The story was classic Rio de Janeiro drama. A drunken night out and conspicuous gringo-ing led to an armed kerfuffle, and the hangover was yet another notch in Brazil’s reputation of being a dangerous place to visit. Except that it happened during the Olympics and the protagonist was Ryan Lochte, an American swimmer who is known as much for his stints on reality TV as he is for his backstroke.
Unlike the thousands of other armed encounters that take place in Rio de Janeiro every year, his bad night out caught everybody’s attention.
But in a cheap attempt to turn this into a local “victory”, Brazil succeeded in glossing over many serious issues in Rio de Janeiro that made this story so believable in the first place. And in its rush to defend the country against negative perceptions, Brazil convinced itself and the world that the real problem in this incident was a dumb American jock, rather than deep-seated problems around a spotty application of the rule of law and selective application of justice.
Now as the country seeks to press formal charges, the country’s behavior in the “prosecution” of this case now seems more akin to a kangaroo court than that of a serious country seeking justice. Brazilians, no doubt, are relieved that we are talking about Lochte’s Speedo deal gone bad rather than the fact that a private security guard pulled a gun at a gas station and demanded money from four unarmed swimmers. Surely a functional justice system wouldn’t consider this an admissible way for asking for damages to a bathroom. And then, of course, we cannot forget that an Olympic athlete was effectively forced to donate $10,800 to charity to leave the country with his passport before he was formally charged with anything.
Believable because it happens all the time
The simple truth is that the Lochte story became international news so quickly because it is a credible story. People get robbed, extorted and killed in creative, terrible ways all the time in Brazil, and Rio de Janeiro perpetrates a preponderance of that crime. Not a month before the Olympics started, for instance, two members of Spain’s sailing team were robbed at gunpoint by five men.
With the Olympics was bound to come another inconvenient story involving athletes, and the reaction in Rio couldn’t have given the world a more textbook case of how the country struggles with criticism from abroad, and how gleefully Brazilians can forget their own serious problems in the service of winning an argument.
Alex Cuadros pointed out in an excellent piece in the New Yorker that Brazilians fall victim to the “vira-lata” complex, which is a sort of rabid underdog mentality. It is borne of a history of underdevelopment, combined with the feeling of judgment and self-comparison with richer countries. Add into the mix a complicated and reactionary undercurrent of anti-Americanism, multiply by the Olympics, and you get an explosive situation.
The news cycle that followed Lochte’s case played into a familiar Brazilian rhythm: international outrage and scrutiny forces officials to do something about the problem, officials (and Brazilians more generally) get defensive and snippy, a hasty investigation (or, more frequently, declaration) ensues generally vindicating the Brazilian party, and Brazilians celebrate their sovereign victory before any reasonable jury decides on the case.
This has happened in the context of economic policy, like when former Finance Minster Guido Mantega bashed an S&P downgrade publicly (a great way to make friends with the other two agencies, who ultimately declared Brazil’s debt as junk). It happened in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup, when President Dilma Rousseff took the presidential podium to rebuff Ronaldo and his Portuguese high-handedness. It happened perhaps most famously when Brazil threw a tantrum over the release of Edward Snowden’s NSA files, canceling a state visit to the U.S., drumming up local outrage. It then backed down after reports emerged that Brazil spied too, both on its own citizens and on foreigners.
Justice for all, but especially for foreigners
The effort and the acumen with which the Rio and federal police went to solve this “crime” that only saw the light of day because of a tweet from an Australian journalist confirms the showmanship and superficiality of Rio’s efforts to secure the Olympics and betrays a critical flaw in Brazil’s national psyche.
— Ben Way (@BenWayFOX) August 14, 2016
It also confirms that, despite their best efforts to show how dumb foreigners aren’t above the law, Brazil showers far more attention and effort on a foreigner than they would for a Brazilian in the same situation.
And when police do get around to investigating, they do next to nothing to solve even their most serious crimes. By some accounts, the police solve between 5 and 8% of all murders in Brazil, compared to Britain, which solves 90 percent and the U.S., which with an abysmal 65% resolution rate still knocks Brazil out of the park.
Keep in mind that this is also a police force that commits one in five of all homicides in Rio de Janeiro, helping brand them as “trigger-happy” by Amnesty International.
What’s even more telling, however, is the willingness for the local media to accept the narrative and inveigh against the swimmers without asking tough questions of their own officials first. Predictably, local press dutifully led the charge, direct from police sources, that the story was falsified.
Foreign press also bears some responsibility for the hype, treating the piece more like celebrity gossip than the serious matter that it was, and failing to engage in a meaningful discussion with local officials before taking the story public. Twitter hot takes by foreigners that have no idea about Brazil, combined with a conflation of Brazilian problems with American ones, only cheapened the discourse.
But ultimately foreign press brought to light some of the dirty details of the story once Brazil’s PR machine had already won the news cycle. USA Today, for instance, dedicated time to investigative reporting on the situation to unearth many shaky parts of the Brazilian story, which was picked up by the L.A. Times as well.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Rio police commissioner Fernando Veloso refused to answer a question on how many visitors had been mugged at the Olympics, responding: “You have to have mercy on police, asking for a number like that right now,” he continued “I can give you this number. I have this number. But, come on…”
The Journal followed up, and reported that the police declined to provide the number, saying it was for internal use only. And in perfect form, the city’s crime statistics website was mysteriously out of commission during the Lochte drama.
It’s a pretty rocky situation when national pride gets in the way of thorough reporting. And it’s sad that the Brazilian press, who are no friends of Brazil’s police apparatus, decided to beat the drum rather than use their unique advantages to conduct a more thorough investigation.
Rio’s conduct is retribution, not justice
What Ryan Lochte and his pals did was stupid and irresponsible, and reveals what we already knew: professional swimmers can be “bros”, and bros do dumb things when they’re intoxicated.
But what is more irresponsible? One swimmer “over-exaggerating” about what happened on your night out after being threatened with a gun by a security guard, or a country of 200 million people mobilizing an entire police force and national PR apparatus to mount a witch hunt to prove four drunken Americans were wrong?
I will believe the sworn testimony of a swimmer on the U.S. national team every time over any official at a press conference hastily organized by the Rio police. Why? Because despite the law-and-order “sheriff”-ing that Brazil put on in the wake of the Lochte debacle, nobody in Brazil will be held accountable for anything that happened, if only to preserve the national pride of “winning” the incident. These swimmers are going to suffer real consequences–less due of their poor judgment than because Brazil’s overreaction–and the event will stain their careers.
We still don’t know for sure if they’re guilty of anything more than public drunkenness, which isn’t even a crime in Brazil. But we do know that Brazil’s justice system, and particularly the one in Rio de Janeiro, have their hands red with the blood of eye-popping rates of armed robbery, extortion, and police brutality. That’s not mentioning the 8,000 people that the Rio state police alone are alleged to have killed in the last 10 years. Eight people were killed by the Rio police during the Olympics alone.
If past is prelude, who would you believe?