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Austerity Carnival: Brazil's Economic Crisis Spoils Party Season

More than 50 cities have canceled or drastically cut traditional Carnival extravaganza due to public cutbacks. But some say killing the party will only make things worse.

Carnival dancers in Rio in 2015
Carnival dancers in Rio in 2015
Marcelo Toledo

JUIZ DE FORA — Everybody at the samba school Mocidade Alegre, in the southeastern Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, was looking forward to this year's Carnival celebration. They'd worked hard to prepare the entire show, and everything, from choreography to costumes, was ready. Now it turns out they'll have to wait until next year to don their duds and wow the crowd — if they're lucky.

Short on cash, the local authority suggested reducing by 70% the fees it pays the associations taking part in the celebrations, so Mocidade Alegre chose to cancel their participation instead. Juiz de Fora isn't the only town where this has happened. At least 53 other cities across nine states — including Maceió, the capital city of Alagoas — have canceled or drastically reduced the traditional extravaganza due to financial difficulties.

Instead of confetti, streamers, samba, multi-colored costumes and street parades, cities that can afford it have chosen to invest in ambulances, child care, classrooms and anti-flooding measures. Small towns that depend on state or federal transfers are particularly affected by the shortage of cash, especially in times of recession and high inflation.

Save the street parties

"To reduce the budget from 65,000 reais ($16,000) to 22,000 reais ($5,400), as we'd been advised, would mean putting on a poor-quality show," says publicist Henrique Araújo, director of Mocidade Alegre. "The fact that Carnival uses public money is already controversial, so if we presented something bad, it would only increase people's resentment."

Photo: Mocidade Alegre Facebook page

In the state of Minas Gerais alone, cancelations or cutbacks are affecting at least 26 towns. In São João del-Rei, the 350,000 reais ($86,000) initially allocated to the celebration will instead be used to cover health care costs and other basic expenses. Only the street parties will go ahead as planned.

In Mariana, where the collapse of a wastewater dam at an iron ore mine caused unprecedented destruction, the Carnival will go ahead. But it'll be a much smaller party than usual, with artists from surrounding cities that have cancelled their own celebrations. Municipal authorities say the disaster will cost 70 million reais ($17 million) this year alone.

"We discussed this a lot, just as we did for the Christmas celebrations," says Mayor Duarte Júnior. "People are asking us not to let traditions die. The tragedy that took place here left an image of a devastated city, but the urban area was actually left untouched. If we don't celebrate Christmas and Carnival, we'll all die together."

Towns in the state of São Paulo have also had to cancel their plans, including Batatais, known for having one of the oldest parades, and Porto Ferreira, where authorities decided to invest the 150,000 reais ($37,000) to buy an ambulance instead. "The nine we have aren't enough," Mayor Renata Braga says.

In Irati, in the southern Paraná state, the Carnival budget of 100,000 reais ($25,000) will help contain floods in the city center. In Rolim de Moura (in the western state of Rondônia), the 120,000 reais ($30,000) will be used to build three classrooms. The city of Cruz Alta in Rio Grande do Sul, in southern Brazil, will renovate a youth center.

Carnival specialist Zélia Lopes da Silva says that even in Brazil, Carnival celebrations "were never a priority." That may come as a surprise to outsiders. "But in times of crisis, no celebration is a priority," she says. "Carnival can only continue to exist where there's a strong tradition. Without that, it just can't."

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