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 intervenção militar já (military intervention now) at Brazil’s anti-government rallies in 2015 should perhaps be careful for what they wish. For as the country prepares to swivel its hips at Recife’s Galo da Madrugada, Rio de Janeiro’s Cordão da Bola Preta and thousands of other blocos (street parties), big and small, it is worth remembering how carnaval suffered during Brazil’s 21-year military dictatorship.
“During the military dictatorship, just as with song lyrics, plays and films, carnaval did not escape the scissors of the censors,” wrote journalist Mariana Filgueiras in O Globo newspaper last year, in an article about the digitization by Brazil’s National Archive of thousands of historical documents from escolas de samba (samba schools).
While the dictatorship began in 1964, the military censors’ grip tightened considerably at the end of 1968 following 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 “total and unrestricted powers of censorship, as well as practically legalizing persecution and torture, and, as a consequence of those acts, disappearances and deaths.”
During the period, Rio de Janeiro’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 “Pra tudo começar na quinta-feira: o enredo dos enredos” (“Everything starts on Thursday: a history of samba themes”, in loose translation) journalists and historians Fábio Fabato and Antônio Simas describe three episodes of government meddling in the country’s carnaval celebrations.
In 1967, the rehearsals of the Salgueiro samba school were monitored by DOPS (Departamento de Ordem Política e Social) officers, while in 1969, the Império Serrano school was forced to switch the word “revolução” (“revolution”) for “evolução” (“evolution”) in a song glorifying the 18th century Inconfidência Mineira rebellion and the abolition of slavery.
And in 1974, the Unidos de Vila Isabel escola was pressurized into including a reference to the government’s Trans-Amazonian highway in a song about the rights of Brazil’s indigenous people.
In such a climate, it, was hardly surprising that, according to Wellington Kirmeliene, all the “elements of “planet carnaval” followed the jingoist message of the military regime”, 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 “a giant evolving and moving forward”, while another group, G.R.E.S. Estação Primeira de Mangueira, used nature to proclaim the country’s greatness “Oh, what a place!/Oh, what a place!/Everything you plant here grows/There’s no place like this”, before ending with the cry “This is Brazil!/This is Brazil!!/This is Brazil!!!”.
At the same time, many Brazilian artists used carnaval as a way of expressing their opposition to the military government, such as in “Marcha da Quarta-Feira de Cinzas” (“the Ash Wednesday Song”) by Vinícius de Moraes and Carlos Lyra. “Our 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,” 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 “Sonho de um Carnaval” (“A Carnaval Dream”): “At 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.”
As the dictatorship’s grip finally loosened in the 1980s, the carnaval sambas became more openly critical of the regime and the censorship that accompanied it: “I dreamt that I was dreaming a dream/a dream of a mesmerizing dream/of open minds/and no silenced mouths,” ran the words to one song by G.R.E.S. Unidos de Vila Isabel (again, loose translation).
This year’s carnaval, like others in recent years, is sure to be awash with satirical tunes criticising the country’s disastrous political and economic state. “Criticism 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 Getúlio) Vargas and military dictatorships, when there was less freedom…but in the last ten years it has been reborn,” the researcher Weydson Barros Leal explained in this interview with the Diário de Pernambuco newspaper from Recife, one of Brazil’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 Brazil’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. “Oh my God, now I’m in trouble, the Japanese from the Feds is knocking on my door,” runs the chorus.
Other carnaval tunes, meanwhile, mock the paean to unrequited love that was the letter sent by Brazilian Vice-President Michel Temer to Rousseff in December, and in “Tia Wilma e a Bicicleta” (“Auntie Wilma and the Bicycle”), the President’s love of riding her bike. The latter is built around a play on words based on “pedalling” and the “pedaladas fiscais” (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 dangerous affair indeed.