Latin American Soft Power During the Latest Olympic Games

Latin American Soft Power During the Latest Olympic Games

Milena Cucci
Latest posts by Milena Cucci (see all)
Original cover by TNGO Illustrator Rossella Gangi

Joseph Nye, one of the most important academic figures in political science, coined the concept ‘soft power’ as the capacity of a country to achieve its political objectives because other countries share its values and aspire to follow its path. Soft power isn’t something that can be built in one day, nor bought with high-income rates—even though that may help.

This type of power is distinct from hard power, like military might, because it is numerically unmeasurable. Namely, we aren’t able to rank the 10 most powerful countries in terms of soft power, but that doesn’t mean it is less important. On the contrary, living in the era of social media and fast global communication, governments are realizing the relevance of soft power as a tool for international politics. 

In this context, the Olympic Games are fertile ground for countries to cultivate this unique type of power. This happens because, as the definition stands, soft power has to do with values, aspirations, and even dreams. This is the reason why the mystique of the legends that grow in the field of the Olympic Games has been a crucial piece of world politics throughout history. A clear example of this phenomenon is Nadia Comaneci, the young Romanian gymnast who achieved a perfect ten during the Cold War era. It is important to highlight that this event wasn’t a coincidence. The Soviet Union, as well as the United States, saw that the Olympics were an opportunity to reinforce soft power and invest in the formation of highly trained athletes that would represent the country.

Soft Power
Nadia Comaneci and her perfect 10.
Source: Diario La Nación

How Latin American Countries Built Soft Power During the Olympic Games

Just like the Soviet Union and the United States, Latin America has followed this strategy too, but with a smaller audience: their own region. In order to do this, two principal elements of analysis are important to consider.

  • First, understanding that the configuration of soft power is an element of public policy. Thus, the budget that governments spend on sports is an example of a long term strategy.
  • Nevertheless, it is necessary to take into account the instability and inconsistency that characterizes the region, which are accompanied by limited budgets caused by several economic crises. This is the reason that short term strategies of current governments should also be analyzed. As a second factor, politicians’ communication regarding the Olympic Games can be seen as a short term strategy.

Furthermore, there are some countries that stand out from the rest because of their use of a soft power strategy in the Olympic Games: Cuba, Brazil, and Venezuela.

Fidel Castro saluting the Cuban delegation at the Olympic Games in Barcelona (1992). Source: “Fidel. Soldado de las ideas”

A Closer Look at Public Spending on Athletics in Brazil and Cuba

On one hand, focusing on the budget analysis, Brazil stands out as the country that invests the most in athletics. According to an investigation by Forbes Dominican Republic (2015), the Brazilian government spends $842.4 million dollars per year on athletics, including on the promotion of high-performance athletes. Cuba ranks seventh in the region, investing $62.1 million in athletics. This is not a minor piece of data if other economic indicators are taken into account. In that same year, Brazil’s PIB was 1,802 billion dollars, while Cuba’s PIB was 87,133 million dollars. This means that, in proportion to their economy’s production, the percentage invested by Cuba in athletics is higher.

Although both countries’ sports budgets appear to be high for low or middle-income Latin-American countries, they are extremely low compared to the athletic budget in other regions such as Europe. Countries like Spain spend almost 3 billion dollars on athletics, which is not even one percent of their total public spending. This is the reason why a budget analysis that takes several economic indicators into account needs to be done according to the region. Unfortunately, at the time this article was written, there was no public data on Venezuela’s budget, so a long-term strategic analysis in this country couldn’t be performed.

The Role of Government Communication During the Olympic Games

On the other hand, structural difficulties in Latin-American countries’ public accounts create the need to analyze other factors, such as government communication. During the last Olympic Games, the region witnessed several declarations of high-ranking politicians regarding the outstanding athletes of their countries.

The Case of Rebecca Andrade (Brazil)

One of the best examples of the ideas developed in this article is the story of Rebecca Andrade, the gymnast that achieved the first gold medal in women’s gymnastics for Brazil, and for the whole region. Rebecca is a black girl who comes from a humble background and was raised by a single mother, along with four other siblings. She started her career in gymnastics in school as a part of a social program called “Second Half”, in accordance with a group of policies of massification of sports that took place under the government of Inácio “Lula” da Silva.

Soft Power
Rebecca Andrade’s celebration after winning her gold medal. (Source: El País)

This is the reason why the ex-president and possible candidate for the next presidential election showed support for this athlete on his social media. Eloi Pietá, Mayor of Guarulhos, the state where Rebecca grew up, also said: “Rebeca Andrade’s is a case that symbolically brings together three things: talent, effort, and personal dedication, family support, and social policy. Without these three things, she would not achieve the result. Without that policy of sports massification, without the support of her mother, siblings, and coaches, and without her talent and individual effort we would not have those medals at the Olympic Games”. Pietá is a member of the Workers’ Party like Lula and was in charge of the policies around the massification of sports in this state.

“Rebeca Andrade’s is a case that symbolically brings together three things: talent, effort and personal dedication, family support and social policy. Without these three things she would not achieve the result. Without that policy of sport massification, without the support of her mother, siblings and coaches, and without her talent and individual effort we would not have those medals at the Olympic Games.”

Eloi Pietá, Mayor of Guarulhos

The Case of Yulimar Rojas (Venezuela)

Another event relevant to the communication analysis is the telephone call between Yulimar Rojas and Nicolas Maduro, President of Venezuela. Yulimar is a Venezuelan athlete that was trained in Spain. Not only did she win the gold medal in the long jump try-out, but she also beat the world record in that discipline. A video spread on social media showed her taking a call from Maduro in which he congratulated her in the name of Venezuela for her achievement. During the telephone call, when Maduro called her “the Queen of Tokyo”, Yulimar was in an emotional state because of her triumph and said that she was happy to be a part of “the best country in the world”; a land that she calls “a warrior land”.

Another relevant example is the declaration of some Cuban athletes after winning their medals, thanking Fidel Castro for his actions regarding athletics. Focusing on the government’s communication specifically, we were able to see Miguel Díaz Canel, the current president of Cuba, taking an active role on social media by congratulating the athletes. He even had video calls with some of them that were transmitted on national television.

Soft Power
President of Cuba, Miguel Días-Canel, greeting the Olympic Cuban delegation before their trip to Tokyo. (Source: Díaz-Canel’s Twitter)

Controversy in Venezuela’s Communication at the Olympic Games: What Happened?

Venezuela’s government has been a source of controversy regarding its declaration. The situation involved a Venezuelan boxer, Eldric Sella, who participated as a member of the Refugees delegation. Sella explained that he was helped by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to be a part of the refugee delegation because Trinidad and Tobago, the country where he was living, refused to give him a visa because his Venezuelan passport had expired. In this situation, after he was eliminated from the competition in the first round, Jorge Arreaza, Minister of Foreign Affairs, declared that Sella wasn’t really a refugee because he wasn’t pursued in Venezuela, and he could come back whenever he wanted. The minister also declared that “[UNHCR] used him ideologically against Venezuela” because Eldric Sella has “emigrated” to Trinidad and Tobago so he “didn’t apply” to the status of refugee.

Public Budget for Athletics and Institutional Communication as Instruments of Soft Power

In conclusion, looking at budgets for athletics, it is necessary to highlight Cuba’s high percentage of investment and Brazil’s long-term policies in this matter. Both of them may apply this type of policy, not only because it may create high-level athletes to compete at an international level, but also as a policy of social containment. On the other hand, Venezuela stands out the most in the use of communication as a political strategy because it is not only used to congratulate its athletes but also to fight the figures and institutions that articulate opposition in their political speeches. All in all, these counties’ strategies are based on their budget or in their communication and serve as useful elements that contribute to the articulation of a state’s soft power. 

  • Is it possible to find a link between the radicalism of the governments and their use of soft power?
  • Is the construction of soft power a path to look for more legitimacy in the region for these countries?
  • Should other countrisesfrom Latin America adopt an active policy regarding sports (taking into account their positive social effects)?

Recommended readings

  • Joseph S. Nye, 2005, Soft Power: The Means To Success In World Politics
  • Stejarel Olaru, 2021, Nadia and the Securitate
  • Fabio Ruiz Vinagera, 2008, Cuba y América Latina en los Juegos Olímpicos

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Latin American Soft Power…

by Milena Cucci time to read: 7 min