The decision by Rio de Janeiro’s deeply religious new mayor to skip the traditional opening of the world’s most famous carnival overshadowed the party on its opening night Friday.
Carnival organisers resplendent in white samba dancing outfits, stilt walkers and the Rio municipal brass band stood waiting for two and a half hours in the Sambodromo stadium where the mayor was meant to give the carnival king, known as Rei Momo, the ceremonial key to the city.
Crivella — a bishop in the evangelical Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, founded by his billionaire uncle — never came.
Finally, the city culture secretary arrived to do the ceremony, officially starting Rio’s biggest annual event, drawing 1mn tourists to wild dancing, drinking and a panoply of exotic, often barely there costumes.
There had been rumours for days that Crivella would stay away, but no explanation or even confirmation from officials.
Besieged by journalists asking about Crivella, the culture chief, Nilcemar Nogueira, now explained: “His wife is sick.”
“She has a very bad flu,” the city tourism boss, Marcelo Alves, added at Nogueira’s side.
Rei Momo gave no reaction when asked how he felt about receiving the key from a lesser official, as security hustled him away.
Crivella was elected in October on a conservative wave sweeping Brazil, where the long dominant Roman Catholic Church is rapidly giving up ground to well funded and politically active evangelical churches.
His standoffish attitude to Rio’s pre-Lenten bash is in especially marked contrast to that of his predecessor Eduardo Paes, who frequently joined street parties and paid Rei Momo full respect.
The new mayor’s absence — widely thought to be due to the evangelical church’s vision of carnival as a den of sin — cast a chill.
“Where’s Crivella?” several people shouted at the City Hall officials from the stands.
“I think that because of the Universal Church he doesn’t like carnival,” said Sueli, 59, who was watching from the cheapest seats in the Sambodromo.
“He just doesn’t like it, but he’s mixing things. We’re the people and he should share the joy of the people, he should be with us,” said Sueli, who only gave her first name.
The family that guards the carnival key during the rest of the year tried to hide its disappointment during the long wait.
But frustration spilled over.
“If he doesn’t like carnivals, then all he has to do is come here, give the key to Rei Momo, and say ‘right, from now on any problems are for him to solve,’ and then he can leave!” family member Mauricio George de Jesus, 57, told AFP.
The first samba parades were getting underway Friday at the Sambodromo and were to climax in the elite contests running through today and tomorrow nights in front of 70,000 cheering and singing fans.
The chance to have fun can’t come soon enough for Rio, which is reeling from a cocktail of crises that make the glory days of hosting South America’s first Olympic Games six months ago feel light years away.
Crime is on the rise and 9,000 troops were deployed on the streets in the runup to the carnival after relatives of police officers angry at late payment of salaries tried to blockade police stations.
Add in Brazil’s two-year recession, record unemployment and brutal battles between Rio riot police and anti-austerity protesters in the city centre earlier this month, and Cariocas — as city residents are called — need a break.
“The carnival looks like a party and it is one, but it’s much more than that,” said writer Gregorio Duvivier, a prominent carnival participant. “It often serves to help us put aside our problems for a few days.”
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