Why Rio de Janeiro's Carnival may have danced to the beat of a dictator

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Carol Hills: This was Carnival week in many Latin American countries, and in Brazil all the singing and dancing has been tinged with controversy. One of the samba schools that parade through Rio is in hot water. Forbes contributor Anderson Antunes is in Brazil and he’s written about what he calls “the ugly side of Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival.”


Anderson Antunes: As Brazilians, we all know that Carnival, specifically the Carnival in Rio, has always been supported by, in many cases, criminals. But this year we have a new element to the story, which is an African dictator who is actually sending a lot of money from the government--from the funds of his country, which is Equatorial Guinea, to pay for the expenses of this year’s winner of Carnival, which was the Beija Flor Samba School.


Hills: So, the allegation is that the leader of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, has sent several million dollars to this samba school in exchange for them doing a whole theme about Equatorial Guinea?


Antunes: Well, the country that you saw portrayed in their parade wasn’t the real country. They portrayed the diversity of the culture of the country, which certainly exists, but obviously they didn’t make any mention to the serious human rights violations that are connected to the government. It’s just like a fairy tale country that does not exist. Actually, many Brazilian celebrities were a part of the show and they paraded along with this school and they samba’d; I think they maybe don’t realize that they’re contributing to a government that is corrupt. Definitely the country that was shown wasn’t the real country.


Hills: What do Brazilians think? Are they upset about it? Is it kind of like “Oh, Carnival is Carnival”? What’s the response down there?


Antunes: It’s a mix of all these sentiments. I think now that the international press is giving a little attention to this matter, they’re now seeing it. But overall, people don’t really care because we had the official singer of the Beija Flor Samba School say this week during a radio interview that if the real Carnival is organized as it is today, Brazilians should thank the criminals for it because they’re really the ones behind it. It’s always been like this and people just want to party, they don’t really care. This is kind of one of the bad sides of the Brazilian spirit I think because people are too accepting of these things.


Hills: You used the word “criminals.” What’s the evidence that criminals have supported Carnival parades in the past?


Antunes: Well, we have something in Rio called Jogo Do Bicho, which is an illegal gambling game. They mostly use the money that they get to cover their criminal expenses. So, there’s been a lot of investigation on this in the past and some people have been arrested. You should also keep in mind that this is a competition--these samba schools are competing against each other and it’s like soccer--it’s actually bigger than soccer in Rio--they have fans, they have people rooting for them. So, they will take money from anyone and they don’t want to know where the money is coming from, they just need the money to produce the best show in order to win. That’s what happened to Beija Flor, they got 3 and a half million dollars from the government of Equatorial Guinea and they won. If this was happening in a country like America, it would be a huge scandal. In Brazil, it’s not a big deal because people are so used to it. It’s just how it goes.


Hills: You sound kind of annoyed about it.


Antunes: I am actually because I think, in terms of image and marketing, we are in a moment where Brazil is about to host a big event, which is the Summer Olympics next year, which will take place in Rio. They should care a little more about their image because this can get out of proportion. What will people from other places think of us? If Brazil wants to become a global player and in order to achieve that we actually need to play by the rules. So, I think this is being ignored mostly.


Hills: Anderson Antunes wrote about  Brazil’s Carnival this year for Forbes.com. Thanks Anderson.


Antunes: Thank you very much.