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No carnival in Recife

Covid does what even the Prestes Column could not achieve



While in the English-speaking world the annual pre-lenten extravaganza is usually called ‘Carnival’, with an ‘i’, in Brazil is it ‘Carnaval’.

Covid must be bad in Brazil, even carnivals are being postponed. My favourite, Recife, will not take place in February. A new date of 9–17 July has been set, but even this may be cancelled.

2020 Carnival in Olinda/Recife. Video: OneMayWolfPack, Feb 25 2020

This is not the first time Recife has thought about such a drastic step. In February 1926 the government refused to permit the usual pre-carnival processions and rumours circulated that carnival might be banned. Then it was because of  political unrest, with the Prestes Column approaching Pernambuco.

Commanders of the Prestes Column

The Prestes Column was made up of more than a 1,000 rebel soldiers, part way through a 2 year march around Brazil. Now in the north east, its leaders had met contacts from the Recife to co-ordinate the arrival of the column in Pernambuco with an uprising in Recife.

Cleto Campelo’s Gamble – how Recife nearly joined the Prestes Column. Video by Malcolm Boorer, August 2016

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Luis Carlos Prestes, in exile in Bolivia

Anticipating a revolt, authorities in Recife hunted down the rebels, and arrested some, confiscating guns and bombs. After weighing up whether it was wise to allow thousands of revellers to celebrate on the streets, the carnival was allowed to proceed. A smaller than usual event went ahead, though with masks discouraged!

The day after carnival those who avoided arrest, led by Lieutenant Cleto Campelo, seized a train, and weapons, and set off to meet the Column. Some 50 miles inland they were stopped and Cleto killed.

Nearly 95 years later the covid virus had more effect, in December all carnivals in Pernambuco were postponed until July. By December the State had recorded nearly 185,000 cases and just over 9,000 deaths. In Recife over 85% of intensive care beds in public hospitals were occupied because of the virus.

João H. Campos (PSB-PE). Image: Wikimedia Foto: Geraldo Magela/Agência Senado

Apart from a Cleto Campelo street, there is little memory of what he and other rebels attempted nearly 100 years ago. But political life in Recife continued through the pandemic with November’s election for Mayor. In the first round the candidate supported by President Bolsonaro polled less than 15 per cent, leaving two descendants of former Governor Miguel Arraes to face off in the second round. PSB candidate, 27 year-old João Campos, son of another former governor, then beat his PT opponent, and second cousin, Marilia Arraes, by more than 100,000 votes.

Between the election and taking office on 1 January Pernambuco saw another 35,000 cases and over more 600 deaths from Covid-19. The new Mayor declared that ‘We will not fall into the trap of the denial of science. Our first major priority will be the population’s immunization.’

Bonecos in the Refice carnival 2020. Image: globo.com

Following the science means that this February there will be no parade of the bonecos, the giant papier mache puppets depicting famous people in Brazil and around the world. Last February they were led by the Joker and Greta Thunberg, closely followed by President Bolsonaro and Sergio Moro. Next time will those who fought the virus be there?

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