This story is over 5 years old.

Financial Crisis and Zika Threaten Carnival in Brazil

Even Rio's biggest samba schools say Brazil's recession means they are struggling to fund their huge elaborate parades at the city’s Sambodromo, which has also been sprayed in an effort to contain the threat of the mosquito-borne Zika virus.
February 1, 2016, 9:38pm
Photo de Marecelo Sagao/EPA

"The great illusion of carnaval," Brazilian songwriter Vinicius de Moraes wrote of his country's cherished annual dose of escapism. "We work all year to dream for just a moment."

This year that five-day "moment" is threatened by Brazil's deep financial crisis, as well as the shadow of the mosquito-borne Zika virus.

"We're all feeling the effects," said Rita Fernandes, president of Sebastiana, an association that represents twelve of the more than 500 blocos, or street parties, that will parade through the streets of Rio de Janeiro from Friday until Tuesday. "The money's gone, there's a drastic reduction in spending."


Last week 23 of Rio de Janeiro's blocos pulled out of this year's carnival. Even the city's biggest samba schools say they are struggling to fund the huge elaborate parades they put on at the city's Sambodromo.

Related: The Nemesis of Brazil's Beleaguered President Is Now the One Feeling the Heat

"It's not just our school, it's all of them. Of the 12 schools in our group, only one has managed to get sponsors," Jean Santana, press officer of the Vila Isabel school, told VICE News. "The specialized blacksmiths and sculptors we need to make the floats, not to mention the materials, are incredibly expensive."

Santana added that the waiting lists for VIP boxes have evaporated as corporate clients drop out at a time when the International Monetary Fund is forecasting that Brazil's economy will shrink by 3.5 percent in 2016, on top of a 3.8 percent contraction last year.

The value of Brazil's currency, the real, has plunged in recent months, an estimated 1.5 million jobs were lost last year, and some are predicting that the country will end up with its worst recession in more than a century.

Hardly surprisingly the pressure on carnival organizers goes beyond Rio, with local media reporting that celebrations have been cut back, or cancelled, in 53 towns and cities across the country.

In the picturesque town of São João del Rei in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais, the local council sought to divide the funding it normally gives the town's samba schools into three installments. When the groups rejected this payment plan, the town said it would rather invest the money in road resurfacing and medical supplies.


"Since September the council has had very little income," Thiago Morandi, a representative of the São João del Rei Culture and Tourism Department, told VICE News. "The town is passing through a difficult period."

Gilson Fernandes, Tourism secretary in another Minas Gerais town called Ouro Preto, told reporters that the town hall spent $350,000 dollars on its carnival celebrations in 2015. It plans to spend $25,000 dollars this year.

"We know how important carnaval is, but at the moment it's time to economize," Luizão do Trento, the mayor of the western city of Rolim de Moura, told the newspaper Folha de São Paulo. The paper said the town was planning to build school classrooms with its cut backs on carnival funding.

This year's carnival is also facing the previously unknown challenge of Zika. Some have described the celebrations as an "explosive cocktail" for the mosquito-borne virus that is suspected of being behind a hike in the number of children born with abnormally small brains.

Related: Latin America Responds to the Zika Virus With Soldiers, Repellent, and Pregnancy Warnings

It is thought that large gatherings of scantily-dressed revelers, coupled with an accumulation of rubbish in the streets and the possibility of rain, may facilitate the spread of the virus.

Authorities in cities where carnival will be held have planned insecticide spray strategies to kill the mosquito, and anti-Zika educational campaigns. Rio's Sambodromo has already been sprayed (pictured above).


But there are some who insist that this year's hardships should actually boost Brazil's carnival, not least creatively.

Popular new samba songs are drawing inspiration from the financial crisis, together with the country's toxic political landscape in which prominent leaders, from President Dilma Rousseff down, are accused of corruption.

One song that is already on its way to becoming a carnaval smash focuses on Operation Carwash — the investigation into corruption in the state-run oil company Petrobras.

Related: Life Is No Carnival for Brazil's Haitian Immigrants

Some also expect to see more satirical and creative costumes and masks than usual. There are widespread reports of costume makers and float designers responding to limited funds by reaching for recycled feathers, tin cans and bottle tops.

Meanwhile some organizers insist that neither the threat of the Zika virus, nor the economic crisis, are a match for the carnival spirit. Some say they may even fuel it.

"We'll have carnaval no matter what, regardless of the crisis. That's the way Brazil and Rio de Janeiro are," said bloco association director Rita Fernandes. "It seems like economic difficulty adds to people's desire to go out into the streets and party."

Related: The Cops Trying to 'Pacify' Rio's Favelas Are Psychologically Scarred

Follow James Amour Young on Twitter: @seeadarkness