As the sun rose over the breathtaking granite and quartz landscape of Rio, José Leonardo da Silva left home wearing a 6-foot-2 box of Viagra.
His destination: a beachside party called the Cosmic Trumpets where hundreds of half-clad revelers had gathered to celebrate their first carnival since Covid. His message: that the scandal of the purchase of tens of thousands of erectile dysfunction tablets by the Ministry of Defense of President Jair Bolsonaro was an intolerable affront.
“Carnival is also politics,” said Silva, a 43-year-old psychologist for Brazil’s health services, as he prepared to spend the day denouncing Bolsonaro’s “completely fascist” government in disguising himself as a pack of 50mg impotence pills.
Silva wasn’t the only one with politics on his mind this week as the bacchanalia took over the streets of Rio for the first time since February 2020.
With less than six months left in a deadly electoral battle for the soul of Brazil, many have seen the carnival as a chance to unload their spleen on Brazil’s far-right president, who retains a fiercely loyal base of support but is repudiated by more than half of the voters.
Loud cries of “Bolsonaro out!” erupted at Rio’s Sambadrome on Friday night as the city’s top samba schools staged their first processions since the coronavirus pandemic began. The president’s son, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, was harassed and taunted by angry revelers as he tried to watch the parades while a banner calling for his father’s removal was unfurled from one of the stands.
Spectators in one of the Sambadrome’s exclusive “luxury boxes” shouted insults at Bolsonaro’s main presidential rival, leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. But on working-class terraces and in the traveling street parties known as blocks there was support for Lula.
“I feel hope because I believe that democracy must prevail over authoritarianism – and there is only one candidate who can achieve this and that is Lula,” said Angelo Morse, 43, who woke up Thursday at 4:30 a.m. to join a bloco called What a beautiful wetland.
Morse, an educator who claimed to be a distant relative of North American inventor Samuel FB Morse, came to the carnival wearing an alligator costume designed to protest Bolsonaro’s handling of a Covid outbreak, which has killed more than 660,000 Brazilians.
“President Bolsonaro is a moron and said if you got vaccinated you would become an alligator,” he said in explanation as the square around him filled with drunken revelers. dressed as pirates, demons, nuns, superheroes, sea creatures and, in one case, a bottle of Heinz Yellow Mustard. One carried a portrait showing Bolsonaro spitting out a river of green sewage.
On a nearby lawn, artistic director Maria Estephania spoke dejectedly about the social, cultural and economic decline she believed had been playing out since Bolsonaro’s shock election victory in 2018.
“We got screwed” electing Bolsonaro, Estephania, 34, said with a sigh, as she took a break from partying at Liquid Loves, a bloco inspired by the work of sociologist Zygmunt Bauman.
Estephania’s outfit — a scarlet cape covered in stickers promoting Lula and Marcelo Freixo, a leftist ally she hopes will be elected Rio’s next governor — identified an alternate future. “It’s an election year and we need to reaffirm our values, which have nothing to do with those of the political group that currently holds power,” Estephania said. “Our values have absolutely nothing to do with Bolsonaro.”
Not everyone wanted to talk politics as Carnival returned after a two-year Covid hiatus.
To bloco Outside Rio’s Museum of Tomorrow, Eduardo Faria, a portly motorcycle courier in a turquoise tutu, is busy filling a penis-shaped squirt gun with mineral water. “I’m just here to have fun!” No politics please! the 39-year-old laughed. “It’s carnival!”
Further west, in Vila Mimosa, Rio’s red-light district, another noisy procession was about to begin, led by sex workers and samba musicians. The most modestly dressed reveler was Everson Almeida, a former seminarian wearing the black cassock he used before abandoning his plan to join the priesthood. A sticker under his office collar read: “Bolsonaro out!”
“He’s a blight on our society,” said Almeida, 29, who balked at Bolsonaro’s portrayal of himself as a God-fearing Christian. “Christ came to deliver a message of shelter and inclusion, not segregation, selfishness and conflict.”
As the batsmen warmed up, Almeida said he was confident the Bolsonaro era was entering its final chapter, with Lula leading in the polls.
“God willing [he’s finished], he said, pointing to the sky. “And that’s got to be what He wants.”