Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

What Carnaval Showed Us About Brazil’s 2018 Election

Reading Time: 3 minutesThose seeking to understand Brazil’s upcoming vote just need to look at this year’s floats.
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Gilson Borba/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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There was no denying it once a float at Rio’s main Carnaval venue featured a vampire in a presidential sash and a headdress made of dollar bills.

Or when a giant rat pulled a float depicting the headquarters of Petrobras, Brazil’s corruption-ridden oil entity, as a favela.

Or when dancers portrayed government officials dressed as wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Carnaval was not going to be immune from the deep frustration Brazilians feel toward their political class. With Brazil emerging from its worst recession in at least a century and a historic corruption scandal still dividing the public, the festivities offered Brazilians more than an escape from daily life. They were a platform to mix revelry with protest – a glimpse of the issues galvanizing voters and the frustrations driving anti-establishment candidates.

While Carnaval in Brazil has always pushed the envelope, the celebration this year, which wrapped up on Feb. 14, saw a shift in tone from years past.

“It felt like something’s changed,” said Bryan Silveira, a 26-year-old teacher who attended two parades in São Paulo. “Like there is a sort of frustration. People were focused on what we’ve been facing lately.”

Even before Carnaval got underway, it was clear that political tensions would surface during the five-day event. Backlash ensued in the run-up to Carnaval when organizers of a “anti-communist” bloco (street party) named the event for Brazil’s infamous “Dops” police agency that tortured dissidents during Brazil’s last military regime. A judge ordered it canceled before it ever happened.

Such political polarization has become more entrenched since former President Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016. With a presidential election less than eight months away, Carnaval may have been just a test run for what’s to come. Footage of revelers chanting the name of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva highlighted the level of support the legally embattled former president and possible candidate still commands. His popularity is such that the latest poll from Datafolha found that a third of voters say they’ll cast blank or null ballots if he can’t run in October’s election.

Few establishment politicians stir such passion. In fact, the same poll found that disillusionment with Brazil’s politicians has reached the point where a staggering 96 percent of voters don’t think any politician in office represents them.

It’s no surprise then that many Brazilians feel compelled to speak up about issues that politicians often won’t, like racism, violence and misogyny.

The Paraíso do Tuiuti samba school in Rio did this in its performance, which included references of slavery while performing a song that asked whether slavery ever really ended in Brazil.

Sadly, Brazil’s out-of-control crime also spilled into Carnaval, both on stage – the winning samba school depicted a shootout in a favela – and off. Muggings, robberies and gang violence tarnished the festivities, which involved fewer law enforcement officers than years past.

Women also took a stand to demand not only a change in society, but a permanent change to how Carnaval is celebrated. Perhaps in a nod to #MeToo, women at Carnaval events across Brazil distributed stickers, tattoos, and fans emblazoned with “No Means No”. In São Paulo, a feminist bloco featuring an all-woman band echoed calls to make Carnaval, and Brazil, safer for women.

“I don’t think a Carnaval bloco creates a change in society,” Thereza Menezes, one of the bloco’s organizers, told UOL. “But it shows that a change is happening.”

O’Boyle is an editor for AQ


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Brendan O’Boyle is a former senior editor at Americas Quarterly.

Follow Brendan O’Boyle:   X/Twitter

Tags: Brazil, Elections 2018
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