Brazil’s Carnival is back in force after pandemic years

RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil’s Carnival is back.

Glittering and monstrous costumes are being prepared again. Samba singers will ring out until dawn at Rio de Janeiro’s sold-out parade grounds. Hundreds of raucous, roaming parties will flood the streets. And working-class society will be strengthened, emotionally and financially, by the renewed party.

The COVID-19 pandemic last year prompted Rio to postpone the carnival by two months, watering down some of the fun, which was mainly attended by locals. This year, the federal government of Brazil expects 46 million people to participate in the festivities that officially begin Friday and last through February 22. This includes visitors to cities that make Carnival a world-famous party, especially Rio, but also Salvador, Recife and the big city of Sao Paulo, which has recently emerged as a hotspot.

These cities have already started to let loose with street parties.

“We’ve waited so long, we deserve this catharsis,” Thiago Varella, a 38-year-old engineer wearing a rain-soaked Hawaiian shirt, said at a bash in Sao Paulo on February 10.

Most tourists are eager to go to the street parties, known as blocos. Rio has allowed more than 600 of them, and there are several unapproved blocks. The biggest blocks attract millions to the streets, including one block that plays Beatles songs with a carnival rhythm to a crowd of hundreds of thousands. Such large blocks were liquidated last year.

“We want to see the party, the colors, the people and ourselves enjoy the carnival,” said Chilean tourist Sofia Umaña, 28, near Copacabana beach.

Revelers take part in a street carnival parade in “Loucura Suburbana” in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on February 16, 2023. Mauro Pimentel/AFP via Getty Images

The main spectacle is at the Sambadrome. Top samba schools, which are based in Rio’s more working-class neighborhoods, spend millions on hour-long parades with elaborate floats and costumes, said Jorge Perlingeiro, president of Rio’s league of samba schools.

“What is good and beautiful costs a lot; Carnival supplies are expensive, Perlingeiro said in an interview in his office next to the samba schools’ warehouse. “It is such an important party … It is a party of culture, happiness, entertainment, leisure and above all its commercial and social side.”

He added that this year’s carnival will break records at the Sambadrome, where around 100,000 staff and spectators are expected each day in the sold-out venue, plus 18,000 paraders. While President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is not expected to be among them, his wife Rosângela da Silva has said she will join the parade.

The first lady’s attendance signals a shift from the administration of former President Jair Bolsonaro, who stayed away from the nation’s marquee cultural event.

Nearly 700,000 Brazilians died in the pandemic, the world’s second-highest national total after the United States, and many blamed Bolsonaro’s response, undermining his re-election bid which he ultimately lost. Many at this year’s street parties are not only celebrating the return of Carnival, but also Bolsonaro’s defeat.

That was the case at the Heaven on Earth street party in Rio’s bohemian Santa Teresa neighborhood on February 11. Musicians pounded drums while some revelers climbed fences to view the stage from above the pulsating crowd. Anilson Costa, a stilt walker, already had a fantastic view from his high perch. Covered in flowers and colorful pom-poms, he poured a jug of water labeled “LOVE” over people who danced beneath him.

“To see this crowd today is a dream, it’s very magical,” Costa said. “This is the post-pandemic carnival, the carnival of democracy, the carnival of rebirth.”

This year shares some of the spirit of the 1919 edition, which took place just after Spanish flu killed tens of thousands of Brazilians but was no longer a significant threat. World War I was also over, and people were eager to extricate themselves, said David Butter, the author of a book about that year’s celebration.

“There were so many people in downtown Rio for Carnival that the entire region ran out of water within hours,” Butter said.

Carnival’s cancellation in 2021 and its lower-key version last year destroyed an industry that is a nearly year-round source of jobs for carpenters, welders, sculptors, electricians, dancers, choreographers and anyone else involved in bringing parades to the public. As such, Carnival’s full return is a shot in the arm for local economies.

“Yesterday I went to bed at 3 in the morning. Today I leave earlier, because I have lost my voice, said seamstress Luciene Moreira, 60, as she sewed a yellow costume at the samba school Salgueiro’s warehouse. “You must sleep later one day, earlier the next; otherwise the body cannot do it. But it’s very nice!”

Rio expects about 5 billion reais (about $1 billion) in revenue at its bars, hotels and restaurants, the president of the city’s tourism bureau, Ronnie Costa, told the AP. Rio’s hotels are at 85% capacity, according to Brazil’s hotel association, which expects last-minute deals to bring that figure close to the maximum. Small businesses benefit as well.

“Carnival is beautiful, people buy, thank God all my employees are paid up to date,” said Jorge Francisco, who sells sequins and glittering carnival paraphernalia at his shop in downtown Rio. “For me, this is an enormous joy, everyone smiles and wants to. That’s what carnival is like.”

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