From the Mangueira Samba School at Carnival in Rio. | YouTube
Sammy Feldblum,  March 21

Presente at Carnival

For now, the spirit of liberty lives on in Brazil

From the Mangueira Samba School at Carnival in Rio. | YouTube
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Days after last year’s Carnival ended, then-Brazilian President Michel Temer ordered the military to take control of public security in Rio De Janeiro. This year, Jair Bolsonaro, a fervent believer in military force in the face of lawlessness, tweeted “o que é golden shower?” First as tragedy, then as farce. The tweet came on the heels of an obscene earlier post from Bolsonaro, a video of one man touching himself sexually while another urinated on him. Bolsonaro decried the debauchery of the festivities—“I don’t feel comfortable showing this, but we have to expose the truth,” he wrote. “This is what many street parties during Carnival have turned into.”

It is decidedly not what many block parties during Carnival have turned into. It is not what I saw during a visit in early March, and it stood alone in the sea of footage that comes out of the nationwide party. Carnival brings out millions of revelers, offering a happy release from politesse and the strictures of everyday life. To an authoritarian who rose to power stumping savagely for law and order, the celebration looks like the worst kind of moral corruption en masse. Carnival-goers know better.

That Bolsonaro’s broadside against Carnival came on Twitter is fitting. The would-be strongman handled social media deftly through last year’s presidential campaign, using Whatsapp especially to flood the zone with shit. He’s made a career of demonizing the left, which he sees as an unhinged menace, debauched and all-powerful. His supporters stoked rumors that the left-wing Workers’ Party, known as the PT, would take children at five years old and assign them a gender. Bolsonaro further claimed the PT wanted to distribute a “Gay Kit” to children, including baby bottles with penis-shaped nipples. Penis straws became one of Carnival’s most ubiquitous novelty items.

Its sheer grandeur and Afro-Brazilian roots make Carnival a robust front in Brazil’s culture wars; the celebration in Rio, where Bolsonaro was a congressman from 1991 until his election as president, is the biggest of all. The week is paced by events in the Sambadrome, a huge stadium where samba schools dress in colorful plumage and compete in choreographed performances for the year’s title. In the surrounding city is street Carnival—anarchic, fluid, libidinous, trumpets blaring and drums banging mightily.

Amid vast inequality, the festival is a fleeting equalizer. To many Brazilians, though, a breakdown in order reads as a threat. The country is uneasy, with, as of 2017, a murder rate higher than Mexico’s. In Rio, where improvised favelas jostle between some of the city’s richest neighborhoods, the violence is especially bad, and feels close at hand. Struggles to control the drug trade through the city’s favelas have intensified after the collapse of the state’s “pacificacão” policing efforts that started when Rio was preparing to host the 2016 Olympics. But much of the violence is top-down, too; police acted with near impunity in the favelas even before Bolsonaro’s election. In the first six months of last year’s military intervention, Rio police were responsible for more than twenty percent of the city’s violent deaths. In the last three decades, former policemen, prison guards, and members of the military in the city have formed “militias”—protection rackets that have branched out to battle for the city’s lucrative drug trade and other branches of the underground economy.

In the surrounding city is “street Carnival”—anarchic, fluid, libidinous, trumpets blaring and drums banging mightily.

Last year, city councilwoman Marielle Franco was murdered along with her driver. Black and bisexual, Marielle came from a favela; a socialist, she was a fierce advocate for the city’s most marginal, and widely beloved for it. This year’s Carnival celebrated Marielle. In street parades through Rio and elsewhere, marchers carried images of her face and banners with the words “Marielle presente” (Marielle is here). One of the founding members of Cordão do Boitatá, a major mid-Carnival performance with a family-friendly atmosphere, sang under a banner of Marielle and other city heroes, and closed with a broadside against recent efforts to crack down on the street festivities. “Carnival is culture,” he said. “In this abandoned city run by militias and evangelicals, this is Rio. Screw them! The bloco is in the street!”

Marielle’s assassination intensifies fears about Bolsonaro’s election-season promises to cleanse the country of left-wing “criminals,” and his earlier enthusiasm for a decisive civil war. He has often expressed admiration for the country’s military dictatorship of 1964–1985 and celebrated its practice of torturing political opponents; his maxim that “a good criminal is a dead criminal” fits hand in glove with efforts to liberalize gun ownership in the country. In Carnival’s aftermath, two militia-connected former police officers were apprehended for Marielle’s murder—a year after the fact. Prosecutors described a planned hit, orchestrated for months. Pictures soon emerged of Bolsonaro with his arm around one of the killers, leading to widespread calls to explain his relationship to the militias. Bolsonaro downplayed the connection—“I don’t remember this guy”—but Carnival-goers were unconvinced. “Doctor, I’m not fooled,” went a popular song this year: “Bolsonaro is a militiaman.” (It’s better in Portuguese.)

One of the major samba schools, Mangueira, wrote as this year’s anthem a ballad lamenting the painful social history of Brazil and honoring the country’s black and indigenous heroes. It included an ode to Marielle; Marielle’s partner, Mônica Benício, marched with the group. In a nod to the festival’s politics, and to much delight among the throngs in the street, Mangueira was named this year’s best samba school.


Rio’s politics are not Carnival’s. Bolsonaro has drawn plenty of comparisons to Trump for his casual abuse of black and indigenous Brazilians, women, and LGBT groups, and for his quick Twitter fingers. (Indeed, the two demagogues bonded this week during Bolsonaro’s visit to Washington, D.C.) Unlike Trump, though, Bolsonaro swept urban areas across the country—he took every region except the Northeast, Brazil’s poorest and most Afro-Brazilian area.

A quarter of Bolsonaro’s cabinet comes from Rio, taking the state’s politics and ethos nationwide. And “Rio politicians,” says Brazilianist and Jacobin contributing editor Benjamin Fogel, “are the most embedded in organized crime and the product of perhaps the most degenerate political class in Brazil.” Which is saying something. Bolsonaro’s rise came on the heels of a huge scandal that vaulted from a 2014 money-laundering investigation at a Brasilia car wash—lava jato—to discover corruption surrounding state oil company Petrobras and implicate damn near the entirety of the country’s political class: by one point in the investigation, some 60 percent of both houses of Congress were facing charges, in many cases in connection with the lava jato proceedings.

But the anti-corruption thrust morphed into something of a political hit job on the PT, in power nearly a dozen years by the beginning of lava jato. Sérgio Moro, the judge who headed up the lava jato probe, had broad leeway to run his investigation independently. He was a brilliant showman and tactician, tipping off the media about upcoming arrests to tilt public opinion with sheer spectacle and using harsh sentences to encourage those under investigation to flip on others higher up. The investigation eventually reached Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva, far and away the most popular politician in the country—he left his second and final presidential term in 2011 with an approval rating over 80 percent. Lula, as he is universally known, was sentenced to twelve years in prison for allegedly accepting bribes in connection with beach house renovations. In February, an additional twelve years and eleven months were added to his sentence.

When commodity prices dropped and the economy slowed, the forces of reaction awoke with a vengeance.

The PT’s rise to prominence, and Lula’s two terms as president, had coincided with a global boom in commodity prices that kept Brazil’s economy humming even after the widespread global downturn post-2008. That allowed the party to distribute wealth downwards and improve the living conditions of many of the country’s poorest, lifting tens of millions out of poverty. While Lula expanded the social safety net, though, he notably did not change the country’s taxation system that siphoned the benefits of economic growth upwards. When commodity prices dropped and the economy slowed, the forces of reaction awoke with a vengeance. An energized urban middle class, in thrall to market-driven economics and feeling status-insecure amid the rise of the country’s poor, took to the streets. Meanwhile, the militant trade union movement from which the PT had grown faded in influence as the Workers’ Party became a national powerhouse and began acting like one, working to retain its power. The party lost its base. The prominence of lava jato coverage, years of protest among the middle class, and the vociferousness of anti-PT sentiment within the country’s conservative press led to an opportunistic impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 for alleged budgetary improprieties not directly linked with lava jato. Bolsonaro’s rise was enabled by the electorate’s loss of faith with all known quantities; he came from a minor party with little congressional presence to speak of and was therefore untainted by major corruption scandals. Attacking the culture of corruption, alongside cultural change, now rules of the day. Moro, national anti-corruption hero for his lava jato work, promptly joined Bolsonaro’s cabinet as Minister of Justice and Public Security.

During Brazil’s military dictatorship, Dilma fought as a guerilla and was tortured. That period of martial rule, the law-and-order right’s apotheosis, came in response to the perceived threat of communist revolution and upheaval within the country’s hierarchy. When Dilma was impeached, while Bolsonaro was still a nobody congressman with little record beyond lunatic nostalgia for those dark days, he rose to voice his relish for impeachment. “For the memory of colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, the terror of Rousseff,” he said, referring to the colonel in charge of the regime’s torture program, “my vote is yes!”


Despite a moribund PT, Lula’s figure looms. Prison sentence or no, he remains feared by the right and loved by the left. In January, his brother died. According to Brazilian law, he was to be let out to attend the funeral, but he was barred from doing so by Moro, who cited security risks. When official permission was later granted for Lula to visit his brother’s body, the funeral had come and gone, and he did not accept the offer. One of Bolsonaro’s sons took to Twitter to harass Lula for crocodile tears. During Carnival, Lula was allowed to leave prison for the first time for his grandson’s funeral. Around two hundred supporters showed up to chant “Lula livre,” or “Free Lula.” That slogan also made its way into Carnival. The Landless Workers Movement, a social movement of displaced peasants who Bolsonaro has labeled “terrorists,” sold bottles of cachaça from their Rio storefront with “Lula Livre” stickers tacked on.

There were anti-Bolsonaro slogans, as well, but Carnival tended toward a celebratory resistance, shutting down major roads with hundreds of thousands in dance—a grand expression of the “festive left,” in a Brazilian term both disparaging and cheeky. But the culture itself is anti-law-and-order, anti-hierarchical, unrepressed: anti-strongman. Rodrigo de Magalhães, a Carnival pro, explained the emotional appeal: “In the last four years, since everything has started to go crazy here, Carnival has become a time of venting our emotions. So it is a happy time, and we also express our frustration, and violence, and promiscuity. We have no other way to do anything, so we get it out during Carnival.”

In a vastly unequal society girded by brutality, the festival is an upwelling of public spirit. It is garish, glittery, sexy, and loud. That makes the celebrations brilliant content for both the forces of egalitarianism and the forces of order, who see a depravity sure to jump the confines of festival season. The best response to Bolsonaro’s “golden shower” tweet—aside from golden shower costumes that cropped up the next day—came from socialist state representative Marcelo Freixo, who also posted a video online. In it, a young girl sits on her dad’s shoulders, packed in a crowd. For half a minute, she dances with her arms and belts out the lyrics to the bloco’s marching song. It is a scene I witnessed dozens of times over the week, if never quite so exquisitely. Orderism can take festivity as its political enemy, and in doing so win some votes. But when the orderists pick a fight with exuberance itself, it is a fight they cannot win.

Sammy Feldblum lives in Albuquerque, N.M., and reports from all over the map. 

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