Brazil is not ready for the World Cup, and after a $3.5 billion investment in stadiums and infrastructure, no one is more distraught than its own people. I recently returned from an eight-day trip to the South American country, where in the absence of sunshine, I basked in the country's distinct culture, picturesque vistas, amazing music, and vibrant people. But despite my positive and highly enriching experience, there's no doubt you could taste the mounting tension from Rio de Janeiro to Salvador.
Brazil has always been a country of diversity. Its people comprise a true melting pot of African, European, and Latin American indigenous influences. Breathtakingly exotic. Visually stunning. Young and vibrant. Brazil's a country that encompasses a landmass of some 3.28 million square miles, including the Mantiqueira Mountains, the Amazon rainforest, and long stretches of white sand beaches. And just like its landscape, its economy is equally as diverse, featuring tremendous wealth and, sadly, crushing poverty.
Nowhere is this juxtaposition more apparent than in Rio. While the city promotes tourism through images of perfectly tanned women lounging on its gorgeous beaches, it doesn't take long to discover the city's less fortunate side, which lingers only feet from the city's center.
Rio is surrounded by slums, known as favelas, where the city's more than 1.4 million poorest citizens subsist in minimal conditions and in some places, abject squalor. In fact, more than 6 percent of Brazil's population lives in favelas, and the World Cup has only exacerbated already difficult conditions.
In São Paulo, just a few miles south of the still-unfinished Arena Corinthians -- slated to host the opening match of the 2014 World Cup -- grows an encampment of more than 4,000 families living in tents with no plumbing or electricity. The World Cup, which the Brazilian government promised would raise living standards, has displaced thousands who can no longer afford to live in working-class neighborhoods as Cup development has spiked housing prices.
While economic inequality is nothing new to the Latin American country, the billions in public money spent on building and refurbishing 12 soccer stadiums has fueled outrage and contempt among average Brazilians. The government promised that the World Cup would not only boost Brazil's tourist economy, but that it would revitalize Brazil's aging infrastructure. All the people would then benefit from the money spent.
But as the World Cup nears, those promises appear empty. Brazil is way behind in completing critical infrastructure projects and now plans to leave some projects half-finished due to time restraints. The rail systems are limited, streets remain unpaved, hotels are half built, and most notably, stadiums -- built for a few games during the World Cup for many millions of dollars, in cities without a regular team to use them later -- stand unfinished, a seeming mockery to past promises.
As the only country to ever win the World Cup five times, and as a land where soccer is a national religion, the nearing tournament is proving to be a cruel irony, bringing pain instead of a much needed diversion. For many Brazilians, this is a Marie Antoinette moment, as they are told to eat cake when there's no bread for the table.
In the past few weeks alone, protests have erupted in São Paulo and other Brazilian cities, with every day bringing clashes between angry citizens and local police. Fed up activists, indigenous people, students, and regular citizens have joined together to rally against the World Cup, pleading for a better life.
Brazilians, as I discovered, are open to discussing the current political state. On my trip, I spoke with locals from all walks of life. Each conversation ended with the same sentiment -- the need for change. And I hope that somehow, that's what the World Cup will bring to Brazil. At this point, there is no turning back. In less than two weeks, the World Cup will be played, and the world will judge if Brazil succeeds or fails. But from what I experienced, the people I spoke to, the things I saw, the chances of winning the public relations war seem remote, regardless of who wins the actual Cup. Brazil simply isn't ready.
The influx of more than 600,000 international travelers will likely overwhelm the outdated infrastructure and the unfinished stadiums already flagged for failing safety requirements. From the look of things, the tournament could be heading toward an outcome far worse than the Sochi Olympic Games.
A looming failure, though costly, could be the silver lining that brings change to a country plagued by poverty and income inequality. Under the media's unblinking eyes, Brazil might yet be forced to improve social conditions in the country. In parallel to the recent fall and rise of Greece after the Athens Olympics, the calamity could prove to be a prescription for social change. While all the international attention might bring tensions to a head, a blossoming nation could yet rise from the ashes.
I have been to many countries throughout my travel career, and Brazil is among the most beautiful, most culturally fascinating, and most magnetic destinations in the world. Despite the glum mood and negative comments experienced during my visit, I have no doubt that with so much going for it, Brazil will move forward to overcome the many challenges it faces as it strives to create a better and richer life for its citizens. In the meantime, bumps and bruises notwithstanding, Brazil still deserves its seat on most bucket lists, and for now, the games will go on!