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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

5 million Carnival revelers descend on Rio as Brazil seeks comeback

King Momo Djeferson Mendes da Silva, 34, holds the keys to the city of Rio during the official Carnival opening ceremony at the City Palace in Rio de Janeiro on Friday.  (MAURO PIMENTEL/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Andrew Rosati and Peter Millard Bloomberg News

Rio de Janeiro will welcome an estimated 5 million people at its Carnival celebrations this weekend, signaling a comeback for Brazil after two years of COVID-19 put celebrations on hold.

The biggest event in the country’s annual cultural calendar, Rio’s festivities were canceled altogether in 2021 and only held on a limited form last year as the virus was still being brought under control.

This year’s packed festivities will be an opportunity to boost the economy of Brazil’s main tourist destination and help rebuild the country’s international brand, which is still struggling after the pandemic, according to Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes.

“Two years ago, I thought I would never be able to deliver Carnival again,” he said in an interview in his city hall office on Friday, as stilt-walking performers roamed the reception area and a brass band was poised to start trumpeting samba.

Minutes before, Paes handed the city keys to the Momo King in a tradition that marks the official start of Carnival, which takes place until Wednesday.

For Paes, a close ally of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the annual party is also an opportunity to move away from the legacy of socially conservative former President Jair Bolsonaro, who famously didn’t like Carnival despite spending most of his political career in the city.

“We need to celebrate what happened to Brazil in the past year, the past election. The strength of the country to move on,” Paes, 53, said.

Since taking office on Jan. 1, Lula has declared “Brazil is back,” with the country seeking to retake its spot on the world stage.

Paes says the days of raucous street parties and dazzling parades of samba schools will not only boost Rio’s economy, but also build Brazil’s international brand.

During the past decade “we’ve had all the possible crises we could have had in Brazil,” said the fast-talking politician, who has over 700,000 Twitter followers.

Paes knows something about booms and busts.

His first two terms as mayor (2009-2016) spanned the go-go years, when the country was still riding a commodity bonanza and billions of dollars in investment poured into his city ahead of the 2014 World Cup and the Olympics two years after.

But the hype and high real estate prices had crashed by the close of the 2106 games, a president was impeached, and a corruption investigation ensnared top political and business leaders.

After an unsuccessful governor bid, Paes returned to office in 2021, taking over a city that was among the hardest hit by COVID in Brazil. The fallout has accentuated many of Rio’s longstanding problems: homelessness and crime are rife, and services are shaky in large sections of the city.

In his third term, Paes is seeking to revitalize the blighted downtown by offering credits and incentives for developers to repurpose properties or build condos in the area. Much of the city’s center is unoccupied – one estimate puts commercial vacancies at 36%.

With the festivities at hand, Paes is optimistic he will improve Brazil’s tourism capital under the new government, and help the rest of the country grow in turn.

“Lula understands that if things are going well in Rio, things are going well in Brazil,” he said.