As carnival kicks off this weekend, millions of people are will likely take to the streets and forget Brazil’s political and economic woes for a few days. During the country’s 21 year military dictatorship, however, censorship and intimidation meant carnival and politics were too closely linked for comfort.
By James Young
The giddy souls who called for intervenĂ§ĂŁo militar jĂˇ (military intervention now) at Brazilâ€™s anti-government rallies in 2015 should perhaps be careful for what they wish. For as the country prepares to swivel its hips at Recifeâ€™s Galo da Madrugada, Rio de Janeiroâ€™s CordĂŁo da Bola Preta and thousands of other blocos (street parties), big and small, it is worth remembering how carnavalÂ suffered during Brazilâ€™s 21-year military dictatorship.
â€śDuring the military dictatorship, just as with song lyrics, plays and films, carnaval did not escape the scissors of the censors,â€ť wrote journalist Mariana Filgueiras in O Globo newspaper last year, in an article about the digitization by Brazilâ€™s National Archive of thousands of historical documents from escolas de samba (samba schools).
While the dictatorship began in 1964, the military censorsâ€™ grip tightened considerably at the end of 1968 followingÂ the signing of ato institutional no. 5, better known as AI-5. According to this essay by Wellington Kirmeliene, writing in the History magazine of the Brazilian National Library, this presidential decree allowed the authorities â€śtotal and unrestricted powers of censorship, as well as practically legalizing persecution and torture, and, as a consequence of those acts, disappearances and deaths.â€ť
During the period, Rio de Janeiroâ€™s samba schools were forced to provide a detailed dossier of their carnaval projects, explaining and justifying the meaning behind their costumes, floats and song lyrics.
In their book â€śPra tudo comeĂ§ar na quinta-feira: o enredo dos enredosâ€ť (â€śEverything starts on Thursday: a history of samba themesâ€ť, in loose translation) journalists and historians FĂˇbio Fabato and AntĂ´nio Simas describe three episodes of government meddling in the country’s carnavalÂ celebrations.
In 1967, the rehearsals of the Salgueiro samba school were monitored by DOPS (Departamento de Ordem PolĂtica e Social) officers, while in 1969, the ImpĂ©rio Serrano school was forced to switch the word â€śrevoluĂ§ĂŁoâ€ť (â€śrevolutionâ€ť) for â€śevoluĂ§ĂŁoâ€ť (â€śevolutionâ€ť) in a song glorifying the 18th century InconfidĂŞncia Mineira rebellion and the abolition of slavery.
And in 1974, the Unidos de Vila Isabel escola was pressurized into including a reference to the governmentâ€™s Trans-Amazonian highway in a song about the rights of Brazilâ€™s indigenous people.
In such a climate, it, was hardly surprising that, according to Wellington Kirmeliene, all the â€śelements of â€śplanet carnavalâ€ť followed the jingoist message of the military regimeâ€ť, with the majority of carnaval samba tunes adopting a highly nationalistic tone.
The chorus of one song by the Imperatriz Leopoldinense samba school in the 1970s, for example, described Brazil as a â€śa giant evolving and moving forwardâ€ť, while another group, G.R.E.S. EstaĂ§ĂŁo Primeira de Mangueira, used nature to proclaim the countryâ€™s greatness â€śOh, what a place!/Oh, what a place!/Everything you plant here grows/Thereâ€™s no place like thisâ€ť, before ending with the cry â€śThis is Brazil!/This is Brazil!!/This is Brazil!!!â€ť.
At the same time, many Brazilian artists used carnaval as a way of expressing their opposition to the military government, such as in â€śMarcha da Quarta-Feira de Cinzasâ€ť (â€śthe Ash Wednesday Songâ€ť) by VinĂcius de Moraes and Carlos Lyra. â€śOur carnaval is over/no one will hear the songs/no one will dance happily in the street/and in our hearts/there are only ashes and longing for what has gone,â€ť ran the lyrics of the song, which was written in 1963 but gained added significance once the dictatorship took control.
And in 1965 Chico Buarque released â€śSonho de um Carnavalâ€ť (â€śA Carnaval Dreamâ€ť): â€śAt carnaval there is hope/that those who are far away can remember/that those who are sad can dance/that those who are grown-up can be like children.â€ť
As the dictatorshipâ€™s grip finally loosened in the 1980s, the carnaval sambas became more openly critical of the regime and the censorship that accompanied it: â€śI dreamt that I was dreaming a dream/a dream of a mesmerizingÂ dream/of open minds/and no silenced mouths,â€ť ran the words to one song by G.R.E.S. Unidos de Vila Isabel (again, loose translation).
This yearâ€™s carnaval, like others in recent years, is sure to be awash with satirical tunes criticising the countryâ€™s disastrous political and economic state. â€śCriticism through humour has been used for a long time in Brazil, even though it lost strength during the years of repression, with the (former president GetĂşlio) Vargas and military dictatorships, when there was less freedomâ€¦but in the last ten years it has been reborn,â€ť the researcher Weydson Barros Leal explainedÂ in this interview with the DiĂˇrio de Pernambuco newspaper from Recife, one of Brazilâ€™s great carnaval capitals.
President Dilma Rousseff is likely to be the target of many of the jibes, as is the under-fire Speaker of Brazilâ€™s Lower House, Eduardo Cunha, whose home was recently searched as part of the Operation Carwash investigation into the enormous bribes scandal at state run oil giant Petrobras.
One song that is already on its way to becoming a carnaval smash pays tribute to Newton Ishii, the Asian-Brazilian federal police officer who has appeared in TV news footage of many of the Operation Carwash arrests. â€śOh my God, now Iâ€™m in trouble, the Japanese from the Feds is knocking on my door,â€ť runs the chorus.
Other carnaval tunes, meanwhile, mock theÂ paean to unrequited love that was theÂ letter sent by Brazilian Vice-President Michel Temer to Rousseff in December, and in â€śTia Wilma e a Bicicletaâ€ť (â€śAuntie Wilma and the Bicycleâ€ť), the Presidentâ€™s love of riding her bike. The latter is built around a play on words based on â€śpedallingâ€ť and the â€śpedaladas fiscaisâ€ť (financial manoeuvres) on which the impeachment campaign against Rousseff is based.
While many younger revellers will give no more thought to what it means to have the freedom to criticise their politicians in this way than they will to popping open their first carnaval beer, it is worth remembering that not so long ago, speaking out in public was a much more dangerousÂ affair indeed.