He mimicked Jair Bolsonaro’s signature finger-gun gesture while dancers surrounded him holding picket signs making fun of some of the president’s quotes, including his accusation that actor and activist Leonardo DiCaprio was responsible for the Amazon fires in 2019.
The previous night, the Mangueira samba school also took a jab at Bolsonaro, for his advocacy for looser gun laws. Part of the lyrics of their samba song rang out, “No messiah with a gun in his hands” — a reference to Bolsonaro’s middle name, Messias.
But Bolsonaro himself was nowhere to be seen at the country’s most famous party. Instead, he was posting videos of him at the beach and sharing some of the few positive tributes party-goers were making to him on social media.
Likewise, other politicians once more passed on the opportunity to see and be seen in Rio's parade, ending a tradition that had lasted decades with important revelers from both the political left and the right.
While the Carnival parade used to be a chance for Brazilian politicians to bask in the reflected glory of the celebration, today they often find themselves at the center of samba schools’ criticisms and so are avoiding Brazil's largest cultural show.
“Carnival is becoming more and more critical,” said Igor Capanema, a participant in the parade Monday night. “The schools are going more in a direction for us to make these important criticisms about what we are living, where we are living, why we’re living this and who we’re talking about.”
Rio's Sambadrome was inaugurated in 1984, at a time Brazil's military dictatorship was nearing its end. At first local politicians were the only ones attending. But it all changed in 1994 when President Itamar Franco, who had inherited the presidency with the impeachment of Fernando Collor, decided to go to the Sambadrome to add a popular touch to his quiet persona. During the parades, he was photographed hand in hand with a reveler.
The military did not like the images from that night because the young woman next to Franco was not wearing any underwear, which they considered undignified for a president. But politicians quickly noticed Franco had become more popular because of Carnival.
His successors — Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff — all attended the parade, either on the job or during election campaigns. And so did their opponents. “Politicians are a bit afraid of the people,” Carlos Lupi, president of Brazil's Labor Democratic Party, told journalists at the Sambadrome.
Lupi has attended every parade for almost two decades and comes on the floor with several samba schools. He said that since the mammoth “Car Wash” corruption investigation that has ensnared dozens from the government and business elite, he has seen fewer politicians at Carnival events.
"People don't want to take pictures with politicians anymore,” Lupi said. Sergio Praça, a political scientist at Getulio Vargas Foundation University, said barbs from the samba school have become more pointed.
"Carnival has always been political, but the criticisms used to be more broad," he said. "In recent years, we've seen the criticisms become more personalized and go after specific politicians." He noted deeply unpopular ex-President Michel Temer was portrayed as a "neoliberal vampire" with dollar bills coming out of his collar.
Bolsonaro is the leader of Brazil's sharp swing toward rightist, conservative politicians who tend to reject Carnival as debauchery and excessive. The country is also slowly recovering from a brutal recession and is about to enter the seventh year of the sweeping “Car Wash”corruption scandal.
"Things haven't been good in Brazil for several years, so politicians being seen at these parties with lots of celebration and alcohol would look bad," Praça said. Rio’s mayor, Marcelo Crivella, an evangelical bishop, has gained infamy among Carnival’s revelers for cutting the budget for the samba schools’ elaborate parades and failing to participate in a traditional, light-hearted ceremony at which the mayor turns over the key to the city to the King of Carnival. Since taking office, he has never shown up at the Sambadrome — this year, the fourth and final year of his first term, was no different.
“People always say, ‘The mayor doesn’t like Carnival, the mayor’s a person of God who wants to put an end to our party,’” Crivella complained to reporters Friday. “I’ve been a person of God since I was a child, but I respect everyone,” he added, saying he watched that night's parade from a nearby security center instead of inside the Sambadrome.
Rio de Janeiro state Gov. Wilson Witzel made what local press called a “discreet” appearance at the Sambodrome on Sunday, entering the runway briefly only to be booed by the crowd and retreat. The Sao Clemente school’s last float on Monday night was called “the fake news factory" and was led by a giant puppet of Pinochio and included a huge cellphone screen exchanging WhatsApp messages of misinformation that has flown around far-right social networks.
“Brazil posted, went viral, didn’t even look! And the entire country did the samba, fell victim fake news!” part of the school's samba lyrics read. Bolsonaro was elected at the end of 2018 on a campaign largely run on social media, and his opponents have accused him of disseminating misinformation. The Brazilian fact-checking site Aos Fatos says it has tallied 691 misleading or false claims by the president since he took office in January 2019.
"This isn’t a protest against politics, but against bad politicians who lie to get themselves elected,” said Marcio Tavares, another performer in Sao Clemente’s parade.
Associated Press writer Mauricio Savarese and video journalist Diarlei Rodrigues contributed to this report.