Lady Liberty Carnival Debut Troubled as Trump Remakes Brand USA

  • Carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro to promote U.S. image
  • Initiative comes about as Trump toughens foreign policy

Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton and 150 Beyonces, or at least their impersonators, are set to parade alongside a giant shimmering Statue of Liberty float on Brazil’s biggest stage next week.

The show is part of a plan to harness the power of Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival to promote American interests. The idea, as conceived during the Barack Obama administration, was to partner with a local samba school to burnish the U.S. image, attract more tourists and help Washington achieve foreign policy goals.

A dancer rehearses at the Unidos da Tijuca samba school in Rio de Janeiro

Yet the initiative may ring hollow for Brazilians wary of the administration of President Donald Trump.

“Everyone I’ve spoken to is horrified by Trump,” said Roberto da Matta, a Harvard-educated anthropologist with Rio’s Pontifical Catholic University and professor emeritus at University of Notre Dame. “One of the things Brazilians are most concerned about is the uncertainty. Where is the U.S. going? What will they do?”

Like the rest of the world, Brazilians are taking note of the U.S. policy shift. They face visa procedures tightened by the same executive order that banned entry of refugees and citizens of seven mostly Muslim countries. Trump’s vow to force Mexico to pay for a border wall drew a rare rebuke from Brazil’s foreign ministry earlier this month. And costumes satirizing Trump himself feature in Rio’s pre-Carnival street parties, alongside revelers dressed as Mexicans with faux brick walls.

Sparkling Bikinis

Carnival in Brazil is an extraordinary marketing tool. The extravagant two-day competition, with its flashes of flesh, feather headdresses and sparkling bikinis, is watched by more than 70,000 spectators in the Sambadrome’s concrete bleachers and beamed to some 50 million viewers at home. In Rio and across the country, entire neighborhoods rally around the top dance groups with a zeal usually reserved for soccer teams.

The Unidos da Tijuca samba school that’s putting on the U.S.-themed show is one of Brazil’s best. Its Feb. 27 parade will include the Rio meeting between jazzman Louis Armstrong and Brazilian composer Pixinguinha as well as a New Orleans steamboat float that will promote tourism to a city unfamiliar to most Brazilians.

Revelers wears a costume depicting Trump’s proposed border wall during a pre-Carnival party in Rio de Janeiro.

The U.S.’s involvement reflects the “friendlier, open, connected sort of atmosphere that I think Obama really tried to foster,’’ said David Reibstein, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, who helps coordinate the Best Countries survey of how nations are perceived globally. “My sense is Trump’s very concerned about building brand internally, and less externally.”

Putting on Tijuca’s 75-minute show will cost some 14 million reais ($4.6 million), according to the school’s marketing director Bruno Tenorio. Coca-Cola, Delta and Marriott, the three U.S. corporate sponsors, will foot some 40 percent of that bill with an eye on potential tourists. Brazilians rank sixth on the list of biggest spenders in the U.S. -- 2.2 million visited in 2015 and left behind $14.4 billion.

Representatives for the three companies said their sponsorship benefits local communities while boosting brand recognition.

Soft Power

When Tenorio pitched Rio’s consul general on the idea of featuring the U.S., he highlighted the Soft Power 30 index that ranks nations on their ability to achieve foreign policy objectives through persuasion and attraction rather than military or economic might. Previously both Switzerland and Germany have sponsored the school to burnish their images.

The U.S. consul general in Rio wasn’t available for an interview but the consulate said in a statement it supported the samba school to “showcase shared U.S.-Brazil values and promote travel.” It declined to comment on the potential impact of new U.S. foreign policies on the initiative.

The harmony section of the Unidos da Tijuca samba school.

Photographer: Nadia Sussman/Bloomberg

After last year’s divisive election, less favorable perceptions about the U.S. will negatively affect both its Best Countries and Soft Power rankings, according to experts responsible for the indexes. 

“You can just look at some of the demonstrations that have happened around the world that are negative reactions to both policy and rhetoric coming out of the White House,” said Jonathan McClory, the author of the Soft Power survey. “It doesn’t look like it would be moving in a positive way.’’

At Tijuca’s Feb. 9 rehearsal on a downtown side-street, paraders sang at the top of their lungs as smiling spectators swilled beer. Nearly everyone expressed hope that invoking widely-loved American music for their parade’s theme would convince the jury to award them the top prize after their narrow second-place finish last year.

“The only thing that’s dispiriting is Trump,’’ Tatiana Maciel, 39, said. “I wouldn’t be welcome in the U.S. anymore. I’m a foreigner.’’

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