic jams to intensify in cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The nuisance of long delays and rising tempers only makes the atmospherics of a usually happy place seem like a distant memory. This impression is confirmed by public opinion polling that compared public support for Brazil's hosting the World Cup at 79 percent in 2008 and in April of 2014 at only 48 percent. These challenges are compounded by reports from international news media chiding Brazil for its lack of preparedness for the games.

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As a result, there is deep anger in Brazil over these games. The cost of new stadiums and the accompanying infrastructure have certainly created jobs, but they have also redirected scarce funds away from such basic needs as education, healthcare and better transit. The $11 billion being spent to prepare for the games is not registering with citizens. More than half of people polled in April said that the games would bring more harm than good. And the Rousseff government's campaign promises of a new social contract have faded almost as quickly as the ebullience of having won the rights to host the Cup itself.

It would not be far-fetched to compare the current state of Brazilians' disenchantment with their own government with the mixed emotions that its government feels for the United States. The relationship between the United States and Brazil has reached a low point that started last spring when Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, revealed that Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's cellphone had been tapped. This incident, which led to the Brazilian leader canceling a state visit and shunning entreaties from President Obama, made it clear that the on again, off again affair with the U.S. was over.

Yet unlike the World Cup where the real losers are Brazil's poor who feel cheated by the lavish public spending for a one-time event, the current state of relations between Washington and Brasilia equally harms both countries. Brazil's ongoing strategy in South America has been one of leading through regional coalitions. Its vision of the world post-9/11 was one where fighting terrorism was important, but the means to do it was not with military might, but rather through a more concerted effort at development: south-south development. Brazil's leadership saw a space created by a northern giant's distraction with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a way to move its own prominence in peacekeeping through operations in Haiti. It also fostered cooperation with African and Caribbean states, leading through its own brand of development assistance, south-south cooperation, that was really less about funding and more about building capacity.

Meanwhile, as the United States withdraws from its Central Asian and Middle East adventures, it will have to face a region of the world that it once dominated but no longer controls, with a new openness that will require coming to terms with Brazil's rising leadership role and a strategy of international engagement that pits U.S. development with a different model of cooperation. While Brazil has aligned itself as part of BRICS (Russia, India, China and South Africa), more than any of these partners of convenience, Brazil shares more common ground with the United States in terms of its democratic practices, open society and willingness to abide by the rule of law. But unless the United States signals a stronger sense of mutual respect, and unless there is a coming to terms with Brazil's desire to play with the great powers, rapprochement may remain elusive.

Fortunately, there are promising signs that the relationship can be salvaged. When asked which country they would like to live in aside from their own, most Brazilians rank the good old U.S.A. number one — and with good reason. We are the place where dreams are made, where Disneyland fantasies can become reality and where the consumer mecca and low sales taxes attract thousands of rising middle-class Brazilians to our shores every year.

One opportunity to bring the different sides together will happen this June when Vice President Biden visits Brazil to attend the World Cup games. After the match in Natal between the U.S. and Ghana, he will head to Brasilia at the invitation of Rousseff. This will be the first high-level meeting between the U.S. and Brazil since relations grew strained in 2013. In a call between Rousseff and Biden to confirm the visit, he reaffirmed the importance of the bilateral relationship and underscored our commitment to advancing U.S.-Brazil cooperation in a broad range of areas.

Biden, unlike Obama, is truly seen as a man of the people, son of a worker, a kindred spirit of the current Brazilian Labor Party leadership. Brazilians love Obama, this is clear. But Joe Biden is more their kind of guy at this moment in history. Whether he can help change the sour mood that hangs over the relationship is anyone's guess, but at least his travel south is worth a try. And it sends an important signal that we still need partners in our hemisphere who can truly remain moderating forces at a time in history when the diminished image of the United States could stand a reboot, even if soccer is only a game.

Mendelson Forman is a senior adviser and Brian Finlay is managing director of the Managing Across Boundaries Program at the Stimson Center in Washington.

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