Behind the Carnival glitter, controversy surrounds samba schools' suspicious financial backers
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Behind the Carnival glitter, controversy surrounds samba schools' suspicious financial backers

As the glitter settles and the feathers are finally brushed out of the streets, one aspect of Rio’s Carnival isn’t getting swept away so easily: tough questions about the financial sponsorship — many say outright sale to the highest bidder  — of some of Brazil’s top samba schools.

This year, the spotlight is on renowned samba school Beija-Flor, a 12-time winner of the main parade’s grand prize. The school has been accused of accepting $3.5 million from the government of Equatorial Guinea for its Carnival presentation.

In the official description, the school said its theme would tell the story of Africa with a special emphasis on Equatorial Guinea, and would showcase the “different Africas that are a part of the history of Brazil.”

Human rights groups and other critics, however, view the situation differently. Many have asked how Beija-Flor could accept sponsorship by a country led by Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Africa’s longest-standing dictator and the world’s eighth-wealthiest world leader, with a history of human rights abuses.

The school continues to deny receiving the money, saying that it only got “cultural and artistic support from the government of Equatorial Guinea.” The sum would be the largest amount ever given to a samba school for its Carnival show.

Beija-Flor is hardly the only samba school to accept funding from an outside source — or even another country. Defending champions Unidos da Tijuca were sponsored by the government of Switzerland, leading to a show featuring floats covered in snow and dancers dressed as Swiss army knives.

“Carnival is like football these days. If you want to win you need money for the best choreographers, set designers and costumes … The best are all professionals now,” said Fernando Horta, Tijuca’s president.

Corruption and sketchy financial backers are historically tied to Rio’s glitzy samba presentations. For more than four decades, the country’s most important samba schools were supported by gambling bosses known as bicheiros.

The influence of the bicheiros has waned in recent years, however, and many schools are now sponsored by government entities or private companies, from a marketing firm to, a few years ago, a yogurt brand.

Many of Rio’s elite samba schools are located in poor neighborhoods with few resources, making sponsorship a vital lifeline to create the multi-million-dollar spectacles that residents and tourists expect from the city’s world-famous Carnival. Beija-Flor is no exception — the prestigious school, founded in 1948, has its quadra (main hall) in Nilópolis, a tiny municipality on the far northern edge of Rio.

As the Sambadrome shows grow more expensive each year, schools are forced to look farther afield for resources.

“The schools don’t care about where the money comes from, but they look for it out of necessity,” journalist Aydano Motta told NPR.

It was a difficult month for Beija-Flor in particular, which just weeks earlier, lost one of its dancers in a possible hate crime. Claudio da Silva, nicknamed Piu, a 25-year-old who lived as a woman and was devoted to the samba school, was found dead on January 23 in the Morro de Mina favela, not far from the Beija-Flor quadra. Her body showed signs of torture, leading some to believe she was killed because of her identity.

During a rehearsal in the Sambadrome in early February, some Beija-Flor performers wore black wristbands along with their costumes, to remember their fellow dancer.

If all that matters is the show, though, then Beija-Flor has little to worry about. This year, the school was once again in the top ranks of performers, wowing judges and the audience on the second night in the Sambadrome — along with the Swiss-clad dancers of Tijuca.

On Wednesday, Beija-Flor was declared the winner of the 2015 Carnival samba competition, in a decision that is sure to leave plenty in Brazil talking until next year’s Carnival celebrations begin.

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