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. As for the more than 500 street parties that usually run wild through the city, City Hall refused to grant them authorization, claiming it lacked sufficient 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.
His statement echoed comments on Sunday while visiting samba schools that were putting finishing touches on 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. Their parades will run through Sunday night.
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. What blocos lack in glamour they make up for with glitter and grit. Costumes range from racy to outlandish, and are sometimes clever digs at authority figures.
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 began assuming forms akin to U.S. brass bands, without the need for sound trucks or drum sections that hindered mobility. Blocos were free to 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.
On April 13, dozens of musicians marched through downtown blasting their horns, banging their drums and demanding to be heard. The euphoric protest was organized by Ocupa Carnival, a group which days earlier drafted a manifesto denouncing perceived attempts to commodify and repress blocos that was signed by more than 125 of them.
“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. But she is also a member of the troupe that will lead the reigning samba school champion, Viradouro, through the Sambadrome this year. “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. Crowds are densely packed, bottles are shared around and kissing is custom. Which is to say: a paradise for partiers, and a vector 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. With the omicron variant spreading in January, Paes proposed blocos be relegated to enclosed, controlled spaces to check proof of vaccination upon entry.
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. But with daily COVID-19 deaths near-zero for over a month and the mask mandate lifted, people want to party. Some blocos played last weekend, and schedules of their unsanctioned performances are circulating widely 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.
“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. They utilize sound trucks and rely on the city for traffic detours, garbage cleanup and more to limit disruption. Rita Fernandes, who leads the Sebastiana association of blocos, said they are holding fire 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!”