There’s really nothing good to say about the baffling disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
Families are in distress without closure, governments around the world are on an expensive wild goose chase at the bottom of the ocean, and everyone’s a little bit embarrassed that in this day and age an entire 777 can go missing without a trace.
But amid all the uncertainty, one thing is wholly certain: Malaysia comes out of this looking worse than anyone else. A hapless response begat a week of dithering and second guessing, and all of a sudden a government not used to responding to critics at home had to contend with the merciless news cycle of the western press and the accusatory tone of Chinese media.
The disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 and the subsequent botched response by the Malaysian government is a clarion call to governments everywhere.
When the world doesn’t know much about a country, it only takes one incident to cloud its image for a very long time.
And when that country is defensive about its portrayal abroad, and combative against negative press, it makes the image only look worse.
Meanwhile, a world away, another country is gearing up to be in the spotlight in this year’s biggest world event, and the harsh light of day doesn’t look good on Brazil.
The Malaysian government and the Brazilian government are very different animals, and clearly a plane disaster and a major sporting tournament are very different events. But they do share one thing, a global focus on a country that isn’t often in the news.
And if the run-up to the cup has been any indication, Brazil needs to be hiring a good crisis manager soon. Stadiums keep collapsing, the country has been behind on every major project relevant to the event, fans were unaware they had to pay thousands of dollars to fly several hours to matches, and most importantly, some major infrastructure projects necessary for the games to begin are nowhere near complete two months before opening day.
Exemplifying its combative attitude towards foreign criticism, last week the Ministry of Finance went out of its way to publish a note criticizing S&P’s decision to downgrade the country’s sovereign debt to one grade above junk. This reversed years of Brazil’s triumphant march towards “investment grade” status and is an unequivocal indictment of several years of weak growth and unsustainable spending.
FIFA General Secretary has already accepted that things have gone badly, and in an interview last week admitted “Brazil’s problems will lead to a reassessment of how the tournament is organized in the future” and that “it’s a lesson and definitely we will act differently and we will have to find a different way of working in Russia in 2018”.
One of my favorite sayings in Portuguese is “para ingles ver”, a time-tested expression that means “for the English to see”. An odd turn of phrase, the saying was born in the 19th century when locals covered up illicit activity on its shores after the British banned maritime slave trading to Brazil. Instead of complying, local lords found ways of camouflaging activity and mounting Potemkin villages of sorts to fool patrolling British ships.
This saying is still very much alive and well today, but unlike in the glory days of controlled information the government in 2014 cannot hide photos of unfinished stadiums, unbuilt roads, unpacified favelas, or unhappy locals.
The press has already begun to take notice, and the coverage of the games is unlikely to improve before the Opening Ceremony. Combined with the social media storm that’s sure to erupt when persnickety foreigners find things wrong with their expensive hotel rooms, and locals create roadblocks in major cities in protest, Brazil’s government is not at all ready to be seen in a negative light.
Heck, if one downgrade by a ratings agency can turn the Ministry of Finance on its head, there’s no telling what the World Cup can do (particularly in an election year).
With two months left before an inevitable day of reckoning, maybe it’s time for Brazilians to start practicing the words “I’m sorry” and “We’ll do everything we can” rather than “You’re wrong” and “We know better”.
Because the same way that passive British satellites ultimately tracked down Flight 370 while the Malaysian military couldn’t muster a straight answer, global scrutiny is slowly but surely seeing through Brazil’s masquerade.