I’ve never lived in a place in which the U.S. Embassy put out an Emergency Travel Alert to steer clear of it. However, last week my adopted hometown of Salvador became such a place.
As a result of a state-wide strike of Bahia’s military police that began on February 1, Salvador was prey to random looting, blocked highways, soaring homicide levels, and a sudden and general malaise among the population that oscillated between subtle tension and full-blown panic. Fearful of looting and arrastões (swarming, i.e. assaults by large groups of youths), stores closed early and the streets were eerily deserted at night. Classes for school children (scheduled to start on February 6 after a long summer break) were cancelled as were dozens of cultural events including many rehearsals held by the city’s biggest Carnaval blocos and musical artists.Salvador’s Carnaval – which lasts for 7 bacchanalian days and nights – is the longest and largest street party on the planet.
In fact, the biggest fear of all was what would happen next week when Carnaval festivities are scheduled to begin. Salvador’s Carnaval – which lasts for 7 bacchanalian days and nights – is the longest and largest street party on the planet. It is also the city’s single biggest money-maker, responsible for lining the pockets of everyone from musicians, producers, hotel and restaurant owners and taxi drivers to beer vendors, who spend nights weaving through the crowds with Styrofoam coolers on their shoulders (and days sleeping on sidewalks in improvised cardboard box houses), and catadores de latas, who earn months of income from a week of salvaging crumpled aluminum beer cans and selling them to recycling plants.
One of the Military Police’s frequent chants was “Cancelar o Carnaval” Although Bahia’s state governor vowed such a travesty would never occur (it would be tantamount to canceling Christmas), the crucial timing of the strike – certainly no coincidence – really upped the stakes, not to mention the tension as tourists from all over Brazil and overseas began cancelling their trips en masse.
In Brazil, there are three main police forces: the Polícia Militar (PM), the Polícia Civil, and the Polícia Federal. While the federal and civil police deal with investigations and crimes on a national and local (state) level, respectively, the military police (under the aegis of the Security Secretary of each state) is responsible for maintaining safety and order and actually policing the streets.
Viewed the fact that on any given day, safety and order in Salvador – and most Brazilian cities – is precarious (in Salvador, it’s not uncommon to hear of a weekend murder rate in which there were 50-something casualties, the majority of them drug-related), it’s hardly surprising that the sudden absence of PMs in the streets left many Bahians imagining the worst. Such projections were hardly helped by TV and newspaper coverage, which tended toward the sensationalistic with headlines that screamed “It’s War!,” and online features such as a “Map of Chaos”, which used bold graphics to indicate hot spots for bus assaults, murders, looting, etc.
With the aim of quelling such fears, President Dilma Rousseff sent 3,500 army troops to maintain order throughout the state. It was somehow both reassuring, and not, to see jeeps full of soldiers decked out in rifles and camouflage garb patrolling the eerily quiet streets. Meanwhile, no sooner had federal forces arrived when striking PMs – accompanied by their wives and children – invaded the state legislative assembly building. After fencing them in, the Army surrounded the buildings, which for a few days, became the scene of an increasingly tense face-off between the forces of order.
The relationship that Brazilians have with both the government figures and police is a highly ambiguous one. On one level, the PMs enjoy some support from the population. Despite the fact that Brazilians hardly view police as benevolent symbols of order (there are far too many corrupt and/or violent cops), they tend to sympathize with the fact that police are woefully underpaid, especially viewed the life-and-death situations with which they are increasingly confronted as a result of the escalation of the urban drug trade.
However, earlier this week, recordings of the military police commander came to light (and were broadcast on the national news), which revealed that at least some police were involved in deliberately burning cars, blocking highways, and wreaking other havoc in order to spread panic and put pressure on the government to meet their demands for increased salaries, “gratifications” and amnesty to all strikers. Once proof of what some already suspected became concrete and went viral, the PM’s strike stance became increasingly unsustainable, especially with the onset of Carnaval.
As such, it wasn’t that surprising that late last night, with only 4 days left before the first Carnaval activities kick off on Thursday, the strike came to an end; so that “the population wouldn’t suffer” any more. At the same time, a similar strike in Rio de Janeiro – not just of military police, but of civil police and firefighters as well – was suspended.
Recent events certainly say a lot about the power of government and security forces, of criminals, of the media, and of ordinary citizens in Brazil. They also really underscore the power of Carnaval. Next week, Salvador will erupt into its usual 7-day frenzy of unbridled and escapist hedonism, allowing people to momentarily dance their troubles away. When it’s all over, the usual “hangover”, promises to be more serious than usual.