Illustration by Luis Grañena of a man oiling gears with Brazilian money
© Luis Grañena

Brasília – the Brazilian capital carved from the savannah 50 years ago – is a hard city to love. I hate to say this while its architect, 104-year-old Oscar Niemeyer, lies ill in a Rio hospital, but Brasília was built for cars and architecture critics, not for people. It’s a place for bureaucrats to have a quiet life, a Bonn in the tropics. Traffic jams are rare, even at 5pm when the ministries empty and everyone sails home along the huge central axis. This is a middle-class town.

Admittedly, not everything goes smoothly. In the hotel, the shower is cold and WiFi rarely works. Outside in the soft tropical rain, military police are everywhere, as if the soldiers still governed Brazil. But visiting Brasília recently, I absorbed the sense of a rising country. Just off that main axis, hammering resounds from inside the National Stadium, nearly ready for football’s World Cup of 2014. There and at the Rio Olympics in 2016, Brazil will show itself to the world. Every World Cup has a message. Germany in 2006 presented itself as a “normal” country that had given its past a place. South Africa in 2010 wanted to be “world class”. But Brazil’s aim is “clean games”. Its two tournaments are meant to showcase a transformation: Brazil is attacking corruption.

In Brazil, as in most countries, corruption was always how things worked. Joris Luyendijk put it best in his book on the Middle East, People Like Us: in corrupt countries, it’s not simply that the system is corrupt. More than that, he writes, “corruption is the system”. Corruption is how people get things done. Corruption shapes every network. It’s the motivation to work in government.

Brazil ranks 73rd out of 183 countries on Transparency International’s corruption perception index. Even to become as clean as Spain or the US would be a revolutionary change. No other Bric is attempting anything similar. Only in Brazil is a system of corruption running smack into a serious anti-corruption drive.

When people in Brasília talk about tackling corruption, the Brazilian gift of charm makes you want to believe them. And yet something is undoubtedly happening. In a country where politicians used to stay in parliament simply to avoid being prosecuted, a new law bars many people convicted of crimes from holding electoral office. In a country where prison was always for black and poor people, José Dirceu, former chief of staff to ex-President Lula, has just been given 10 years for his role in the Mensalão scandal, in which Lula’s government paid opposition lawmakers for votes. In President Dilma Rousseff’s first 18 months in office, seven ministers left after corruption scandals. And in sport, Ricardo Teixeira, the eternal head of Brazil’s football federation who had expected to run the World Cup, quit in March after a bewildering string of scandals.

World Cups practically invite corruption. Stadiums and infrastructure are needed in a hurry. Brazil’s total spending is officially put at R$27.1bn ($13bn) but costs often overrun, especially if somebody’s friend has a construction company.

However, Brazil’s Office of the Comptroller General scrutinises public spending and sometimes claws money back. After analysing projects for three stadiums, the office cut budgets by about a sixth. “We thought they were charging too much for some items,” Luiz Navarro, vice-minister in the office, told me. Hundreds of millions of reals were also shaved off urban transport projects related to the World Cup. You never heard of that kind of thing happening in South Africa, where stadium budgets only rose. As for corruption around Brazil’s World Cup, Navarro says: “There have been no big scandals so far. This is even something unexpected.” Brazilian preparations have been slow, inefficient and often shielded from the public – but relatively clean.

Luis Fernandes, professor of international relations turned executive secretary of the sports ministry, told me that on entering government he’d been surprised by the thicket of controls on any spending. “It makes the actual enactment of a development project more difficult than it should be,” he sighed. “It’s a very heavy bureaucracy.” But given Brazil’s history, he understood it.

No doubt some people are skimming money off the World Cup. Navarro says he worries most “about the local level, where we don’t have so much supervision”. Still, at least corruption in Brazil is no longer a sort of unquestioned fact of nature.

However, it does depend what you count as corruption. Brasília’s stadium will have 70,000 seats. After 2014, it will become a white elephant, because no local team draws even 5,000 spectators. Several other stadiums under construction are equally pointless, says the Danish pressure group Play The Game. This squandering of public money has been shrouded with falsehoods by Rousseff’s government. Brazil’s sports ministry has forecast an economic boost worth more than $70bn from the World Cup – a claim that almost every sports economist would dismiss. Surely misleading your population is a form of corruption too?

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