While the recent World Youth Day celebrations in Rio de Janeiro were a success for Pope Francis, they certainly weren’t for the city government. Accusations of disorganization and transport failures have left residents wondering if Rio is really ready to host both the World Cup and the Olympics.
The TV images showed adoring Catholics swarming Rio’s famous Copacabana Beach to pray with the pontiff. Behind the scenes, however, another picture emerged: long waits for food and for toilets, garbage everywhere, and stranded pilgrims.
The subway broke down leaving thousands late for the pope’s first Mass, and part of the festivities had to be moved because of rain.
Journalists covering the pope were often late after they were forced to walk for miles because newly hired ushers wouldn’t let them drive to the various events.
In short, Rio’s Mayor Eduardo Paes gave himself a failing grade in this local radio interview.
“[On] the organization … the score is nearer to zero than ten,” Paes said. “But I’m not giving myself a zero. It wasn’t perfect and we had the obligation to be perfect.”
José Eugênio Leal, a professor at Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, says in fact the event was far from perfect.
“There were a series of problems partly due to poor planning [and] partly because of the size of the event,” Leal says. “The biggest debacle was leaving until the last minute the decision to move the vigil. If they had prepared more in advance this wouldn’t have happened.”
The impoverished area of Guaratiba was supposed to host an overnight vigil and Mass, the final events of World Youth Day celebrations. But the event was moved because of flooding. Many area residents had taken out loans and invested money to provide for pilgrims who never came — resulting in financial ruin for many in the community.
Leal says Rio’s planners basically decided to just wing it in key ways.
“The local government did not really consider the size of the event. All their preparation has been for the World Cup and the Olympics,” he says. “They didn’t really think about what to do with this influx of people to the city, which probably exceeded what we will see in the World Cup and the Olympics anyway.”
Moacyr Duarte, a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro who studies mass events, says what happened with the pope’s arrival was indicative of the general confusion. After taking a wrong turn, Pope Francis’ car was repeatedly mobbed by the faithful. In the wake of the mishap everyone — state, federal and local authorities — pointed the finger at everyone else.
“I think the model of how the mega events are coordinated is going to have to change in the wake of this,” Duarte says.
But perhaps the biggest challenge facing Brazil as a whole in advance of next year’s World Cup is the state of the airports, which also saw delays and long lines.
“I think our airports are the most fragile points in our infrastructure,” Duarte says. “The government left upgrading them to the last minute and there are going to be more problems there.”
Still, at the end of the day, the Catholic Church is calling this one of the most successful World Youth Days ever, despite the hiccups.