First Rio Carnival amid Brazil protest wave

Rio Sambadrome. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Rio de Janeiro was awash with colour, music and parties this weekend as the annual Carnival celebrations burst onto the city’s streets.

Street parties lured hundreds of thousands of revellers from across the country and the world and top-flight samba schools battling it out to become this year’s Carnival Champion.

Carnival is celebrated through 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.

At the Sambadrome. Photo by Ben Tavener

União da Tijuca won the 2014 crown. Photo by Ben Tavener.

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 bills as “The Greatest show on Earth” – the yearly samba school competitions.

Beginning on Sunday, top-flight special group samba schools continued for a second night 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.

Schools fighting for the champions’ crown spend up to US$7 million on their parade, which they spend the whole year getting just right: each school depicts a historical or allegorical story through song, dance and costume, and each has around an hour to make their way down the length of the Sambadrome – a process involving thousands of dancers which takes spectators into the small hours of the next morning.

An intense two-day wait for judges to make their minds up then follows before the announcement.

UPDATE: União da Tijuca have been crowned the 2014 Carnival champions!

Million at street parties, despite mounting rubbish

However, most come to Rio not for the Sambadrome, but for the street parties – known as blocos – of which 465 have been hosted across Rio throughout the Carnival period this year, and some have drawn enormous crowds – many in fancy dress or drag.

Rubbish piled up in Cinelândia, central Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Ben Tavener

Rubbish piled up in Cinelândia, central Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Ben Tavener

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 rubbish is a common one at Carnival, but has been exacerbated this year in no small way by a strike by street cleaners 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 and clashes ensued as police began to disperse the group.

Rubbish was piled up in many central regions of the city, after some street parties attracted far more revellers 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 AfroReggae 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 was also different for another, more subtle reason: it was 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 website, including one under a banner of “Occupy Carnival!”, no World Cup-related or anti-government protests took place and locals say Carnival was always unlikely to see any major protests.

Rio's street parties - the "blocos" - are the true heart of Carnival. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Rio’s street parties – the “blocos” – are the true heart of Carnival. Photo by Ben Tavener.

“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.

Spotlight on Brazil

The world is now watching with heightened interest as Brazil holds its final major dress rehearsal to show it can deal with hosting the huge international events – something which Brazil, and in particularly Rio, has said it is already has a good track record in doing – with annual events such as the Réveillon New Year’s party and Carnival.

Não Vai Ter Copa. Anti-World Cup poster. Photo by Ben Tavener

Não Vai Ter Copa. An anti-World Cup poster in Rio. Photo by Ben Tavener

Brazil has now had several mainly successful dry runs including the FIFA Confederations Cup and World Youth Day last year.

Security has also 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 twelve 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.

Extended version of article for Anadolu Agency

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