Photographer: Christophe Simon/AFP via Getty Images

Brazil’s Recession Is Crashing Its Biggest Party

  • Most of Rio's top samba schools get no private funds this year
  • Corporate VIP booth sponsors are declining, as are imports

Pheasant feathers from last year’s costumes are being stained and reused. Swarovski stones are out, cheap rocks are in. Imported paints, sequins and buckles have been replaced with local knockoffs.

QuickTake Brazil’s Highs and Lows

Brazil’s Carnival, a four-day bacchanal revered as the world’s hottest annual party, is suffering a distinct downgrade this year as the country faces what may be its deepest recession in a century. Fewer than half of Rio de Janeiro’s samba schools that plan the parades got the corporate cash that accounts for up to half of their budgets, according to Liesa, the Carnival association. Petroleo Brasileiro SA, the state oil giant known as Petrobras, says it has cut its Carnival budget by 80 percent.

Revelers dance during pre-Carnival celebrations in Recife, Brazil.
Revelers dance during pre-Carnival celebrations in Recife, Brazil.
Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images

“This is a crisis Carnival,” said Rita Fernandes, head of Sebastiana, which manages 12 informal street parties known as blocos and has also lost some of its sponsors.

About a decade ago, when the oil boom and Brazil’s climb to wealth were taking off, extravagance arrived as an honored guest at Carnival. The itsy-bitsy bikinis worn by dancers began to cost $10,000 apiece; floats towered five stories.

But at this year’s Carnival, which begins on Saturday, companies are cutting way back. Many are opting out of the luxurious VIP booths with massage tables where the likes of Madonna and Will Smith have watched the festivities. Coca-Cola Co. confirmed in an e-mailed statement it’s among those reducing their roles.

“It costs a lot to produce and decorate a booth and some companies thought it more convenient to buy some tickets instead, and distribute among clients,” said Alexis de Vaulx, director at Global Marketing e Eventos, which runs a 1,000-square-meter VIP area for executives. Guests at his area are plied with Veuve Clicquot and get spa treatments. 

This year, his company sold the special tickets worth around 5,000 reais ($1,250) to some 35 companies, which give them out to clients.

A reveler wears a mask depicting President Dilma Rousseff during a bloco.
A reveler wears a mask depicting President Dilma Rousseff during a bloco.
Photographer: Miguel Schincariol/AFP via Getty Images

The Rio city government is trying to make up partly for the lost sponsorships by doubling its funding, boosting the amount it gives to each samba school to about 2 million reais. Television broadcasting rights, tickets and CD sales bring in about 4 million reais more.

It can cost as much as 13 million reais to put on a top show, said Decio Bastos, director of Vila Isabel, a school that won the championship 10 years ago.

“We have zero this year,” said Bastos about private sponsorship.

The crisis, of course, does have its benefits. Brazil’s struggles have inspired more than 100 samba lyrics this year about the Zika virus, the economic collapse and the politicians accused of causing it. They were performed as part of a contest ahead of this year’s main parade, including at an event in Lapa, known as the cradle of samba.

One song mentions a police officer who became popular after he was seen escorting to prison the top executives of some of Brazil’s largest companies, including Petrobras. (In keeping with tradition, the main Rio samba schools mostly sing songs that celebrate their culture.)

The mood may be of shortages and trouble, but the celebrants refuse to give up.

“We cut the second sound truck, or drum core hats," Fernandes said. "But Carnival will always happen.”

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