Rio Carnival Returns for the First MassNews Since the Pandemic

RIO DE JANEIRO — Rio de Janeiro’s Mayor Eduardo Paes on Wednesday ceremonially handed control of the city to King Momo, a ritual representing the upheaval of the status quo — but it remains to be seen how much post-pandemic partying is in store during the first Carnival in two years.

Samba schools’ elaborate floats and feather-festooned dancers will parade between packed bleachers starting Wednesday night. City Hall denied authorization to the over 500 street parties that are common in the city. It claimed it did not have enough time to prepare.

That dissonance has sparked debate over whether City Hall is stifling Carnival’s essence, and if denizens should seize the streets as their own. Some organizers couldn’t care less what is allowed; they will turn out anyway — part party, part protest — and Mayor Paes, a confessed Carnival enthusiast, has said he will refrain from deploying the Municipal Guard.

“City Hall won’t impede people from being in public spaces, from celebrating, but it’s impossible that it happen at such (large) size,” Paes said in response to a reporter’s question after giving King Momo the city’s key.

He made the same statement on Sunday as he did while visiting schools of samba who were finishing up their floats. The competing schools were corraled from the streets into the Sambadrome in the 1980s, and became Rio’s quintessential Carnival display for tens of thousands of attendees willing to shell out for tickets. The parades will continue through Sunday night.

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In the Sambadrome’s shadow are the free parties known as “blocos”, which stream through streets and pour into plazas, many of whose members relish subverting established order. Blockos have a lot of glitter and grit, which makes up for the lackluster glamour. The costumes range in style from outrageous to extravagant, with clever references at authorities.

Blocos had largely vanished as samba schools claimed the spotlight, but their resurgence in the 1990s dovetailed with redemocratization after two decades of military dictatorship, according to André Videira, a sociology professor at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro who has studied blocos.

Later they adopted forms similar to U.S. Brass Bands, and didn’t need sound trucks or drum section that restricted mobility. Blocos could freely roam.

“They are important vehicles for the democratization of access to culture and access to the city,” Videira said.

Since 2010, more than 150 blocos have refused City Hall’s institution of a registration process, with many viewing it as an attempt to formalize something inherently informal, Videira said. They insist celebrating Carnival isn’t contingent on authorities’ consent — not this year, nor any other.

Many musicians marched through the city on April 13 blasting their drums and playing their instruments. Ocupa Carnival was the organizer of this euphoric demonstration. They had just days prior drafted a manifesto condemning attempts to commodify, suppress blocos. More than 125 signed it.

“It’s important to be collectively pressuring the government, so Carnival is recognized and supported like it should be,” Karen Lino, 29, said while sporting a jaguar-print outfit that reflected her role as a dancer in the Friends of the Jaguar bloco. She is also part of the group that will take Viradouro through the Sambadrome, the reigning champion samba school. “It’s hypocritical of the government to not give attention to other sectors.”

On Tuesday, a columnist in the city’s main newspaper, O Globo, wrote that City Hall was washing its hands of policymaking duties by leaving blocos in legal limbo.

“Apparently prohibition didn’t make much sense, as the blocos bring the soul of carnival to the streets and are fundamental for the city’s spirit,” wrote Leo Aversa. “If he (Paes) thinks it can’t be done, isn’t possible, the coherent thing would be to prohibit it seriously. If he thinks there’s no problem, the right thing would be to free them with conviction.”

Paes fired back on Twitter: “The correct thing is not having blocos! They aren’t authorized and we won’t have the structure for the party.”

In Carnival’s 2020 edition, just before COVID-19 reached Brazil, more than 7 million people partied in the so-called “Street Carnival,” according to city figures. The crowds are densely packed and bottles are passed around. Kissing is a common custom. It is a haven for partiers and an incubator for viruses.

Blocos had little desire to turn out last year as Brazil’s catastrophic second COVID-19 wave took shape. It was the first time in a century Rio’s pre-Lenten festivities were canceled, and Paes bestowed the city’s key to health workers instead of King Momo. Paes recommended that the city’s pre-Lenten festivities be cancelled due to the spread of the omicron virus in January. He also suggested that blockos be held within controlled areas to ensure proof of vaccination.

That idea ran counter to blocos’ freewheeling nature, plus some organizers expressed worry it was a further attempt to “privatize” Carnival by yoking them with corporate sponsorship. Most demurred. Most refused to. A few blocos were present last weekend. The schedules of these unannounced performances can be found on WhatsApp.

The spokesperson for Rio’s tourism promotion agency, Cecilia de Moraes, defended the city’s decision to deny authorization, saying it takes months to coordinate and contract provision of fencing, portable toilets and extra dump trucks to prevent street parties from becoming party fouls.

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“When things (with COVID-19) improve and people survive, the blocos see it’s going well, they want to come out. But we can’t flick a switch,” she said.

Rio’s bigger blocos, which draw tens and hundreds of thousands of revelers, have fallen into line. To limit disturbance, they use sound trucks and rely upon the city for traffic detours and garbage pickup. Rita Fernandes is the leader of Sebastiana, a group that consists of blocos. She said they have a fire in their eyes for 2023.

“We don’t want to come out at any cost, our sponsor canceled, we were discouraged by omicron. In the end, everything was demobilized,” Fernandes said by phone. “We don’t think the city will support over four days the volume of blocos that there are. We don’t want to create chaos in the city.”

Others are unconvinced, like Tomás Ramos, a saxophonist and member of the group that organized the April 13 protest. He cited a municipal ordinance that came into effect last year determining support for Carnival as a “guaranteed right,” and said City Hall had no plan B to ensure that without its key sponsor, Brazilian brewer Ambev.

At the end of the protest, Ramos shouted to musicians and spectators gathered at the steps of Rio’s municipal theater, rallying them for full-bore Carnival festivities.

“Down with the turnstiles that transform the city into big business, where profit prevails over life, where money is freer than people!” he boomed, and the crowd echoed his words. “As they capitalize on reality, we socialize dreams! Long live the energy of rebellion!”

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