Brazil: Samba group funding row sparks Carnival controversy

World Today

In this March 3, 2014, file photo, performers from the Beija-Flor samba school parade on a float during carnival celebrations at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: AP

Allegations that a Rio de Janeiro samba group received funding from one of Africa’s most criticized governments have sparked controversy on the eve of Brazil’s Carnival celebrations.

Rio’s O Globo newspaper, one of Brazil’s biggest, reported this week that the Beija-Flor group, a 12-time champion of the city’s flamboyant parade competition, received $3.5 million from Equatorial Guinea. The small, oil-rich nation in West Africa is governed by the continent’s longest-ruling leader, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who seized power in a 1979 coup.

The report didn’t cite any sources, but has reignited a long-running debate about the funding for the samba groups, many accused of having ties to Rio’s underworld.

Natalia Louise, a spokeswoman for Beija-Flor, denied in an emailed response on Thursday that the school had received money from Equatorial Guinea.

But in an earlier email Louise acknowledged that the group received “cultural and artistic support” from the African nation. Equatorial Guinea is the theme of the group’s parade this year, and its theme song includes refrains such as “Brazil sings, Guinea dances,” according to lyrics on the group’s website.

Rio’s samba groups, which compete for the title of year’s best in over-the-top parades including giant floats and thousands of feather-clad dancers, have long been dogged by allegations of financial irregularities. Several court cases over decades have linked top samba group officials to illegal lottery rackets known as “jogo do bicho,” or “animal game.”

Some have come under fire in the past for accepting funding from foreign governments. The government of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez helped pay for a South American-themed 2006 parade by the Vila Isabel group.

This story is compiled with information from The Associated Press.