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The Real Reason Brazilians Are Outraged: The World's Fair Bid

The New York Times’s Brazil bureau chief, Simon Romero, opens his latest dispatch from São Paulo with an anecdote whose symbolism no newspaper reporter could have resisted: While the protests swelled on his city’s streets last week, Mayor Fernando Haddad was not home. He was not even in Brazil. “He had left for Paris to try to land the 2020 World’s Fair—exactly the kind of expensive, international mega-event that demonstrators nationwide have scorned.”

Romero is nodding to the other international events that Brazil has already landed: The 2013 Confederations Cup, now underway and under siege; the 2014 World Cup; and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. In other words, in the span of three years Brazil is hosting the second-biggest international soccer tournament; the biggest international soccer tournament, which also happens to be the most popular sporting event in the world; and the better of the two Olympics. 

So why does Brazil need the World’s Fair, too? How can greedy can this ascendant country be? 

I’ll admit I did not know the World’s Fair still existed. Wikipedia, to the extent it can be trusted, set me straight: The event is roughly biennial. The most recent one took place last year in Yeosu, South Korea, and the next one is scheduled for 2015 in Milan, Italy, followed by Astana, Kazakhstan in 2017. Clearly, this is an event for cities that aspire to be international (Yeosu, Astana) or ones trying to arrest their dimming international status (Milan).

São Paulo  by contrast, is the largest city in Brazil—a country with the world’s sixth-largest economy—and is among the top ten in the world. While it must burn Haddad’s britches that Rio got the Olympics, securing the 2020 World’s Fair cannot be the answer. Surely the other contenders—Ayutthaya, Thailand; Izmir, Turkey; Yekaterinburg, Russia; and even Dubai—are more in need of whatever ephemeral glow a World’s Fair provides.

Furthermore, these are not the World’s Fairs of yore. They’re not even called fairs now, but expos, and if the website for Expo Milano 2015 is any indication, they don’t feature ferris wheels or observatory towers or anything else that could quickly become modern ruins, a place where hopes for international recognition lay buried and amateur photographers come to take Instagram pics. Instead, the best you can expect is “a massive food-farming park built on a series of orthogonal grills which will be surrounded by water canals and punctuated by large landscaped architectural features.”

These expositions appear no different than most international conferences: people standing at podiums, directing PowerPoint presentations; people holding flags, giving out awards; and everyone else just sitting around, watching these people do these very international things. I imagine it’s the kind of event where, after just an hour or two, you have to remind your brain to assemble the words that are coming out of people’s mouths. (Or it’s the kind of event where your brain simply can’t assemble the words because they’re in another, unfamiliar language.)

Oh, I failed to mention that the theme of Expo Milano 2015 is “food.”

I also failed to mention that Expo Milano 2015 runs from May 1 to October 31.

Can you imagine? Six months! This must be what sparked the people of São Paulo to revolt. It wasn’t just a public-transportation fare hike, or even, as Romero writes, “political corruption, bad public services and the government’s focus on lifting Brazil’s international stature through events like the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.” No, it was that their jet-setting mayor was on the other side of the Atlantic, in the City of Light, trying to bring home nothing but darkness: the longest, most boring conference in the history of humankind.

Ryan Kearney is a story editor at The New Republic. Follow him @rkearney

Correction: A previous version of this post misspelled São Paulo.