As in many parts of the world, February in Uruguay means mainly one thing: carnival. You can go wilder than ever in crazy La Pedrera, or simply stay in Montevideo to enjoy the city’s most colorful season.
Carnival in Uruguay is much more than sexy, curvy women in shiny, feathered bikinis; it is also a time of rough contests. Members of murgas, musical theater groups, and llamadas, carnival troupes, compete for the public’s attention and acknowledgement, and for prizes.
Only soccer is more popular than carnival here. And the reason is actually very noble: during Uruguay’s darkest moment during the time of dictatorship, murgas in particular were a symbol of protest and resistance. They loudly – and publicly- sang against oppression, even when many of its members were silenced in jail and tortured.
After 1985, when democracy was restored, murgas fortunately kept their political role, denouncing with their humorous lyrics every injustice and relevant event. Every February, seeing the performances on the tablados or improvised stages was like reading a news summary of the year: if something had happened, it was part of a murga song.
But the times, they are a’changing, said Bob Dylan. In Uruguay, it´s not for the better.
Although the left-wing tendency in murgas is well known, recent events are surprising and disappointing if you consider yourself mildly objective and not politically biased. Suddenly, the government’s actions have become so perfect, spotless, and flawless that neither protests nor criticism are necessary any more. Murgas have officially become a part of officialism.
Objectivity is difficult to achieve. One is supposed to reject everything one deeply believes in, check it, double-check it, assume that it’s wrong, correct it, and embrace the leftovers. Not everyone is able to embrace objectivity; it requires a strong character. Objectivity is about judgement, righteousness, and self-criticism.
Achieving objectivity is not easy, and the process is not pleasant. But it is as necessary as the oxygen we breathe. Murgas do not seem to know that.
It’s bad enough not to denounce the calamities Uruguay has been through under our three socialist administrations. This is true even if former President Pepe Mujica is not exactly a socialist: he’s a bit to the left of that. It is not necessarily wrong, however.
After all, murgas are free to sing about whatever they want to sing about, even if it means being unfaithful to their own roots and traditions. Liberty is, at the end of the day, an act of tolerance; it implies not imposing your own views on others.
This is where things went wrong. Murgas did not understand this either. Diego Delgrossi, perhaps the most beloved and talented humorist of current times in Uruguay, tweeted about his dissatisfaction with the lack of criticism towards the government in the murgas. He was criticized as never before.
Delgrossi, who is not a right-wing enthusiast under any point of view, is being treated by murgas members and a large part of the public itself as some kind of traitor.
But that’s not all. One of the country’s most prominent journalists, Gerardo Sotelo, who calls himself a libertarian, expressed agreement with Delgrossi, as did actress Graciela Rodríguez, a left-winger. As a consequence, Sotelo is being called a ‘fascist’ in social networks.
On Friday night, the llamadas parade was the center of attention. All previous controversial statements were forgotten and the public was ready for a night of drums, high heels, feathers, and magical rhythms. Then, two professional, competing groups took signs to the parade: one supporting Uber, the other expressing support for the taxi unions.
Montevideo City Hall and the police forced one of the two groups to get rid of its sign. Needless to say, it was the Uber supporters who were censored, their sign remaining absent during the entire parade.
So City Hall and the police got actively involved in a public act, and their only purpose was to show us officialism’s version of the story. The taxi unions, in fact, are closely allied with the government. And it turns out that, if you don’t share this point of view, you end up being called a fascist.
I’m not sure whether people realize the seriousness of this matter. When the state — in this case, the police — pushes the public to sympathize with A because the government does not approve of B, there is censorship. Sadly, this is no exaggeration.
Given Uruguay’s recent past, “censorship” is the last word I would like to use when I write about my country. But there is simply no other term to describe what happened last night in our most popular celebration.
In the past, the murgas divas might have sung about freedom in Uruguay’s carnival. Today, however, it is obvious that they don’t understand what liberty is about. The government understands freedom even less.
This February will be remembered as a sad time for the exquisite tradition of Uruguay’s carnival, for our national institutions, and for the murgas themselves, whose members are betraying their own brave tradition. Above all, it is a sad time for freedom.