Rio de Janeiro's Mayor Paes hands over the city's ceremonial key to the "Rei Momo", or Carnival King Neto at Cidade Palace in Rio de Janeiro
By Asher Levine
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Brazilians are in a dour mood at the moment, giving them all the more reason to party as Carnival celebrations officially kick off in earnest on Friday.
A slumping economy, soaring prices, plunging consumer confidence, widespread water shortages and a major corruption scandal have dominated headlines in recent months, suggesting most Brazilians have few reasons to rejoice.
But in a society where life's challenges are often processed through a unique blend of lightheartedness and dark humor, the country's current batch of problems may make this year's Carnival even more memorable.
"Carnival has always been an escape valve," said Gerson Moraes, a history and philosophy professor at Mackenzie University in São Paulo. "Brazilians use the freedom of Carnival to air out all their frustrations in an environment built around having fun."
Frustrations are not lacking at the moment.
A severe drought in southeastern Brazil has raised the possibility of water shortages in top tourist destination Rio de Janeiro and even led officials to cancel Carnival celebrations in several smaller cities in neighboring states. That is a drastic move in a country known worldwide for the lavish bashes that offer a last chance for excess before the solemn period of Lent.
Meanwhile, Brazilians are fuming over a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal at state-run oil giant Petrobras, which has helped drag President Dilma Rousseff's popularity to a record low.
As in previous years, many street-party revelers are expressing their dissatisfaction by dressing up as politicians or business leaders. This year's most popular Carnival masks include former Petrobras Chief Executive Maria das Graças Foster and President Rousseff herself.
By Thursday afternoon, Eric Martins' costume shop in downtown Rio was packed with shoppers rooting through bins for goofy hats, oversized flowery boas and plastic tiaras. No Rousseff masks could be found, though.
"I had five hundred, but we sold them all," said Martins. "People are revolted with politics. The masks are basically a playful way to protest, in a fun way, without violence."
Carnival officially began on Friday morning, when Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes relinquished the key of the city to Rei Momo, the figurehead king of a celebration taken so seriously in Brazil that many businesses close.
In much of the country the celebration takes the form of loosely organized block parties. In Rio and São Paulo, the country's two biggest cities, some of the focus is on nationally televised competitions between rival samba schools, which produce lavish parades replete with exotic costumes and elaborate floats.
Brazil's stock exchange halts trading during the event from Monday through midday on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 18.
Only at that point will both the country and the government turn its attention back to the challenges ahead.
"At Carnival time, the world could be collapsing around us - no water, no money, but people still want to have fun," Martins added. "It's a time for us to forget the problems of last year, and even the problems that are about to come our way. That's Carnival."
(Editing by Todd Benson and Matthew Lewis)