Just weeks ahead of the Olympic Games, Rio de Janeiro is still grappling with negative headlines. DW correspondent Friedel Taube met the one man in Rio who isn’t fazed: Mayor Eduardo Paes.
“Hi, how are you?” Eduardo Paes says in German, with a mischievous grin. About an hour late for the interview, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro says important meetings kept him – of course, concerning the Olympics – and then there was so much traffic.
His sentence trails off as he takes a seat in his office on the 14th floor of the city administration building. Loose-fitting white shirt, rolled up sleeves – there’s no doubt Paes is a man of action. He comes across as smart, eloquent, even wily – a real “carioca,” as the city’s natives are called. Eduardo Paes uses these traits in his favor, in particular at a time when the city is producing one negative headline after the next, just weeks before the Games are scheduled to open.
“I’m sorry that my city’s image abroad has suffered,” he says, and smiles. “But this is Brazil, and you can’t expect things to be like they are in Germany.”
Eternal crisis in Rio
The 46-year-old actually has more than one reason to frown. The state of Rio de Janeiro is broke. Despite major efforts at pacification, drug gangs still dominate most of the slums perched on the city’s hills. Police violence is a daily occurence. Guanbara Bay, the venue of the Olympic sailing tournaments, is polluted by feces and heavy metals. City traffic has been a disaster for decades.
Part of a scenic elevated coastal bike path built especially for the Olympic Games, a veritable showcase project, collapsed shortly after it was opened, killing two people. A German mayor would be fighting off calls to step down at this point – but Paes gives his whimsical smile, and says “Well, then I’m lucky I’m not in Germany.” He has the laughs on his side.
Olympia 2016, the Paes project
The walls in his office are adorned with newspaper articles. A poster proclaims: “Rio thanks the Paes prefecture.” Paes presents himself as the ultimate sonny boy; a surfboard with his image leans in one corner, and there are photos everywhere, showing the mayor with former President Lula da Silva, with Brazilian children, and playing the drums for Carnival.
A small figurine bearing the Olympic torch is unmistakably the mayor himself. It seems that’s how he wants to be viewed: as the bearer of the Olympic flame who brought the Games to Rio shortly after taking office in 2009. The Olympics are his very own project.
Paes is particularly proudthat he has barely had to resort to public funds. “We looked for private investors, and I must say, unlike London in 2012, we were pretty successful,” he says. It’s how he gathered far more than half of the 10 billion euros that the Games are said to have cost so far.
Most of the infrastructure projects were built in the wealthy western neighborhood Barra de Tijuca: the new Olympic Park, a new subway line. Paes’ good friend and adviser, 91-year-old contractor Carlos Carvalho, is the biggest investor.
Asked whether the investment in Barra doesn’t actually benefit the city’s wealthy residents more than anyone else, Paes wildly gesticulates. “Ask around, and you’ll see that 80 percent of the people are in favor of the Olympic Games!”
Paes also points out what he calls the Olympic legacy: the revitalized port district with its new parks and museums, a metro line and the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system. “The largest part of this legacy benefits the city’s poorest residents,” he says. “Who rides buses? Rich people don’t, so everybody already benefits from the Games.”
‘I have a German soul’
Paes plans to vacate his desk in the mayor’s office at the end of the year. He won’t admit it, but it’s no secret that he has ambitions. “Me, president? Never!”
Who knows? He changed political parties five times during his career.
But instead of running for the presidency, Paes is adamant he’d like to go to Germany, a country he’s visited many times. His children are enrolled in Rio’s German school. People tell him he has a German soul because he’s so disciplined, he says. “I admire Germany.”
But first, he’s looking forward to “his “Olympic Games, in particular to the hurdle races.”I have a lot of experience jumping barriers,” Paes says, and again, he has the laughs on his side.