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Scale of latest Carnaval scandal surprises even corruption-hardened Brazilians

Revelers of the Viradouro samba school perform during a carnaval parade at the Sambodrome in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Carnival began friday and runs until tuesday, Feb. 17.

Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images

The last bits of feathers and glitter are being swept up in Rio as the annual celebration of Carnaval concludes, but a scandal ignited at the height of festivities shows no signs of going away.

There are allegations that the champions in this year's parade competition bought their fiercely-contested title using the blood money of an African dictator with a fondness for vanity projects.

It isn't news to Brazilians that there is corruption behind the glittery façade of Carnaval – there are a number of investigations under way into misuse of public funds for the event. But the scale of this one is something new.

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The focal point of the traditional Carnaval is a parade competition between 12 samba clubs, known as schools – most are based in low-income areas of the city, and their entries feature volunteer dancers, singers and performers who rehearse all year for the competition.

Every entry has a theme, and this year perennial favourite Beija-Flor chose to do an homage to Africa. The crowds packed into the Sambadrome in the heart of the city were enthralled – more than half of Brazilians trace their ancestry to the four million African slaves imported to this country, and people of all origins were dazzled by Beija-Flor's artistry and choreography.

Then it was revealed that a significant chunk of the Beija-Flor budget came from Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the unelected president of Equatorial Guinea who has ruled the country since 1979.

Brazilian media reported that he – or his country, or businesses seeking his favour, it still isn't clear – gave 10-million reais, about C$4.7-million – to the school to put on a display with the catchy title "A griot recounts history: a look over Africa and the dawn of Equatorial Guinea. Let us walk on the path to our happiness."

While many samba schools seek sponsors for the performances, which typically cost around $3-million to stage and feature multi-story floats with many moving pieces, this was by far the largest amount ever donated to one school.

Public reaction was harsh, in this country that is proud of its still-young democracy, with a self-image as a left-leaning champion of social justice. When Beija-Flor went back to the Sambadrome on the final night for the Champion's Parade, it was booed by some sectors of the crowd. People from other schools called out "the champions cheated" and "better to buy food for Guinea!" The Fundacion Getulio Vargas, a prestigious think tank, did a social media survey that found more than 600,000 social media mentions of Beija-Flor along with words such as "dictator" and "controversy."

Equatorial Guinea, a small country in Central Africa, is one of the continent's largest oil producers, but Mr. Obiang's dictatorship has a dismal record of human rights abuses. The country has the worst ratio of GDP to human-development-index ranking in the world; more than half its population has no access to clean drinking water.

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Equatorial Guinea's government first responded to the controversy with a statement saying that no public money was spent for the parade. Then Beija-Flor said the money had come from Brazilian companies that work in the country. Days later, Benigno-Pedro Matute Tang, the country's ambassador in Brazil, said a group of businesspeople in his country personally raised the funds, through a "cultural fund," reversing himself on whether they were or weren't Brazilian.

That further inflamed controversy here, because many of the Brazilian firms working in Equatorial Guinea, such as the construction giant Oderbrecht, are being investigated in the multi-billion dollar "Lava Jato" corruption scandal that threatens Brazil's own government. Now several members of Congress are pushing for an inquiry into just where the Beija-Flor money came from.

Ambassador Matute Tang himself joined the parade, sitting on the last float with 11 other government delegates, and he came out swinging in defence of the performance.

"We don't care about this kind of news [about human rights violations]," he told the Rio newspaper O Globo. "When our people were oppressed, in the time of slavery, no one said anything. We invite the press to go to Guinea. In fact, we invite all the Brazilian people. We are rescuing our culture. Brazil is a brother country … For us, this parade is like a slap in the face of people who wanted to eliminate our culture."

Luiz Fernando do Carmo, the carnavelesco, or Carnaval director, for Beija-Flor, shrugged off the controversy, saying "any kind of sponsorship is welcome" and that his school "doesn't do politics, it does Carnaval."

The samba schools do not reveal their total budget but the African gift means that that Beija-Flor, which likely had other donations and fundraising to draw on, far outspent its competitors. This win, the school's 13th, puts them hot on the heels of Mangueira for the title of "winningest school ever." (Beija-Flor is Portuguese for flower-kisser, the local name for a hummingbird.)

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There is still confusion about whether Mr. Obiang was in Rio for the event – the Brazilian federal police say he has not entered the country, but a man who bears a striking resemblance was photographed at the Champions Parade celebrating Beija-Flor's big win.

His son, 45 year old Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, known as Teodorin, and vice president of the country, was most emphatically here. He rented out two top floors of the Copacabana Palace, the city's swankest hotel, which repoortedly cost him about $35,000 a night, for himself and the delegation of 40 government staffers he brought with him for the party. At the Sambadrome, they rented two of the sought-after camarote, elevated private box seats, for about $55,000.

It was apparently the younger Obiang who had the idea of sponsoring Beija-Flor, after attending a private performance by the club in years past – the Obiangs are said to be Carnaval afficianados, who attend each year and sometimes stay in an apartment they own in Ipanema. (The Obiangs in fact seem to be big fans of big events in Brazil; the president was also here last June, sitting with president Dilma Rousseff for the World Cup final.)

The president is reported to have given explicit instructions to the school to make sure it was Equatorial Guinea that was celebrated, and not those two other Guineas with which his country is often confused. That, according to O Globo columnist Ricardo Noblat, presented some challenges because the school had to rewrite some of their songs, and Guinea is of course much easier to rhyme than Equatorial.

In a nod to the country's natural beauty, there was a waterfall on one float with 10,000 L of cascading water. The school decked out their dancers and floats with cowry shells and tribal markings; there were warriors with spears, wooden fertility statues and the obligatory elephants, these with sparkling tusks. The final result looked like a roadside West African souvenir stand exploded inside the sequin-and-feather assembly line that churns out Beija-Flor's floats.

The younger Mr. Obiang is being investigated by the governments of France and the U.S. for corruption and money laundering, and in 2013 France asked Brazil to arrest him, but he left the country before being detained. It is not clear why Brazil has allowed him unfettered passage for Carnaval this year.

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Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Equatorial Guinea as a tiny island off Central Africa. In fact, Equatorial Guinea is a small country in Central Africa.

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