São Paulo, 15 February 2018. It’s Ash Wednesday and all that’s left of Carnival in the streets of São Paulo are rows of chemical toilets and a homeless man wearing a paper crown. Hard to believe that over the last four days these same streets were jam packed with multi-coloured crowds in their hundreds of thousands, dancing, and singing, not just to the rhythms of samba, but also frevo, funk, sertanejo. Street carnival, with ‘blocos’ numbering up to a million followers took over this city, and many others.

If you ventured into the streets during those days, you shared them with pirates, roman emperors, brawny men in gauze tutus, drag queens, and vampires. Many of the blocos had political themes, but a right-wing group that wanted to parade under the name Porão do DOPS – the Dungeons of DOPS (the political police of the dictatorship), and pay homage to two notorious torturers of that time, coronel Brilhante Ustra and police boss Sérgio Fleury, was banned by a judge. He decided they were ‘defending the crime of torture’ (apologia do crime de tortura), and he rejected the group’s cynical defence of the right to freedom of speech.

The huge popularity of street carnival came after the mayors of both São Paulo and Rio, Joao Doria and Marcelo Crivella, had tried to corral the blocos into confined spaces – Interlagos, the F1 racing track in São Paulo, and the abandoned Olympic Village in Rio – with the idea of turning them into paying spectacles. People refused: they wanted to take to the streets, forget their immediate problems, sing and dance, but also protest with irreverent ditties, like the one about Gilmar Mendes, the Supreme Court judge, noted for freeing wealthy criminals who happen to have links with his family:
‘Hallo, hallo Gilmar, I’m in the clink, come and get me out’, went the refrain.

Beija-Flor’s ‘monster’ theme

But the big surprise of this year’s Carnival came from the traditional samba schools of Rio. The hedonism and extravagance of Carnival is often seen as alienation but instead they danced and sang their way down the Marques de Sapucaia with hard hitting criticisms of inequality, racism, corruption, violence and intolerance. And it was the two schools with the most biting protests which came first and second in the contest for winner. Beija-flor of Nilopolis was champion with the theme ‘Monster is the one who does not know how to love the abandoned children of the fatherland which bore them’.

Monster is the one who does not know how to love the abandoned children of the fatherland which bore them –Beija-flor of Nilopolis

The story of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was mixed with the day to day reality of Brazil. Allegorical cars and dancers portrayed violence, shootouts in favelas, racism, intolerance and prejudice against LGBT people. Corruption was illustrated by the luxurious dinner in Paris hosted by ex-governor Sérgio Cabral and his companions, reproduced in the middle of the avenue.

Runner-up for Carnival champion was the little known Paraiso de Tuiuti school which has only just joined the top group. Their theme was ‘Slavery – abolished 130 years ago, does it still exist today?’ The parade began with slaves in chains being whipped by an overseer, then transformed into old men, bent and broken, but also powerful figures of candomblé. A giant allegorical float showed the anti-Dilma saucepan-beating protestors of 2016 as marionettes, manipulated by giant arms in dark suits. This was followed by a whole group of dancers with shredded labour cards, symbolizing the tearing up of labour rights in last year’s labour reform.

The last float carried the ‘vampire president of neoliberalism’ – President Temer with large horns and fangs. The crowds cheered and sang the school’s samba Não sou escravo de nenhum senhor – I am not the slave of any master.

Não sou escravo de nenhum senhor

Paintings & history

Of course, it was not all protest. The São Clemente samba school celebrated the 200 years of the School of Fine Arts in Rio with a sumptuous and imaginative display of paintings brought to life with dancers dressed as figures out of Debret watercolours, fruit sellers, slaves, sedan chair carriers and lords and ladies. The different floats showed the influence of the tropical scenery on European painters and the crossover between the academic and the popular. The drummers were all dressed as Dom Pedro 1, with curly black wigs. One section was titled ‘a breath of modernity in the academy’ – not what you expect to find in a carnival parade.

Other schools took the history of China, and the complexity of India as their themes, providing colourful history lessons.

Interspersed with the dancers and drummers were a number of people with special needs – a man without arms in a wheelchair, a young woman with prosthetic legs. Both in costume, drumming or dancing.

The Rei Momo from the 2005 Florianopolis carnival

Besides Temer and Gilmar, a popular target for protest was Rio’s mayor, Marcelo Crivella, a bishop of the evangelical Universal church who is notoriously anti-Carnival. He halved official funds for the Parade, one of Rio’s biggest tourist attractions, and refused to perform the traditional ceremony of personally handing over the keys of the city to Rei Momo, for the duration of Carnival. Portrayed as Judas, Crivella spent Carnival in Germany, visiting the European Space Agency, where he claimed to be looking for solutions to Rio’s crime problem.
The real solution to the muggings and ‘arrastoes’ which turned parts of tourist Rio into a free for all on the first three nights of Carnival turned out to be much simpler – police cars parked on every corner.

But before, during and after Carnival there is no let up in the daily violence which affects the ordinary citizens of Rio, with many children among the victims, hit by stray bullets or caught in gun-battles on their way to school, to church, while playing in their yards, inside their own homes.

Rio’s cash-strapped authorities seem to have neither the will nor the capacity to stop the violence. This has given far-right presidential candidate and ex-army captain Jair Bolsanaro a chance to present his own solution, which he did at a closed meeting with a large audience of financial executives, no press allowed. One of the audience revealed that his plan was to send a helicopter to throw thousands of leaflets over Rocinha (Rio’s biggest favela) giving the ‘bandits’ or drug traffickers six hours to give themselves up. If they didn’t he would machine-gun the favela.

While the samba schools defend tolerance and inclusion, Bolsanaro and right-wing groups want machine guns and violence. The question is, are the themes of this year’s Carnival merely a five-day wonder or are they an indication of a seething impatience with the corrupt political system and unjust social situation and what does this mean?

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