- Associated Press - Thursday, February 12, 2015

RIO DE JANEIRO (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.

In its emailed statement, Beija-Flor insisted its theme is “strictly cultural and does not address (Equatorial Guinea’s) government.”

“We are attempting to praise the art and the strength of the people of Equatorial Guinea, as well as the transformation of the profits from its natural resources into improvements for its population,” the statement said.

In its 2015 world report, New York-based Human Rights Watch blasted Equatorial Guinea as among the world’s most unequal nations, plagued by “corruption, poverty, and repression.”

“Vast oil revenues fund lavish lifestyles for the small elite surrounding the president, while a large proportion of the population continues to live in poverty,” the report stated. It said that while the nation has the highest per-capita income in Africa, its human development index languishes among the world’s worst.

O Globo’s report touched off a firestorm of debate, with hundreds of internet users commenting on the story on the paper’s website as well as on specialized Carnival sites.

Carnival kicks off on Friday, with Rio’s top-tier samba groups, including Beija-Flor, staging their parades at all-night-long extravaganzas at the Sambadrome on Sunday and Monday nights.

It’s not known if Obiang, 72, or his son and possible successor, Teodoro “Teodorin” Nguema Obiang, would attend.

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