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It was high noon on July 18, 2014 when our 767 touched down at Eduardo Gomes International, the godfather of all jungle airstrips, cut dead center in the Amazon, and waypoint to a city of 2 million people. Across the tarmac, palms wavered like a mirage through the jet fumes.
I was one of a million sweaty gringos landing in Brazil for the FIFA World Cup. An arctic blast of air-conditioning welcomed the new arrivals to Manaus. In anticipation of the biggest public spectacle in the region’s history, the airport was undergoing a $100 million renovation, but like most of the country’s infrastructure projects, it remained in the throes of construction. The terminal smelled of drying paint, some gates boarded over with red Coca-Cola ads spotlighting the gilded World Cup trophy as if El Dorado had at last been found. Beyond the customs check, a pair of tall, sporty women greeted visitors with complimentary mini Budweisers, making themselves available for selfies. The cold brews went down fast on the way downtown, a ride barely recognizable from my last visit eight years earlier when I’d traveled to Brazil for the first time to see the country where I was born.
The city had mushroomed like never before. Just beyond the airport perimeter stood a fresh Subway franchise, sandwich artists squeezing sauces on canvases of bread. A recently paved and painted four-lane highway unrolled into the city, flanked by business hotels, night clubs, and love motels. The road led to a knot of overpasses and underpasses, the latest attempt to wrangle the city’s notoriously chaotic streets. Trees had been supplanted by billboards: 3G cell phone service, cosmetic dentistry, and home appliances with easy monthly payments. Motorcycles, buses, and American sedans zipped from lane to lane as if testing the asphalt for imperfections.
At first glance it seemed as if the World Cup in Manaus was already fulfilling its economic promise, against all odds and the will of the chiefs at FIFA, who had consulted their maps and spreadsheets and determined that the capital of Amazonas state was no place for the Cup of Cups. They said that Brazil could feasibly host matches in eight stadiums. Ten at most. Brazil’s national organizing committee disagreed, proposing an audacious seventeen-stadium network that would span every region of the fifth largest country on Earth. Even on paper, hosting matches in the remote interior looked like a disaster. Coastal Belém was the ideal rain forest host city. A no-brainer, as the Americans would say. Positioned at the mouth of the mighty Amazon River, Belém would fit seamlessly in the itineraries of athletes, tourists, and journalists, a quick flight from the beachfront cities of Fortaleza, Recife, and Salvador. Manaus was, well, Manaus. Aside from BR-174—the cratered route to Caracas, Venezuela, that closed at sunset to accommodate nocturnal wildlife and native tribes—the city was accessible only by plane or boat. Manaus wasn’t even a soccer town. Its biggest team, Nacional, hadn’t competed in Brazil’s highest league since the waning years of the military dictatorship in the 1980s, and its neglected 12,000-seat stadium hadn’t been filled to capacity for years.
Think of the athletes, those pampered, world-class specimens, flying four hours in-country to play a sweltering match in the middle of nowhere. Temperatures in Manaus hover in the nineties year-round, day and night, even during the six-month dry season. Imagine penalty kicks by players on the verge of heat stroke, goalkeepers plagued by prehistoric insects. There wouldn’t even be enough bandwidth for networks to broadcast the spectacle. No, no, no. The answer was no.
But Brazil’s President Lula had Manaus circled on his map.1 And, as President Obama quipped at the 2009 G20 summit in London, Lula was the man.2
* * *
The man: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The myth: Lula. The legend: Born in the northeastern state of Pernambuco in the drought-stricken 1940s, Lula didn’t taste bread until the age of seven, when his family climbed aboard a dusty flatbed pickup headed a thousand miles south to São Paulo, Brazil’s steel heart. The Silvas settled in its crowded slums. Young Lula dropped out of the sixth grade to shine shoes on the street, bankers and lawyers tossing him coins on their way to their deco high-rises. At fourteen he began working the graveyard shift in a deafening auto plant. By 1964, the year of Brazil’s military coup, he was nineteen years old, a veteran press machine operator at Volkswagen. During one bleary shift, as Lula reached inside a faulty press to make a repair, the operator lost control. The contraption smashed the pinky finger of Lula’s left hand. He waited until his shift ended before heading to the hospital. When at last he arrived, the doctor grimaced. It was too late to save the finger. Off it went.
Decades later, Lula would tell the story on late-night talk shows, funny after all these years, shitty luck that men who wore overalls could recognize. Here was a president who understood everyday Brazilians—and fought for them. During the height of the military dictatorship, when dissenters faced beatings, shock torture, or worse, Lula was a hard-drinking labor leader who stood up to the military men and the factory bosses, raising an army of workers with his gravelly voice.
In 1980, he founded the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT)—the Workers’ Party—which would swell into a national political movement in the years to come, capable of paralyzing the country’s automotive industry on behalf of steelworkers. In 1987, as the military men loosened their grip on the government, Lula rose to congress as a champion of the working class. In 1989, he ran for president in the country’s first democratic elections in decades, campaigning on a leftist platform inspired by Castro’s revolution in Cuba. He lost. Instead of running for reelection to congress in 1990, he toured the country to galvanize the PT, sharing beers, barbecue, and sugarcane rum with workers struggling under 2,000 percent annual inflation. According to one government economist at the time, “Money was like ice melting in their pockets.”3
In 1994, Lula again ran for president, this time against Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the former minister of finance who tamed Brazil’s runaway inflation by replacing its fickle currency with the real. Pegged to the U.S. dollar, the real stabilized markets, attracted foreign investment, and helped Cardoso defeat Lula in the biggest landslide in Brazil’s electoral history.4 In 1998, Lula challenged Cardoso again, criticizing the privatization of the publicly owned telecommunications, mining, and steel industries, but he was spurned by capitalists leery of handing the country over to a self-styled revolutionary who wore Che Guevara T-shirts to rallies.
Soon after the 1998 election, Brazil’s economy was infected by the financial contagion in Asia and Russia, a crisis magnified by its ballooning public debt, which had risen to almost 50 percent of GDP. When Cardoso left office in 2002, Lula seized his chance, rallying frustrated Brazilians around a call for sustainable development and a commitment to social justice. “The country can no longer cope with a third lost decade,” he wrote in a “Letter to the Brazilian People” outlining his vision for the twenty-first century. “Brazil needs to navigate the open sea of economic and social development.”5
Hungry for change, Brazilians marched to the polls. Even those who couldn’t read could identify the name of their champion on the ballot: Lula. As president, he pledged to give millions of forgotten Brazilians the dignity of work, a steady income, and a comfortable home. A corruption scandal threatened to derail his mandate when investigators discovered that the PT was paying politicians to join its coalition, but Lula dodged the worst consequences, just in time to catch the commodities wave of the 2000s. In the spirit of his friend Hugo Chavez and his inspiration Fidel Castro, Lula doubled down on investments in public health, education, and the national oil company Petroleo Brasileiro, turning Petrobras into a symbol of national wealth and pride. Brazil would never turn around its fortunes by relying on rich countries. It needed to turn its gaze toward fellow developing nations that relied on Brazil for oil, corn, soy, beef, and its iron ore, red as blood.
Millionaires became billionaires. Hundreds of thousands of families living on less than $2.50 a day rose to a burgeoning middle class, many experiencing steady food, electricity, and indoor plumbing for the first time. Bolsa Familia, Luz Para Todos, Agua Para Todos—20 million people cleansed by flowing water and credit, lifted into the light of prosperity.6
Lula had been born in a forgotten region, and under his watch no region would be forgotten again. For a century, generals and industrialists had struggled to develop the interior of Brazil. Penetration roads. Telegraph lines. Airstrips. Highways to nowhere. Yet the Amazon remained a backwater. No more. Order and progress would rule the day. God and workers would erect street lamps where once there were candles. God and workers would bring clean water where once there was sewage. God and workers would build riverside schoolhouses where once there were brothels. The Amazon would rise in the twenty-first century as a national treasure. Brazil would pay off its debts to the International Monetary Fund, cement its investment-grade credit rating, and take its rightful place on the world stage alongside the United States, Europe, and China. Lula traveled the world, charming heads of state, even trying to broker peace between Israel and Palestine. By 2009, Lula was sitting side by side with Obama, who marveled at Lula’s 70 percent approval rating, affirming what millions of Brazilians already knew: “This is my man.”
And so it was settled: if the Brazilian organizing committee wanted to host the Cup of Cups, it would host matches not only in its famed coastal cities and economic hubs but in the bosom of the world’s greatest forest. Lula had transformed the country and passed the baton to his handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff, a former leftist guerrilla, tortured at the hands of the military regime, now Brazil’s first woman president. When 150,000 visitors arrived in Manaus, they would not see an isolated port city kept on life support by tax incentives. They would see the meeting of the waters, the dark coffee of the Rio Negro and the milky cream of the Rio Solimões, coalescing into the almighty Amazon. They would photograph a glorious white suspension bridge, one of the longest in South America, spanning those waters like a promise. They would carry that image to the four corners of the earth, a message from the country of the future: Brazil is bringing light to the jungle.
* * *
In every host city, World Cup projects were over budget and behind schedule, with most good news dwarfed by political scandals and security crackdowns. Journalists swarmed like mosquitos. Rio de Janeiro lured the most international media with its beatific landscape, legendary soccer stadium, and alluring beach culture, a dream assignment for any writer with a staff job. Then there were freelancers like me, filing stories in host cities like Manaus, where there wasn’t as much competition.
Brazil is in my blood. I was adopted from the southern city of Belo Horizonte as an infant, during the waning years of the military regime. When I returned twenty-five years later, the experience stirred something dormant inside me. I’d been daydreaming about this summer since the announcement that Brazil would host the World Cup, with the Olympics to follow in 2016. This was a chance to experience a turning point in the history of my birth country. I spoke serviceable Portuguese and carried two passports: the Brazilian citizenship of my birth and the U.S. citizenship I scored at age thirteen at the sleepy federal courthouse in Portland, Oregon. I’d be lucky to cover my expenses, ducking out of my day job to fly to Brazil with a notebook full of ideas and a camera. What I wanted was some kind of quasi-spiritual experience to help me at last understand where I came from.
I spent the first week of the group stage in Belo Horizonte, soaking up the ambiance, barbecuing with my birth family, and helping my Brazilian brother Ramon with his grocery deliveries while he counted down to the imminent birth of his first daughter. Nobody could understand why I would head up north instead of enjoying the rest of the World Cup in Belo Horizonte, or at least digging for stories in São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. Anywhere but Manaus.
“It’s a better place for me to work,” I said. “There won’t be as many journalists.”
“Just be careful,” said Ramon. Like most Brazilians, he’d never been to the Amazon. “It’s different up there.”
* * *
Moeses Martins lives with his wife and three children in a house on stilts along one of the hundreds of igarapés—little rivers—that course through Manaus like veins. On a lazy Saturday afternoon during the group stage of the World Cup, I stood on the plank walkway outside his front door, watching home videos on his cell phone. Fifty years ago, when only the most affluent neighborhoods in the city enjoyed electricity and indoor plumbing, thousands of migrants homesteaded on the marshy banks for ready access to clean water and a limitless supply of catfish. Now a reflective orange sign in the middle of the igarapé warned against bathing, drinking, or fishing.
Inside, Moeses’ wife, son, and daughters relaxed in front of the television, their attention divided between the World Cup match on the screen and the parched gringo talking to their dad. Tomorrow night the United States and Portugal would square off a few kilometers up the road at the Arena da Amazônia, a barely finished $300 million world-class stadium built in the shape of an indigenous basket from materials sent across the Atlantic and upriver from Portugal.
Booms and busts were as natural in Manaus as the rise and fall of the river. During development fevers in the capital, builders jostled for position along the main waterways and avenues; when the fevers inevitably broke, the sprawl could fall to ruin within a few rainy seasons, reclaimed by the forest. With each new cycle came a cyclone of construction with no regard for the vanity projects of dead mayors.
These days a bird’s-eye view of Manaus was as tangled and frenzied as the jungle. Over time the city had been divided into crude quadrants—the northern zone, the southern zone, the eastern zone, and the western zone—but only one law seemed to govern development in the city now: the law of gravity, wastewater flowing ever downward to the igarapés while bankers chased capital in the wealthy neighborhoods, financing condos and malls on higher ground.
“You have to see this one,” said Moeses. Shirtless and in shorts and flip-flops, he leaned against the railing, thumbing through the pictures on his cell phone, a mix of tender family moments and neighborhood catastrophes. Behind him, the creek running through Bairro São Jorge was high but placid. The rains had tapered off and the water was dropping every day. By December it would be a trickle dammed up with trash.
Moeses is in his thirties, like me, but he’s had to work thirty times harder in his life and it shows. Like a lot of people in this neighborhood, he came to the capital from a village in the interior, looking for work. Those villages can be as far as twenty-six days away by slow boat. Many of the migrants only make it home again for their mother’s funeral.
“Here it is,” he said, tapping Play on a video shot from the exact spot where we stood. “This was just last month.” The creek was raging, old tires and home appliances tumbling in the current. During the flood, which lasted for days, swells overtook the banks and swept away whole chunks of his neighbors’ houses. Green anacondas and spectacled caiman swam through the living room where the kids now fidgeted in front of the television.
Moeses’ daughter toddled outside and hugged his legs, smiling up at me. “Oh and this one,” Moeses said, pressing Play again. The second clip made the first one seem pedestrian. Across the water, an electrical transformer was in flames, igniting nearby homes and sending plumes of black smoke across the neighborhood of São Jorge.
“The World Cup is for rich people,” Moeses told me. “The politicians haven’t done anything they said they were going to do.”
Despite being in the heart of Earth’s largest watershed, one in four homes in Manaus lacks running water. Its century-old sewer system accommodates less than 10 percent of the population, leaving many residents vulnerable to hepatitis, acute diarrhea, and intestinal parasites in a city where many neighborhoods lack hospitals and many hospitals lack doctors.7 Moeses and his kids—and families in homes like this across Manaus—are part of the 90 percent who grow nose-blind to the waste outside their windows.
On TV the crowd cheers a goal in the match between Germany and Ghana, an unlikely thriller, live from Fortaleza. “It looks like you guys still enjoy watching the games,” I said.
“Yeah,” Moeses said. “I mean, what are we supposed to do? I love football. And I have to take the kids to Fan Fest.”
That’s why, on match day in Manaus, while thousands of drunk, flag-waving foreigners funnel into the city’s new stadium, Moeses and his wife dressed the kids in national green and yellow and caught a sweltering bus to Ponta Negra Park to wade into the FIFA Fan Fest, a riverside extravaganza overlooking the Rio Negro and the triumphant new suspension bridge that connected Manaus to nearby Iranduba by road for the first time.
The dark jewel of modern Manaus, Ponta Negra is an enclave of luxury apartment towers, the tallest buildings for thousands of miles, the perfect neighborhood for the international soccer fandom to colonize for the world’s biggest sporting event. When I first visited years ago, before the initial pillars of the bridge were sunk into the muddy river bottom, the natural riverbank was long and sandy, and on a clear day, you could imagine yourself in Rio de Janeiro, sunbathing under a bright blue sky as the black waves of the Rio Negro lapped the shore. Over time the city dredged the river to expand the beach, inadvertently creating pockets of quicksand that periodically sucked swimmers to their deaths. To this day, swimmers hug the shore, distrustful of the new sand.
Drownings aside, it was all part of the Ponta Negra master plan. During the economic boom of the 2000s, developers targeted this zone as the place to inflate a bubble of creature comforts for the wealthy, far from the troublesome smells and shadowy alleys of the city’s old neighborhoods. When Manaus was chosen as a World Cup host city, Ponta Negra construction kicked into hyperdrive. A chic new shopping mall opened a portal to first-world capitalism, complete with monthly rotations of pop culture exhibits in its causeways. Visitors could satisfy hungers they never knew they had at McDonald’s ice-cream kiosks, a steakhouse, a twelve-screen cineplex, and dozens of immaculately lit, frigidly air-conditioned retailers where shoppers conspicuously consume Nikes, Dolby Surround Sound systems, and Ford sedans, sparkling like game show prizes at a dealership on the bottom floor. Satiated shoppers could walk it off at the nearby promenade and take in the splendid view: pop concerts pulsing at the amphitheater, yachts bobbing on the water, parasailers banking across the sunsets.
At Fan Fest, Fuleco the Armadillo, the cartoonish yellow and purple World Cup mascot, welcomed Moeses and his family to the celebration. Parking attendants waved towels to lure drivers into their parking spots where, for a few coins, their cars would be kept safe from harm. Thousands of fans filtered through security gates at the amphitheater where matches were projected on a screen the size of a building. Along the mosaic walkway, riverfront restaurants dished up Italian food, hamburgers, ice cream, and cold beer.
For all the bright lights and laughter, there was an undercurrent of potential catastrophe, unsteady elements mixing for the first time. Officers toyed with their stun guns, crackling blue in their hands. A surveillance truck towering with satellite and radio antennas beamed feeds to a central location in São Paulo, where intelligence agents from across the world monitored events in every host city, scanning for threats. Across the country, protestors were marching against FIFA and the government. Black bloc anarchists were smashing luxury cars in Rio de Janeiro. Dissidents in São Paulo were being seized in their apartments. But at Fan Fest in Manaus, the match was ending and the free concert was about to begin, power chords carrying across the river where houses like the Martins home twinkled on the far bank.
Serpents in his living room be damned, Fan Fest was a gift for Moeses. “My kids are never going to see anything like this again in their lives.”
Copyright © 2018 by Chris Feliciano Arnold