Bolsonaro Can’t Dampen Brazil’s Carnival Spirits

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Maids wore tiaras and men sported hosiery. My colleague dressed as a banana, and a garbage collector was regaled with donations. Whose idea was it to put dogs in costume? And where are those samba queens going at 6:30 in the morning?  Brazil as usual was on fine-feathered display during this year’s Carnival, the rolling street party that captures this nation at its irreverent best, even as its officials flaunt their worst instincts.

Consider Rio de Janeiro’s anti-carnival mayor Marcelo Crivella, a devoutly Evangelical Protestant whose metaphorical contribution to the festivities was to cross-dress as a fiscal paladin. An evangelical pastor to whom the storied pre-Lenten celebration falls somewhere between a distraction and a debasement, Crivella didn’t condemn the holiday outright. Instead, he slashed funding for the pageant, denied permits to dozens of street parades and kept his distance from the ritual merriment that countless mayors before him have taken part.

The aversion of Rio’s ranking authority to its most adored holiday clashes with the culture of a land where Carnival—more than a national brand—is part of the zeitgeist. Yet Brazilian sensibilities are shifting. Crivella is part of a popular revolt by an angry conservative, Bible-clasping, gun-in-every-home demographic that put a right-wing outsider in the presidency and has little patience for the messy multiculturalism of the international liberal order and its merrymakers. Carnival, he argued, is a “big baby” and needs to be weaned from the public bottle.

It sounds like good fiscal management. In fact, this is denominational righteousness in drag. Rio’s Carnival is Brazil’s signature holiday, the premier attraction for international tourists, and a vitamin jolt for a city still staggered by three years of economic prostration. 

Rio pulls in 30 percent of the 6.78 billion reais ($1.8 billion) in tourist revenue that Brazil is expected to generate this year, according to a study by the National Confederation of Goods, Services and Tourism. So skimping on Rio’s carnival is shortchanging Brazil. “Crivella doesn’t understand the difference between his private beliefs and his public role,” anthropologist and noted carnival scholar Roberto DaMatta told me. “As mayor he’s part of Carnival’s cast.”

What’s more, private funding is no saving grace. Rio’s carnival maestros have long tapped deep-pocketed sponsors to bankroll the Broadway-like official pageant at Rio’s sambadrome, the 700-meter promenade where giant teams, or schools, of dancers, drummers and bards with five-story floats in tow march to glory in a stadium packed 60,000 strong.

The practice has turned samba schools into rolling billboards for corporate wares or worse. In 2006, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez underwrote one school’s parade, a sequined nod to now bygone Bolivarian soft power, and in 2015, legacy samba school Beija Flor danced courtesy of Equatorial Guinea, one of the world’s most ruthless dictatorships.

Fortunately for Brazil, sanctimony doesn’t rhyme with samba, and creativity outwitted penury. Rio’s revelers paid little mind to their killjoy-in-chief—that is, when they didn’t turn the official obscurantism into the object of mirth and joyful derision.

The most spirited moments of this year’s carnival carried were in scores of block parties whose celebrants took the streets from sunrise to sunrise, belting out homemade sambas skewering their official handlers. My favorite anthems this year: the street carnival march attacking Crivella’s record, and “Fire Musical Notes” lampooning President Jair Bolsonaro’s pro-gun agenda.

Carnival-goers had plenty of muses. The same blind spot that allowed Rio’s mayor to conflate his pulpit and his civic mandate was what fueled Brazil’s biggest political graft scheme on record, whereby scores of elected officials and their handlers helped themselves to the public trough.

Carnival parodies won’t stop corruption. That’s up to the courts, the legislature, the media and constant public vigilance. But until then, send up the clowns.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

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