The Associated Press February 21, 2012, 11:39AM ET

Portuguese reject govt's Carnival cutback plan

Elaborate costumes, scary masks and eye-popping wigs trumped dreary economic austerity Tuesday as most Portuguese defied a government appeal to keep working on one of their most beloved holidays: Carnival.

It was a spontaneous "Ja chega!" -- "That's enough!" -- from a people who have suffered deeply in Europe's debt crisis but have not rioted, set streets aflame and heaved chunks of marble at police like their fellow bailout colleagues, the Greeks.

The streets of Lisbon, the capital, were deserted and eerily quiet Tuesday, resembling a typical Sunday morning. Offices stood empty and banks were shuttered. Well over half of workers stayed home, local media estimated.

Instead, tens thousands of people, many dressed in colorful handmade costumes and men often in drag, attended traditional street parades around the country featuring elaborate floats, loud Brazilian samba music and dancing.

The mild, sunny winter day was apparently just the ticket for the austerity blues.

The Portuguese revolt gave a political edge to an occasion that around the world is linked to religious events but mostly reserved for drunken revelry and scanty costumes.

In Rio de Janeiro, at the most famous Carnival of them all, an estimated 850,000 tourists joined the city's massive five-day blowout.

In New Orleans, the famed French Quarter was full of costumed revelers for Mardi Gras and its daylong series of parades.

The Nice Carnival in southern France saw 1 million visitors, a 10 percent increase on last year, while Germany's "Karneval" celebrations saw last-minute changes to poke fun at Christian Wulff, who resigned abruptly as president over allegations he had received favors from wealthy friends. One float depicted Wulff as a pink, plucked German eagle landing on its head.

The Portuguese attempt to make people work more by scrapping the traditional Fat Tuesday holiday fell just as flat. Most companies and many public services shut down anyway.

The choice of revelry over austerity -- imposed last year in return for a euro78 billion ($103 billion) international bailout Portugal needed to avoid bankruptcy -- came at a particularly embarrassing moment for the government. Inspectors from the bailout lenders were in Lisbon for a regular review of whether Portugal is honoring its promise to reduce debt and improve economic output.

Government ministers, lawmakers and the head of state worked normally. Civil servants had to turn up for work too, but most local councils and state-owned companies closed, media reported. Train engineers went on a 24-hour strike to protest the anti-holiday call.

Marilia Gomes, a middle-aged worker at a Lisbon tax office, said she resented having to work on a holiday she cherished.

"Carnival is about getting rid of your sadness, letting your hair down," she said during her lunch break, calling scrapping the holiday "a lack of respect for working people."

Local television stations showed some civil servants going to work in outrageous wigs, masks and outsize glasses.

Others, however, agreed with the government's plea for people to knuckle down and beat the financial crisis by working more.

"We have to work for the good of the country," said Manuel Agostinho, an unemployed 54-year-old. "It's no laughing matter."

Portugal sunk into a double-dip recession last year, and the government forecasts the economy will shrink a further 3 percent this year. Unemployment is at a record 14 percent.

Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho refused to grant the usual day off for Carnival, which is not an official public holiday -- something that had not been done since an economic crisis in 1993.

The prime minister said he hoped people would understand the need for sacrifices.

"This isn't a normal year, it's an important year of national emergency," Passos Coelho said at the time. "(I hope) the Portuguese understand that this is no time to be talking about tradition, it's about finding out who wants to beat this crisis and who wants to cling to old traditions."

The government made no comment Tuesday about the public's rejection of its appeal.

Although unions have staged strikes and protests against the tax hikes and pay cuts, the Portuguese have largely accepted the austerity program with resignation, exhibiting none of the street violence that has wracked Greece.

While Carnival in Portugal doesn't match the glamor and all-night revelry seen in Brazil, it is tremendously popular with children and adults alike. Many rural towns and villages observe centuries-old traditions, some of them pagan, many of them comical, vulgar and satirical.

Several towns stage a mock public trial and execution of a rooster. Like many such ancient rituals, its origins are unclear.

With local authorities who organize street parades feeling the economic crunch, festivities this year were scaled back. Brazilian soap opera stars are often invited to be kings and queens of Portuguese carnivals but this year the VIP guests were mostly national celebrities.

The celebrations in Torres Vedras, 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of Lisbon, are known as "the most Portuguese Carnival" but the local council cut spending this year 16 percent. Even so, it spent around euro400,000 ($531,000) on Carnival events and expects to draw thousands of visitors.

Carlos Miguel, Mayor of Torres Vedras, said Carnival's deep cultural roots ensured its survival.

"If that wasn't the case, we wouldn't have the country at a virtual standstill today," he said.

In many places, the celebrations will end with a meal made of dried salted cod -- a typical Portuguese dish -- to mark the start of the Roman Catholic period of Lent.

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AP writers Jenny Barchfield in Rio de Janeiro, Mary Foster and Stacey Plaisance in New Orleans, Greg Keller in Paris and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.


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