First Rio Carnival amid World Cup protests

RIO DE JANEIRO - Rio de Janeiro is awash with color, music and parties as it erupted into Carnival mode over the weekend. However, tensions over anti-government World Cup protests are simmering in the background.

Street parties are attracting hundreds of thousands of revelers from across the country and the world; and tonight top-flight samba schools will continue battling it out for this year’s Carnival Champion.

Carnival is being celebrated throughout the country, but Rio de Janeiro hosts the biggest party – attracting an estimated 920,000 tourists from both home and abroad in 2014 – up 2.2 percent on last year’s figures.

Carnival-related tourism will also bring in US$950 million for the local economy, according to Brazil’s tourism board.

The city’s world-famous Sapucaí Sambadrome, designed by the late renowned Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, has been marking its 30th anniversary. Built in 1984, it is the venue for what the city calls “the Biggest show on Earth” – the yearly samba school competitions.

After its initial start on Sunday, top-flight special group samba schools will continue on Monday to try to impress and surprise judges and wow audiences with their jaw-dropping floats and meticulously-choreographed routines in a final bid to become this year’s champion.

Some of the favorite top group schools, such as Beija-flor and Mangueira, took their turn on Sunday night.

Schools fighting for the champions’ crown spend on average US$3.5 million and US$7 million on their parades, which they spend the whole preparing for: each school depicts a historical or allegorical story through song, dance and costume, and have around an hour to make their way down the length of the Sambadrome.

- Million at street parties, despite mounting trash

However, most come to Rio not for the Sambadrome, but for the street parties – known as blocos – of which 465 are being hosted across Rio throughout the Carnival period this year, and some have drawn enormous crowds – many in fancy dress or drag. The Cordão do Bola Preta street party – the city’s oldest and one of the biggest – united over a million partygoers on the streets of Rio’s historic Centro region.

A number of the parties are themed and while some are more family-friendly, they are well-known for their alcohol-fuelled debauchery.

The morning-after sight of streets strewn with trash is a common one at Carnival, but it has been exacerbated this year in no small way by a strike by street cleaners of the city’s municipal cleaning company, Comlurb.

Around 400 street sweepers tried to march on the Sambadrome on Sunday afternoon but were met by military police while clashes ensued as police began to disperse the group.

Trash is piled up in many central regions of the city, after some street parties attracted far more revelers than expected.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. There’s trash piled everywhere and the place doesn’t smell great,” Julie, 26, a visitor from the United States, told an Anadolu Agency correspondent at the city’s Afro Reggae bloco. “But this is still an amazing party, so we have no regrets in terms of coming here. Rio is gorgeous.”

The number of toilets at the sites was also noticeably lacking.

Even the Sambadrome was left looking worse for wear as the lack of cleaners left refuse strewn down the parade street at the middle of the 70,000-capacity venue.

- Biggest protests in a generation

This year’s Carnival is also different for another, more subtle reason: it is the first to take place since the outbreak of mass anti-government protests seen throughout Brazil since last June – the biggest protests the country had seen in a generation.

Although protests were called for by some groups on social media websites, including one under a banner of “Occupy Carnival!,” no protests have taken place and there is unlikely to be any major protests during the festivities – which run until Wednesday.

“I’m not interested in protesting during Carnival. I’ve come all the way from Fortaleza to be here in Rio – the protests can start again afterwards, but now it’s time to party and have fun with friends,” Vitor, an 18-year-old engineering student, told AA.

Twenty-four-year-old Bruna, from Rio, agreed: “I’m not happy with the World Cup coming here, and our government still needs to know we’re angry, but this isn’t the time or place.”

Although crowds at the sporadic anti-government and anti-World Cup protests have now dwindled, they have continued with much more momentum than many observers initially credited them with.

Big protests by the “Não Vai Ter Copa” (There Won’t Be a World Cup) group on social media sites are being organized at least every month, and protests are being planned for the time of the World Cup as well.

Security has been ramped up across Rio and other cities in Brazil, and both military and riot police have been on the streets to maintain order and visitor safety.

Last week, officials said 150,000 police and soldiers would be deployed, as well as 20,000 private security agents, across the 12 stadiums to keep protests under control and allow fans to get to their games – something FIFA urged Brazil to guarantee in recent weeks.

Concerns about infrastructure and hosting tourists have been largely masked by anxieties whether the country will have stadiums ready and delivered to FIFA on time.

Stadiums in Curitiba and São Paulo are currently representing the greatest worries for FIFA and are likely only to be ready in May – a month before the first World Cup match.

São Paulo’s Itaquerão stadium is scheduled to host the opening game between Brazil and Croatia on 12 June.

Copyright © 2014 Anadolu Agency