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Insight: As Brazil's Batista falters, Rio dream does too

Eike Batista, Chairman and CEO of EBX Group speaks at a dinner panel discussion at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills,
Eike Batista, Chairman and CEO of EBX Group speaks at a dinner panel discussion at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills,

By Paulo Prada

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Investors who bet on Eike Batista have lost billions over the past year as the Brazilian's ephemeral business empire imploded.

But they haven't been the only losers - the onetime Amazon gold trader and former speedboat racer's hometown of Rio de Janeiro has also been shaken by his rapid decline.

Beginning in 2006, Batista floated a series of mining, energy and shipping companies through share offers that by 2012 made him the world's seventh richest man, valued by Forbes magazine at $30 billion. All the companies' names, including that of his EBX conglomerate, ended in X, a letter he said symbolized the multiplication of wealth.

With the same verve he used to woo investors, Batista also became the biggest booster of a hoped-for revival in Rio, the verdant, seaside metropolis whose glorious past as Brazil's capital and cultural center had in recent decades given way to crime, violence and the unfettered sprawl of slums.

At his peak, Eike, as the 56-year-old is known locally, bankrolled the campaign that lured the 2016 Olympics to Rio. He paid for police vehicles in poor neighborhoods and partially decontaminated a popular local lagoon.

He bought a landmark waterfront hotel and nearby marina and vowed to make natives of rival São Paulo, the country's business capital, "die with envy." Along with some progress by local officials against crime, litter and other urban blight, Batista's efforts helped fuel a sense that a rebound was indeed underway, at least in wealthier parts of town.

"I don't know where we would be without him," says Rosa Celia Barbosa, a Rio cardiologist who received a 30 million real ($13.9 million) donation from Batista in 2011 for a charity hospital for children. After struggling for more than a decade with funding, she finally had enough to pay for final construction and equipment costs.

But now, as creditors pick over what's left of Batista's holdings, his dream for Rio is all but bankrupt.

His star is burning out just as the city readies for the Olympics and next year's World Cup soccer tournament, two events he hoped would showcase his role as Rio's self-styled benefactor.

"People here believed in this patron, this tycoon who would finance a transformation that not even the government could," says Fernando Gabeira, a former national Congressman and mayoral and gubernatorial candidate. "He meant well, but reality took over."

Batista, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment on his derailed Rio plans.

It's too early to say what the ultimate economic toll of Batista's downfall might be on Rio's economy.

As headquarters for a group that attracted tens of billions of reais through stock offerings and credit, there is the unknown cost of what might have been had his vision worked out.

But most of the companies were still new, didn't make money and didn't represent significant sources of tax revenue. Employees and suppliers still hope that the ventures, some of them under new ownership, might still prove profitable. And the investors who lost money were not concentrated in Rio.

Some of the impact, though, is already apparent in a city where his can-do spirit, while it worked, manifested itself all over town.

The logos of Batista's various companies, once emblazoned everywhere from beachside volleyball nets to scaffoldings in Rio's run-down center, have vanished almost as quickly as they appeared. And gone with them is the largesse.

Consider the 351 vehicles he donated to police forces now deployed in Rio's favelas, notorious shantytowns long dominated by drug gangs. The pickups, vans and motorcycles were part of a multi-year partnership Batista struck with the state government to contribute 20 million reais annually, starting in 2010, to an ongoing effort to "pacify" the slums.

In August, though, he pulled the plug on the partnership.

Now, many of the vehicles sit unused and in disrepair because the state had not included them in an insurance contract that covers the rest of its fleet. A September report by Extra, a Rio newspaper, revealed that some police officers, many of whom are paid little more than the minimum wage, have been footing the bills for repairs.

A spokesman for the state government said it is working to remedy the problem and that the donation, while welcome, was a small part of a total budget of more than 3 billion reais for the "pacification units," as the slum patrols are known. As such, the spokesman added, no crime or other security consequences are expected because of the ruptured agreement.

SUGAR DADDY

During his ascent, Batista eagerly cast himself as Rio's sugar daddy - employer to thousands, but also the visionary who could reverse a half-century of decline during which Brazil moved its capital to Brasília and São Paulo eclipsed it as an industrial and financial hub.

His local efforts began in 2008, when he started a project, in conjunction with the city and state governments, to clean up a briny lagoon nestled between some of Rio's best-known neighborhoods. Despite years of pollution, the lagoon remained a popular destination for boaters and joggers.

Batista pledged 28 million reais to dredge it, insulate it from sewerage and other pollutants and study proposals to augment the natural flow of seawater into the lagoon, necessary for a sustainable balance of nutrients. When finished, Batista boasted, Rio would see him swimming there.

That same year, Batista paid a reported 80 million reais for the Hotel Gloria, an aging landmark that once hosted presidents and foreign dignitaries in an opulent, city-block sized palace on a bend in the Rio shoreline. He would invest another 80 million reais, Batista said, and restore the grandeur of a neighborhood by then better known for transvestite prostitutes.

In 2009, he won a concession to manage and modernize a nearby marina, a circular harbor a stone's throw from the art deco skyscraper where he would soon be moving his headquarters. Batista said he would connect the marina and hotel with an ambitious shopping, entertainment and conference complex.

Meanwhile, he kept cutting checks for charity and other causes. He sponsored a volleyball team. He donated funds for a project that would re-plant Atlantic rainforest, the native woodland, in southeastern Brazil.

ULTERIOR MOTIVES?

Skeptics questioned the motives for Batista's generosity, especially because at times it extended to politicians and government leaders charged with regulating some of his businesses - from the local marina, licensed by the city, to a massive port complex he was building north of Rio, where the state government has authority.

In 2009, for instance, he lent a private jet to Rio's governor and mayor so they could attend an Olympic event in Copenhagen as part of their bid for the 2016 games. Batista had already provided 23 million reais in funding for the campaign - more than any other company or private individual.

Batista, the governor and the mayor all repeatedly dismissed suggestions of any conflict of interest in comments at the time. The donations were to the Olympic campaign and not to the politicians, and was permitted under Brazilian law.

By 2010, some of his Rio plans, much like his oil and port projects, began suffering setbacks - from licensing delays to court challenges.

Refurbishment at the Hotel Gloria, originally scheduled to be completed by 2011, was repeatedly, and for undisclosed reasons, postponed until after the World Cup. Some marina users began pushing back against the plan to turn the harbor into something other than a boating facility.

"It was not a marina project," says Alexandre Antunes, a fishing boat captain who opposed the proposal.

Last year, when investors en masse lost faith in his ability to deliver profits, Batista's business and other interests were so entwined that they all began crumbling together.

The hotel, now for sale, remains an empty shell behind scaffolds and sooty canvases. Instead of revitalizing commerce on the decrepit streets around it, the abandoned job site draws homeless people and pigeons.

"We were supposed to be busy with cab drivers and hotel guests by now," says Manuel Gonçalves, a bar owner one block away. Instead, "it's just a few old locals."

At the marina, manager Ricardo Passos says he's getting ready to pack up as soon as Batista sells the concession. "I don't know when, but we are on the way out," Passos says.

The lagoon, meanwhile, looks much like it did before the dredging. Almost no one, Batista included, regularly swims there.

"I catch even fewer fish than I used to," says Walter Marins, a 66-year-old who is one of about 30 fishermen authorized to catch snook, shrimp, crabs and other marine life there. The dredging, he says, disturbed the habitat.

A full cleanup would require building underground ducts that could ferry more seawater into the lagoon. Though Batista himself never promised to pay for their construction, he did finance a study that proposed the ducts to the local government and his once-contagious boosterism was expected to help it happen.

"It's a shame he hit hard times," says Paulo Rosman, an engineer at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro who authored the study and says local authorities have been slow to act on it. "It won't be long before the lagoon is dirty again."

($1 = 2.16 reais)

(Editing by Todd Benson, Kieran Murray and Eric Walsh)

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