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Rio’s Carnival goes political, and a little-known samba school ignites a firestorm

Rio De Janeiro's acclaimed samba schools were in full swing for Carnival on Feb. 11, performing in a dazzling display of revelry. (Video: Reuters)

RIO DE JANEIRO — With Brazil’s president portrayed as a “neoliberal vampire” and dancers dressed as shackled slaves and downtrodden street vendors, a scrappy samba school brought politics to the heart of Rio’s glamorous Carnival parade, posing the sensitive question of whether slavery still exists in the country and setting off a firestorm of praise and criticism.

Though Carnival ended Wednesday, the debate over the performance by Paraíso de Tuiuti continues, echoing the political upheavals shaking Latin America's economic powerhouse.

Paraíso de Tuiuti is a relatively unknown samba school that previously participated in the iconic Carnival competition of samba troupes only twice, placing last both times. So it is telling that the school’s performance came in second this year, missing out on first place by just a tenth of a point.

In Brazil’s chaotic and polarized political environment — which in recent years has included an impeachment, a brutal recession and a widespread corruption investigation that has brought down many members of the political elite — the climate was ripe for political statements. Tuiuti was not alone in delving into politics — the winning school depicted the scenes of violence plaguing the city and government officials dressed as wolves pretending to be sheep, with money falling out of their suits.

Tuiuti, however, “was the most direct in their message,” said Leandro Silveira, a historian and Carnival parade commentator on National Radio in Rio de Janeiro. "This was a historic parade. They’re the underdogs — the small school from the favela — and this parade with the political message is by far the best they’ve ever done, which is emblematic. They made a big statement and captured how many Brazilians feel during these times of political and economic crisis.”

The parade’s song was titled, “My God, my God, is slavery extinct?” — and started with a group of dancers in shackles with muzzles and scars from whips, depicting Brazil’s horrendous past. The nation received the most slaves in the Americas, and more than half the country's 200 million people identify as mixed race or black.

A float with a massive copy of the “Golden Law,” which abolished slavery in 1888, was followed by a group of dancers dressed in costumes evoking favela-style homes — representing the shantytowns where many liberated slaves settled after abolition. Today, these communities are still mostly populated by black and mixed-race Brazilians.

Making a connection with modern-day slavery, the next dancers evoked rural laborers who, to this day, work under slave-like conditions. They were followed by street vendors, who are everywhere Brazil and live precarious lives.

The next group took a direct jab at policies that rolled back workers’ rights and raised the retirement age by wearing costumes with numerous arms holding different tools, symbolizing the strain on the working class. They also held enlarged, tattered versions of Brazil’s formal employment cards.

“I am slave to no one,” went the lyrics of the samba tune.

One of the most controversial costumes criticized protesters who took to the streets en masse starting in 2015 to call for the ouster of left-wing President Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached in 2016. Giant hands attached to puppet strings hung above the “manifestoches” — a fusion of the Portuguese words for “protester” and “puppet.”

The parade’s last float was topped with a man impersonating Brazil’s president, Michel Temer, dressed as a “neoliberal vampire,” with the presidential sash and a large collar stuffed with U.S. dollar bills. Temer came to power after Rousseff was impeached, and he has spent much of his time in office dodging corruption charges himself. His approval rating is 3 percent. As the reveler passed, spectators chanted “Out with Temer!”

Praise and criticism of Tuiuti has exploded on social networks — and the small school has become the most discussed subject on Brazilian Twitter.

Rousseff tweeted an image of the “manipulated protesters” and said, “The carnival of ‘Out with Temer,’ … In Rio, the Paraíso do Tuiuti samba school uplifted the crowd singing of slavery and injustice.”

The reaction from the right, not surprisingly, was a little less laudatory, with one of the organizers of the anti-Rousseff protests wondering why the government even funds such outfits: “$300,000 from our own pockets to be made fun of to our faces for having gone to the streets in defense of impeachment,” he wrote on his Facebook page, referring to the budget each school received from the city government.

“I don’t think the Carnival folks have their information right,” said Rodrigo Maia, the speaker of Brazil's lower house of parliament and an ally of Temer, saying the new policies for workers would create more jobs.

“Even the Carnival people have learned that it is necessary to ‘appeal to the masses’ and to shout against politics and politicians if you want, as they say, that extra something, to stand out for the judges,” wrote popular conservative columnist Reinaldo Azevedo, dismissing the political tinge to the parades as a gimmick to gain points. “On the avenue, demagoguery triumphs over technique, aesthetics,” he added, citing how samba schools themselves are infamous for corrupt dealings with gambling rings and other organized crime.

Silveira, the parade commentator, said this was the most political Carnival since the mid-1980s and early 1990s, right after Brazil’s military dictatorship fell. After that period, he said, schools tended to focus more on technical things like special effects, and corporations sometimes sponsored their annual themes, stripping them of any politics.

“Tuiuti put on a parade that was joyful, bold and showed African roots,” Silveira said. “This year’s Carnival in Rio, I think, will be a rebirth for the samba schools to start expressing the feeling of the people through art.”