Lúcia Guimarães is a New York-based columnist and correspondent with newspaper O Estado de S.Paulo.
Olympic Opening Ceremonies must speak to the world while relying on references that only the host country fully understands. Friday night’s opening of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games did just that in a riotous, colorful way. Budget cuts forced by Brazil’s worst economic downturn in a century put tremendous pressure on the artistic quartet that orchestrated the Opening Ceremonies — “City of God” director Fernando Meirelles was in charge, with collaborators Andrucha Waddington, a filmmaker, set designer Daniela Thomas and choreographer Deborah Colker, creator of the Cirque du Soleil production “Ovo.” These four artists countered the shortage of funds with a theatrical and scenic inventiveness that lifted the tired spirits of Brazilians.
It was a Brazilian display, but it was also very much a carioca — Portuguese for Rio native — show, from the beginning, with Luiz Melodia singing Gilberto Gil’s famous samba verses, “Rio de Janeiro is still gorgeous.” Paulinho da Viola, a treasure of Rio samba, singing Brazil’s national anthem on guitar, was a moment of gorgeous understatement. A Chico Buarque song that narrated the death of a construction worker during the dictatorship was played over a spectacular 3-D projection of cities, its meaning eluding most foreign commentators.
After months of bad news about Rio’s preparedness for the Games, the Opening Ceremonies reminded Brazilians that a country’s artistic culture cannot be suppressed by political or economic crisis. Or can it? As the world has remained focused on Brazil’s political troubles, recent scandals over culture and taxpayer money have become a topic of debate for Brazilians over the past several months.
In June, a raid by federal agents resulted in the arrest of 14 people in São Paulo, Brasília and Rio de Janeiro. At the heart of the aptly named Operação Boca Livre (Free Lunch Operation) is the fraudulent use of more than $45 million of funds under the 25-year-old Rouanet Law that sponsors Brazilian culture. For two decades, say São Paulo-based public prosecutors, the defendants used a law created to promote Brazilian culture to embezzle funds, create fake projects and commit vast accounting fraud.
A video of a wedding emerged after the raid and spread on social media. It turned out that the revelry, held at the luxury resort Jurerê International, on the coast of Santa Catarina, with its show of sertanejo music, a type of Brazilian country, was sponsored by Brazilian taxpayers.
The Rouanet Law, named for Sergio Paulo Rouanet, a former federal culture secretary, is a lifeline for all things culture and performance in Brazil — maintaining orchestras, dance companies and museum exhibitions, and supporting film and theater productions. But it has also paid for lowbrow trash that would have no place in a federal program designed to nurture arts creation.
To the dismay of some economists in Brazil, the Rouanet Law has spawned a cottage industry of law firms and production companies specialized in approving projects and lobbying the right people in the Ministry of Culture. Marcos Lisboa, a former secretary of economic policy, said, “Why is the marketing department of a major corporation deciding which film will be made and getting approval from Brasilia bureaucrats for the tax exemption?”
Other economists lament that funds diverted to culture in Brazil come at the expense of the country’s health and other sectors. Brazilian economist Bernard Appy, one of the country’s foremost experts in public spending, admits the money flowing into Rouanet-financed projects is a modest amount — 1.18 billion Brazilian real ($372 million) in tax incentives for more than 3,000 artistic projects in 2015 — was taken away from more urgent needs, such as health and education. But he also points out the fact that the federal budget is already more than 90 percent tied up in mandatory spending on areas such as health, education, pensions and public servant salaries. Yet if Brazilians want to donate to health nonprofits such as the award-winning Saúde Criança (Child Health), voted for the fourth consecutive year Latin America’s most effective nongovernmental organization, they get no tax rebate.
If the Rouanet Law were to be suddenly suspended, Brazil’s artistic production would be affected, no doubt. Actor, director, playwright and veteran producer of musicals Miguel Falabella said last June: “If Lei Rouanet goes, no musicals will be staged in Brazil.” Falabella is responsible for Brazilian versions of “Hairspray,” “Hello Dolly,” and “The Producers,” among others. He complains that ticket sales never pay for a show’s run. One may ask why taxpayers should support for-profit Broadway imports. On the other hand, shows such as Falabella’s employ dozens of people at a time and are keeping the theater lights on for future actors, technicians and playwrights.
The country was transfixed by the parade of the corrupt and powerful hearing the knock of federal agents at their doors in June. But as Brazil parades its culture for the world to see, the Olympics may be a good time for Brazilians to finally have a long-overdue democratic debate about power and money in culture in the country.