Half a year on from seizing power in a parliamentary coup, Brazil’s president faces growing resistance during the Carnaval.
By Fregmonto Stokes.
Reading about Trump is the political equivalent of a fast food addiction, a guilty search for the next chicken nugget sized chunk of idiocy to burst out of the White House. For those looking to diversify their sources of depression, it’s worth remembering that another right-wing slime ball defeated a female opponent to take the presidency in dubious circumstances in the Americas last year: Michel Temer, the current president of Brazil. And just like in the US, people are fighting back, though we’re not hearing about it so much. So put away those chicken nuggets, because this story is a full course meal of farofa, brown beans and rice, and it’ll sit heavy in your belly while you digest it, but you’ll walk away feeling satisfied.
Temer rivals his Northern Orange counterpart in greasiness and exceeds him in political skulduggery. Leader of the PMDB, a ‘centrist’ party which is known more for its deal making skills than its ideological clarity, Temer was Vice-President in Dilma Rousseff’s Worker’s Party (PT) government until last year. As the country’s economy worsened and the so-called ‘car wash’ anti-corruption investigation gathered steam, he turned on her and oversaw her impeachment for ‘fiscal irresponsibility’, taking power to protect himself and his allies from even more serious charges. Dilma and the PT were hardly innocent victims in the affair, having made numerous terrible decisions before losing power, chief amongst them the choice to ally themselves with the PMDB and to trust Temer.
Before seizing the presidency Temer was best known for his Trumpesque trophy wife, a 32-year-old ex beauty queen who has his name tattooed on her neck (outdoing even the Donald in chauvinist tackiness). Faced as he is with criminal allegations which could see him removed from power and which prevent him from standing for president in the 2018 elections (which he would lose in any case, as his popularity is below 10%), Temer and his allies know that he has two years to force through as many austerity measures as possible while they still have a (stolen) mandate. His six-month-old government has taken to the task with gusto, passing a freeze on health and education spending for the next twenty years and attempting to strip away indigenous territories and environmental reserves in the Amazon to hand the rainforest over to Soya plantations and cattle farmers. Temer’s base is the rural elite, which has enormous influence in congress, and his agricultural minister Blairo Maggi, known as ‘the Soy King’, comes from a family of agribusiness oligarchs. Temer’s blasé disregard for the separation of powers surpasses even Trump’s in audacity: following the death of the magistrate responsible for overseeing the ‘car wash’ investigation in a suspicious plane crash, Temer had his own Justice Minister, a close political ally within cabinet, appointed to fill the subsequent vacancy in the supreme court.
The resistance to this power grab has been mounting since August, and was on full display in this year’s Carnaval. On the first night of Carnaval I was at a party in an old slave traders’ warehouse in the Rio docks, grim history oozing out of the bricks and intermingling with the music, when a costume competition was declared. I was informed that in recent years the most popular costumes had been of SpongeBob Square pants and the Mario Brothers, and political critique was somewhat lacking. Not so this year. Of the seven costumes selected for the championship, six were political, and the seventh, a beer gutted Pikachu, was booed off the stage in the first round. The crowd favourites and eventual victors were a geriatric cleaner with ‘Retiring in 2050’ written on a sign above her head, alluding to the absurd new employment laws, and a man dressed as a ‘Regretful Paneleira’, the white middle class protestors who called for Dilma’s impeachment in patriotic green and gold with their black maids pushing their children along in tow.
The racial and class divides in Brazil are immense and growing wider. With half of its 200 million citizens defining themselves as black or mixed race (to use the English terminology), the country has the second highest Afro-descendant population in the world after Nigeria, yet Temer’s current cabinet is all-white. In Salvador, Bahia, regarded as the epicentre of Afro-Brazilian culture, the rage felt against the government was made clear during a musical performance which culminated with the crowd roaring ‘Fora Temer’ – “Out Temer”. In Rio, while life in the favelas becomes even more difficult as meagre social services are cut and the myriad of feuding gangs, paramilitary units and police escalate their turf wars, the country’s politicians vote to raise their own salaries, and slash everyone else’s. The economic hardship was evident in this year’s Carnaval parade, where extravagant feathers and jewellery had been replaced by plastic imitations.
But even here, for the first time in decades, songs of protest could be heard. The Carnaval is a weird beast, a tourist spectacle and outburst of empty hedonism overlaying humble roots. The samba schools which compete today in the parade began in the favelas of Rio’s northern suburbs, where emancipated slaves, discharged veterans and impoverished immigrants gathered in the first decades of the 20th century. Samba itself started as a secular dance performed during Candomblé ceremonies, the syncretic religion brought to Brazil from West Africa. From the 1920s on, the Samba schools took this music in ‘enredo’ (story) form and performed it in organised ‘blocos’ (blocks) during the Carnaval celebrations, which grew more elaborate with time.
Some schools had more radical reputations than others, with Imperio Serrano, for example, being co-founded by anarchist stevedores from the docks. Up until the ‘60s the schools were financed by local merchants and part time criminals, with simple but creative costumes and a focus on the dancing and music. During the military dictatorship the Globo television network, which dominates the Brazilian media market to an extent that even Rupert Murdoch would be jealous of, took over proceedings, speeding up the rhythms and upsizing the allegorical floats into kitsch monstrosities to better appeal to a television audience. The closest Australian analogy would be the commercial takeover of suburban football clubs in the ‘70s and ‘80s, though kicking around a cow bladder and dancing samba obviously don’t have too much in common beyond that.
Resistance continued through this period, with Imperio Serrano subtly criticising the dictatorship in its Samba de enredo in 1969, and Candeia and Waldir 59, the champion composing duo from Portela, splitting from the school in 1975 to found Quilombo dos Palmares with disgruntled sambistas from other samba schools. A lyrical, Brazilian equivalent of the Black Panthers, Quilombo dos Palmares focused on the recuperation of Afro-Brazilian culture and history through song, and was named after the famous Afro-indigenous federation of escaped slaves which lasted for a century in the colonial era. After Candeia’s early death, Waldir 59 attempted to keep Quilombo running, but with the general waning of revolutionary fervour in the late ‘70s the school folded and the parade continued its march towards full commercialisation. In the ‘80s, following the return of democracy, the populist leftist government of Brizola commissioned the famous communist architect Oscar Niemeyer to construct the sambodrome. A classic modernist contradiction, the beautiful discourse surrounding the project was excelled only by the brutal appearance of the final structure, a giant concrete runway which locked in the samba parade as Globo’s private plaything and locked out those who couldn’t afford tickets to what had once been a free street parade.
During this period Portela, Candeia’s old school, lost its way, searching for outside money to boost its profits yet failing to win the Carnaval parade from 1984 onwards. This year the school returned to its roots, honouring Candeia, Clara Nunes and its other luminaries in a samba de enredo which spoke of the world’s rivers, and of the school itself as a river. The most dramatic element was a float representing the Rio Doce disaster, the tailings dam collapse which flattened villages, suffocated their inhabitants in mud and destroyed an entire river basin in 2015. It ranks as Brazil’s greatest environmental catastrophe, in a country which specialises in environmental catastrophes, and since Temer’s takeover the judicial process has been suspended and the mining companies responsible, including Australia’s BHP, haven’t paid a cent.
As if that wasn’t controversial enough, another school, Imperatriz Leopoldeninse, chose the defence of the Xingu river Indigenous territory as its theme, and invited Indigenous leaders from the river to participate in its parade. The Globo commentators fell over themselves to say that the song was not a critique of the nation’s agricultural elite or of destructive hydroelectric schemes such as the Bel Monte dam (currently flooding Indigenous land on the Xingu), but the song’s lyrics and costuming made the point clear beyond obfuscation. While the network displayed the lyrics of all the other schools as subtitles, it avoided doing so with Imperatriz, for reasons which were obvious to all involved.
When the votes were tallied the following day, Portela was declared the winner, after a 33-year drought, achieving victory with a song which harked back to its own origins and to the grave environmental crisis currently facing the country. I write this now from an apartment on the hill above the sambadrome, as Portela performs its victory lap, its supporters spending a month’s wage to claim a spot high in the stands and witness history. Even amidst the outpouring of bizarre kitsch which is the Rio Carnaval, a deeper tragedy is being alluded to, and a strain of rage and resistance can be felt, for the first time in many years, in the face of a government so shamelessly self-serving and corrupt that it may have accidentally lit a fire it can’t put out.
Thanks to Anita Ekman, Selma Candeia and others for the Samba history drawn upon in this article. Any mistakes made in the retelling of this history are my own.