At Rio's carnival, as long as you're dancing, why not make it a protest

The World
An anti-World Cup "Roman" takes a breather after hours of singing and dancing at a Rio carnival party.

An anti-World Cup "Roman" takes a breather after hours of singing and dancing at a Rio carnival party.

Catherine Osborn

The final hurrah to Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival may be as political as it is exuberant. Throughout the weeks of roving street parties called carnival blocos, a band of protesters, musicians and artists have appeared, singing parody lyrics to traditional carnival marches. They call themselves Occupy Carnival.

Instead of lyrics about Brazilian liquor and the search for love, the parodies address themes from the protests that erupted last summer. Brazilians are angry about the government spending billions on the upcoming 2014 World Cup, while delivering poor public services. Police brutality and government corruption are issues as well.

At one Carnival party/protest, thousands of people dressed as indigenous Brazilians ceremonially "expelled" the Rio state governor, Sergio Cabral, a chief protest target because he sanctioned the use of force to remove a group of native Brazilians from their cultural center next to the Maracanã soccer stadium. It’s the future home of the World Cup final.

Cabral, who’s actually leaving office in a few weeks, also shares a name with the Portuguese explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral, whose arrival in Brazil in 1500 led to the country's initial colonization. To demonstrators here, Carnival's spirit of social inversion makes it the perfect time to metaphorically kick out both Cabrals.

"Like most of the people here, I participated in last year's protests in Rio," said Julio Barroso, his face striped with paint for Cabral's “exit” parade. "We've kept demonstrating to this day because the policies of social exclusion that brought people to the streets haven't changed significantly."

Barroso led a drumming and dancing bloco where demonstrators swirled around a large banner proclaiming "Não Vai Ter Copa," or "There Won't Be a World Cup," a frequent protest cry.

While protests in the past few months have been smaller than the ones that erupted last summer, they’ve also become more violent. In February, a TV cameraman was killed when he was hit by a homemade bottle rocket during a demonstration against a hike in Rio bus fares.

"Last June, when the protests were at their largest, the tone was upbeat,” says Andrea Gill, another demonstrator. “But in the past few months the tone of the demonstrations has been darker, which has made some people less comfortable with participating." 

Gill says the idea behind Occupy Carnival is to get people more comfortable going back out on the streets.

That may prove challenging, though. New legislation calls for harsher penalties against people arrested at demonstrations, and there’s also a ban on protesters wearing masks. One Occupy Carnival parody march compared the recent criminalization of protests to practices last used during Brazil's military dictatorship.

For Luiz Antonio Simas, a Samba historian, it’s not surprising that the festivities have taken on a political tone. He points out that during the dictatorship, people slipped pro-democracy messages into the lyrics of carnival marches. He says his favorite saying about Carnival is that it's really the time when people take off their costumes of daily life and show who they are underneath.

Tomás Ramos is a political aide during work hours, but in the past few weeks he’s been spending a lot of his time as an organizer for Occupy Carnival. For the kick-off of the Carnival protest, he donned a feather headdress and a saxophone.

"Art is the best way to enchant people back to discussing themes that are important in their daily lives," he says. "Right now, Rio de Janeiro specifically, but cities in general, have become very difficult places to live. The costs are higher every day and the quality of services is lower every day, so the city is a place where money is freer than people."

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