RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Carnival in Rio de Janeiro usually evokes images of stunning semi-clad women and giant floats of bursting color, all moving to the heady beat of the samba drum.
This year one samba school is asking you to picture one more thing ... Switzerland.
As Rio’s Carnival has grown into a global phenomenon, competition between schools to win the flagship samba parade has become fierce and those that want to win need money, lots of it.
Schools increasingly look to sponsors for the cash, and with Brazil an attractive market for everything from agri-business to pocket knives, strange partners have joined the parade.
“When Switzerland knocked on the door with their proposal ... Well, I had to think about it,” said Fernando Horta, president of defending champions Unidos da Tijuca, as he sat behind a giant desk in his office rolling a Cuban cigar between his fingers. In the warehouse below people worked around the clock painting the giant floats.
While many lament the commercialization of Carnival and the samba, which has its roots in the arrival of freed slaves in Rio at the end of 19th century, those competing say there is little choice.
“Carnival is like soccer these days. If you want to win you need money for the best choreographers, set designers and costumes ... The best are all professionals now,” Horta said.
For Switzerland, Carnival presents the perfect opportunity to try and destroy a few stereotypes as well as a chance for some of its companies to tap an important emerging market.
The deal means Switzerland is the theme of Tijuca’s parade and samba song, with dancers dressed in costumes ranging from Albert Einstein to Swiss army knives and singing about “Switzerland, and your story of inspiration” from floats covered in fake snow.
As well as Switzerland itself, sponsors include Swiss companies like Syngenta, the world’s largest crop chemicals firm, bank UBS, Nestle and knife maker Victorinox.
“To defeat clichés you have to play with them,” Andre Regli, the Swiss ambassador to Brazil, told Reuters in a conference room behind a giant vault in the Swiss Consulate in Rio.
But he conceded it was not easy clinching the deal. “Clichés go both ways, and in Switzerland there was a lot of resistance to getting involved in carnival ... For many, carnival was just about topless women.”
The Swiss sponsorship accounted for about a third of the 14 million reais ($5 million) Unidos da Tijuca is spending for the contest.
Beija-Flor, a 12-times champion samba school, has turned to Equatorial Guinea this year to help raise a similar amount for its show.
Pro-democracy watchdog Freedom House has called the ruler of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang, among “the world’s most kleptocratic living autocrats”, saying he and his family enjoy riches from vast oil reserves while many of his people go hungry. Yet one of the lines from the samba song which describes Equatorial Guinea reads, “the flame of equality cannot be put out.”
For others the parade is a chance to raise awareness of social issues, and the U.N. has teamed up with Mangueira samba school to promote women’s rights and fight against domestic violence. Free condoms were given out under the slogan “during Carnival lose your shame but not your respect.”
( $1 = 2.83 reais)
Reporting by Stephen Eisenhammer Editing by W Simon