Julie Ruvolo is a freelance journalist and editor of the Red Light Rio project. She is a research collaborator with Rio’s Observatory of Prostitution, an extension project of the Metropolitan Ethnographic Lab – LeMetro/IFCS at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
The debauchery you're missing stuck at your desk.
But as the city descends into Carnaval revelry just a few weeks after a nightclub fire left 238 people dead in Santa Maria, the national mood is decidedly more somber than celebratory.
The governor of the Federal District canceled a celebration marking 500 days until the World Cup "out of mourning," The Atlantic reported. "The country has been beating back assertions that the fire indicates a systemic lack of preparedness on its part for the competition, which will be held there in 2014."
News outlets pieced together evidence of an avoidable tragedy: There were no proper permits, there were no emergency exits, there were reports bouncers locked the doors to keep people from leaving without paying. Most victims died from a highly flammable sound insulation foam that filled the club with toxic smoke, not from the actual flames.
As all eyes turn to Rio for World Cup next year and the 2016 Olympics, the tragedy in Santa Maria is a chilling dramatization of the absolute worst that could happen when the tourists pour into town; Carnaval is the dress rehearsal; and every exploding manhole and collapsed building is evidence Brazil needs more time to practice. The question seems to be: Brazil knows how to party, but are they serious enough to host the first world?
The Brazilian response has been divided. On one hand, officials are scrambling to inspect, permit or shutter thousands of venues across the country, with plans to conduct 40,000 fire inspections in Rio de Janeiro alone this year.
But Brazilian Sports Ministry representative Luis Fernandes bristled at the implication that the fire has anything to do with Brazil’s ability to host the World Cup. "Tragedies like Santa Maria happen in countries like Russia and the United States, and nobody questions their readiness for mega-events," he said in an official statement. "In the soccer world, we’ve already risen above this [inferiority] complex, but there are still remnants of it in our national mentality and in the colonial view of foreigners."
For their part, officials in Rio are eager to assuage the global public with visible demonstrations of safety and order at this week’s ill-timed festivities. Officials announced plans to monitor all 700 street parties from the all-seeing eye of the biggest surveillance screen in Latin America, which it built last year to manage logistics for the upcoming mega-events.
There will be 14,454 policemen and 985 traffic guards on duty this Carnaval. 1,050 urban cleaning workers will collect over 600 tons of trash. 16,200 Port-a-Potties will collect the equivalent of three Olympic-size pools of pee, which sounds impressive until you consider it worked out to a ratio of about one toilet per 5,500 people at the largest of the Carnaval parades, a polk-a-dotted affair called Bola Preta where 2 million people convened this weekend and 107 got arrested for peeing in the streets. Operation "No Peeing in the Streets" arrested over 1,000 offending urinators last year; "Operation Dry Law" ticketed 786 drunk drivers; and the "Shock of Order" seized 3,700 cans of beer, 1,100 bottles of water, 71 coolers, costumes, spray foam and cigarettes from unlicensed street vendors.
The mayor’s office releases these operational statistics every year, perhaps to impress a sense of scale of a spectacle that welcomes more people in one week than all of Brazil is expecting for World Cup. But in the wake of the Santa Maria tragedy, the data serve a dual function of signaling to the world that Rio is safe to visit, that there is order in the chaos, sobriety in the celebration.
All photos by Julie Ruvolo.