Opinion, by Michael Royster

RIO DE JANEIRO – Here it is. The world-famous, five-day blowout of overindulgent, extravagant fun, featuring thousands of beautiful bodies, some exotically adorned and (to many Americans) shockingly exposed, all dancing and singing and parading up a storm till the break of day. Every day. The annual national catharsis, where the world stops and everybody gets off.

Michael Royster, aka The Curmudgeon.
Michael Royster, aka The Curmudgeon.

So, you ask, what could possibly be politically controversial about that? As it happens, a lot! The Curmudgeon will deal with only two questions—crime and religion.

First, Crime! Putting aside the traditional costume balls and the street groups with weird names, Rio’s Carnival is known for the Samba School Parades, promoted by Riotur and (since 1984) by LIESA, the League of Independent Samba Schools. Riotur is the City’s tourist bureau, but what’s LIESA?

The Curmudgeon (like everyone else in Rio) knows it’s a civic association operated by “bicheiros”, the beneficent bosses of the Rio numbers racket; not coincidentally, they control many (most?) of the Schools. Numerous Schools have seen their benefactors sentenced to prison for racketeering, or, occasionally, assassinated.

So, The Curmudgeon asks, why is the Government of the City of Rio sharing the profits from the parades with an association of racketeers? Why do local, state and even national politicians, including the President of the Republic, want to be seen watching the Parades, which are controlled by gangsters?

The Curmudgeon knows the answers: money and vox populi. Money, because before LIESA was founded, Riotur had to foot the entire bill for Carnival parades; now it doesn’t. “Vox populi” means that most Cariocas love their numbers racket. Its activities are carried out openly and provide jobs for thousands of people, as do the Parades. In most people’s minds, bicheiros just aren’t criminals.

For one, they stay away from drug trafficking; for another, they run the racket honestly (the house odds are so favorable, fixing the draw would be shooting yourself in the foot). So Riotur works hand in glove with people who are “legally” criminals but who, according to vox populi, are benefactors of the poor.

The Curmudgeon, a steadfast defender of the rule of law, holds that the people’s voice is wrong, and that governmental agencies shouldn’t work with known criminals, even when they are being beneficent.

Second, Religion! Last week, the State Court of Appeals declared unconstitutional a recent municipal law which declared that any School which used (catholic) religious symbols, like a crucifix, in a Parade would forfeit the subsidy paid by the City (filthy lucre again, what a coincidence!). City officials claimed the law violated people’s freedom of conscience and culture, hence amounted to prior censorship forbidden by the Federal Constitution. Over the protests of the religious righteous, the court agreed, which makes it a signal event, it is one of very few battles the churches have lost.

Back in 1989, Beija Flor wanted a float with Christ the Redeemer dressed as a beggar—the catholic church went ballistic, threatened a lawsuit, and Beija Flor backed down. Similar problems occurred in following years, and in 2000 one School’s Artistic Director was hauled off to a police station before the School agreed to remove a float with Our Lady of Good Hope and a cross.

Moreover, in 2007, a municipal statute was passed disqualifying any School that “vilifies” or “mocks” religious values in its parade (that law has not been challenged yet). LIESA’s internal regulations now discourage the use of religious themes, showing the chilling effect of prior restraints, but if the decision stands there may be some backlash, and we may well see more religious motifs in the future.

The Curmudgeon, a steadfast defender of the rights to free speech and conscience and culture (yes, even bicheiros have those rights) certainly hopes so.

Michael Royster, aka THE CURMUDGEON first saw Rio 40+ years ago, moved here 30+ years ago, still loves it, notwithstanding being a charter member of the most persecuted minority in (North) America today, the WASPs (google it!)(get over it!)


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