Lights, Camera, Hypocrisy! Oliver Stone and the World Cup Boondoggle

EspañolThere’s big money south of the border. And Oliver Stone is taking his cut.

The controversial US filmmaker, known for polishing the images of Latin-American despots on the silver screen, made headlines of a different sort last year. Direct TV announced Stone would produce a short film (read: commercial with benefits) promoting the company’s coverage of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Director Oliver Stone (left) with Hugo Chávez. Photo: Nicolas Genin.

Stone’s big-money, high-tech commercial is called “Nada Más Importa” (Nothing Else Matters) — a title with just the right amount of innuendo for a millionaire Hollywood director who likes to moonlight as an evangelist for socialism in the tropics.

By all accounts, there is no cognitive dissonance for Stone in promoting Brazil’s World Cup — “the single greatest marketing tent pole on the planet” — after producing a string of films critical of capitalism in Latin America. These include three documentaries on Fidel Castro, and a “love story” about Hugo Chávez.

The leitmotif of Stone’s work is the exposé, the untold story. And yet, when it comes to the social protests sweeping Brazil in advance of the World Cup, Stone’s silence suggests he thinks some stories are better left untold.

When the (World) Cup Runneth Over*

What started in June 2013 as an isolated reaction to fare increases for public transportation in Brazil has developed into a more expansive, sometimes violent, and ongoing series of protests. According to Bloomberg, the protests are “a catch-all for discontent.” People are taking to the streets to denounce inflation, public education, government corruption, budget overruns, and what the editor of Brazil’s Época calls “the not-so-much-loved-anymore World Cup.”

As was the case with the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, critics are asking why Brazil, which will also host the Summer Olympics in 2016, is spending so much public money on mega-sporting events when more than one-fifth of its population live in poverty.

The standard answer is that events such as the World Cup and the Olympics bring net economic gains to the host nation. Yet, the empirical data suggest that the so-called big boost of mega-events might be better described as a big flop.

Warnings about the exaggerated economic benefits of mega-events have come from academics, investment firms, and pro-market think-tanks. While one study claims mega-events are a precursor to market liberalization, the authors say this is because bidding on the games is a costly policy signal that tends to commit nations to more trade-oriented development. In other words, nations with losing bids on mega-events may see economic gains equal to or greater than nations that are awarded the rights, and risks, of hosting.

Ongoing World Cup protests in Brazil. Photo: Nelson Flausino Jr.

The (De)Politicization of Sport

The issues surrounding the political economy of mega-events are complex — and no one should look to a Hollywood director to solve them.

But Oliver Stone’s silence on the back-story of the World Cup is notable to the extent that Stone seems to borrow from the playbook of his favorite comandante, Fidel Castro. In 1966, incensed over the tactics used by the United States to keep Cuba from competing in the Central American and Caribbean Games in Puerto Rico, Castro declared that “sports must be kept separate from politics.”

To the extent that sport was (and is) used as an instrument of ideological training in Cuba, Castro was not calling for a separation of sports and politics per se. The strategy was to separate geopolitics from international sporting events, thereby ensuring the Cuban government could position itself on the world stage.

Today, the separation of sport and (geo)politics is arguably, and rightfully, under greater scrutiny. Consider the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. From concerns over terrorist attacks to international outcry over Russia’s anti-gay law, the politicization of the Sochi games is drawing popular attention to the making of the mega-event.

As world leaders bow out of participating in the opening ceremonies at Sochi, Seth Blatter, president of the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), says he is proud to be opting in. Like Castro, Blatter argues that the Olympics and the World Cup should not be used “as a platform for political disputes.” (Castro has made no specific pronouncements on Sochi; then again, he’s never been particularly fond of the homosexual community.)

Blatter calls boycotts a non-starter and argues that mega-events present “a perfect opportunity to strike up conversations and cultivate contacts.” The problem with this position is that it frames mega-events as a neutral stage. Political grievances may be aired on the side, but the thorny issue of whether such grievances originate in the manufacture of the event itself are circumvented.

Oliver Stone may uphold the Blatter-Castro doctrine; classical liberals should challenge it. Not, to be sure, because the World Cup caters to “the marauders of the free market” — as pundits from The Nation argue — but precisely because, in its present form, it doesn’t.

Ongoing World Cup protests in Brazil. Source: Revolution News.

Capitalism: The Untold Story

Classical liberalism is clear on the distinction between nepotistic, pro-business privileges and welfare-enhancing, pro-market rules.

Thus, classical liberals can join Brazilian soccer legend and Socialist Party member Romário de Souza Faria in criticizing the public subsidies, corruption, and malinvestment that characterize Brazil’s World Cup project, without losing sight of the fact that these features are antithetical to a free market.

“They are taking the piss out of us with our money, the public’s money,” says Romário, striking out against those who argue for a defense of the World Cup on patriotic grounds (ahem, Pelé).

As is the case with most mega-events, Brazil’s World Cup is facing massive budget overruns. Taxpayers are currently on the hook for about US$14 billion of an estimated $18 billion in event-related costs — three times more than the 2006 World Cup in Germany. To add insult to injury, public money is being channeled to refurbish the privately-owned Baixada arena in Curitiba, which is 77 per cent over-budget and is one of six stadiums (of a total of twelve) that remain unfinished only months before the World Cup kickoff in June.

The expectation that Brazil’s World Cup will turn a profit is effectively nil, and critics point out that it will be cheaper to tear down the country’s new (and newly refurbished) stadiums than face the prohibitive costs of post-event maintenance.

Rather than ceding explanations for Brazil’s World Cup boondoggle to pundits from The Nation, or allowing Oliver Stone to sell a love story about sport premised on the Blatter-Castro doctrine, classical liberals should use the World Cup to engage the untold story of capitalism.

This means going beyond casual observations about the ineptitude of government. It means joining the debate over mega-events, including the issue of how rising land values and increased security demands have resulted in the eviction of tens of thousands of people from Brazil’s squatter communities. What better time to urge reconsideration of Hernando de Soto’s argument to extend property rights to the poor?

Leave Oliver Stone to tell a World Cup story about “how much kick hurts.” There’s a better, if lesser known, story that needs telling, one based on sound economics, the rule of law, and anything that’s peaceful.

Let the hypocrisy end. And let a new chapter of the games begin.

* Editors note: the “runneth over” line refers to a Bible passage that means to have more than enough for one’s needs.

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